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Naked men and black bronzing under philosophical veneer. Is Angelica Liddell overshooting the mark with The Scarlet Letter? (Why the Holland Festival can expect a riot)

That you should not blatantly treat a black man as a rutting primal beast and a faceless object for your unlimited lust fantasy as a white woman? Seems logical to me, but for Angélica Liddell, world-renowned performance artist, it is typical of the new puritanism that threatens free art. She now brings The Scarlet Letter to the Netherlands, a theatrical performance that crosses quite a few boundaries. The scene in which a black actor is put in his 'wildly attractive' spot is a painful low point. That he - the only one - was not present at the closing applause, a very much unanswered question.

The play is also at the Holland Festival in June. In The Scarlet Letter, Liddell surrounds himself with ten men, who, apart from a priest figure dressed in red and that black man, are all naked. At some point, all the men line up with the member forward, and Liddel inspects the noble parts manually. Moments later, one of the organs briefly disappears into her mouth. This active touching of genitals is one of the means by which Liddell reinforces her message: the body is an inexhaustible source of pleasure, until you get old and rotten.

Double standards

The Scarlet Letter is inspired by Nathaniel Hawthorne's nineteenth-century novel of the same name. In that book, a woman, who has a child from a fling with a vicar, is cast out of her community. This is followed by a lot of fuss with which Hawthorne indicts the double standards of eighteenth-century Puritan America.

Liddell uses the fact mainly to go to war against what she calls modern Puritanism: , identity politics and general political correctness. She argues that artists are no longer allowed to show everything and that censorship may not be overt, but social pressure leads to self-censorship. And that is bad for total artistic freedom.


So the performance is quite remarkable. Liddell is not exactly of the subtle. She reverberates, she screams, she groans, she swoons and gasps amiably. This is at times quite toe-curling and sometimes just plain boring. In imagery, it is also catholic in a way that many a former choirboy will still feel in the less pleasant places. And content-wise, therefore, rather, how shall I put it, problematic.

Once she has groped her naked men enough, held all eight dicks once, the men have lugged tables enough, and the music has explored all angles from smartlap to baroque to Blondie, a furious monologue ensues, unstoppable and in a Spanish that rattles with rock-hard rolling errands. In the monologue the message, with references to a whole trio of philosophers and Antonin Artaud, the inventor of the theatre of cruelty.


Art should not be censored because of squeamish souls in the audience. has turned victims into perpetrators, Liddell said. She rants as if the last hour has struck for the liberal arts, a bit like the artistic boss of the NTR Saturday Matinee recently did in a rather unsubstantiated letter to the editor In De Volkskrant. Alt-right panic? I didn't see that one coming for a while, even in Vienna, where I went to preview the performance. It needed explanation, but Angélica Liddell does not do interviews.

Fortunately, there was a chance for further explanation. Liddell had devised a dessert for some audience members, unfortunately only to be tasted by two groups of 30 people. She took us inside the Vienna Museum of Art History. In the building that exudes the past glory of Habsburg in everything, right down to the Biedermeier sculpture in the dome above the cafeteria, Angélica Liddell led us past about 10 works of art. All of them masterpieces by the likes of Breughel, Rembrandt, Rubens and so on. Plenty to choose from: the building is so packed with old masters that you could catch a triple Stendhal.

Delicious naked male bodies

All the works, which Liddell led us past, depict carnal lust, sweltering bodies and fear of death and decay. A painting by Rubens' teacher Otto van Veen, showing naked girls surrendering to an entire army, does not depict plunder and honour robbery by returning troops, according to her. She explains that here the women surrender themselves naked, to reward the men who return from the war as winners with a rutting game of sex. After all, for Liddell there is nothing more beautiful than naked young men, she said. She would prefer to employ them in every performance.

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A painting full of naked adults and naked children, enjoying their natural state together, according to Liddell, is typically something that couldn't be made now, and you certainly couldn't put the image on stage. She did make an attempt herself during the performance, but it stuck in a somewhat detached reference to the infamous pee sex poster that once caused a riot in this country. This time with a naked cherub as the object of her thirst for life's juices.

King of pop

At the last work of the tour, the final straw came. Liddell believes that, by definition, art should be transgressive. Using a painting by Caravaggio, whom she believes to be the Michael Jackson of visual art, she explained that we need art to channel our inclination towards violence. 'Only through the aesthetic representation of violence can we defuse the real violence with our ethical faculties,' Liddell told me.

The question is whether she has a point in doing so. All the work on display was created in a time that is considered a lot more violent and brutal than ours. Art didn't really help against that at the time. Or could it have prevented worse since then, and do we owe our relative civilisation precisely to these works of art? Could the rather crude racism disguised as lust for the so-called primal power of the black male body, which she shows in The Scarlet Letter, actually be intended to combat racism in the real world?

That question lingered a bit.

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The Scarlet Letter can be seen at the Holland Festival on 8 and 9 June. Information.

Wijbrand Schaap

Cultural journalist since 1996. Worked as theatre critic, columnist and reporter for Algemeen Dagblad, Utrechts Nieuwsblad, Rotterdams Dagblad, Parool and regional newspapers through Associated Press Services. Interviews for TheaterMaker, Theatererkrant Magazine, Ons Erfdeel, Boekman. Podcast maker, likes to experiment with new media. Culture Press is called the brainchild I gave birth to in 2009. Life partner of Suzanne Brink roommate of Edje, Fonzie and Rufus. Search and find me on Mastodon.View Author posts

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