Those blessed with the surname 'sheep' not only know that they come from a rich and honourable lineage, but also know by heart all the proverbs, sayings and name jokes, offensive or otherwise. Up to and including comradely blathering chiefs of art. Then the fact that the Flemish theatre company FC Bergman is making a show titled 'The Sheep Song' is reason enough to head to Antwerp even during the darkest lockdown times to witness the premiere.
The show, now showing at the Holland Festival, tells the sad story of a sheep who moves away from the flock, subsequently finds the human world seriously disappointing, but upon returning is no longer embraced by his peers. This seems clichéd, and perhaps it is, but FC Bergman, as a maker's group, has the ability to still bring such things very convincingly.
They do this with the help of a lot of electronics and machinery, which at the premiere led to smoke developing in the head of the lead sheep. Due to a collision with a real sheep, part of the real flock travelling with the company, the controls of ears, beak and eyes caught fire, which fortunately did not lead to any personal accidents.
We could devote all sorts of philosophical reflections to that, of course. About nature and culture, and how the two always clash, and damage each other. Or about god as a puppet master and what exactly he has in mind with our urge to reproduce. What is more useful is to emphasise how finely associative and free the performance is, and how the joy of making and artistry make it a typically Flemish event. Joyous tragedy and horror, in other words. And not just because Jan van Eyck's 'Lamb of God' can be seen in that country.
There is no unambiguous message in The Sheep Song. I find that refreshing at a time when, in the Netherlands, makers often have to have a clear content story ready at the very first vague idea, for a subsidy application for instance. FC Bergman suffices with some philosophical reflections on the phenomenon of 'sheep' in art history. Then they started tinkering and figured out that a real flock on stage should not be missing. As for the rest, we in the audience are free to associate, determine our own moments of emotion and boredom.
FC Bergman can do something like this because they have the trust of the houses and festivals in their network. Of course, that trust is fragile and, even in Flanders, you are always only as good as your last piece of work, but the Bergmans exude great freedom. That alone is a reason to go and see them.