'Sometimes people come to me crying to tell their stories, things they have experienced.' Theatre-maker, author, director Lisaboa Houbrechts has stirred things up with Vake Poes, the theatrical family epic she created with the Flemish company La Geste. The fierce performance, fitting in its lyricism with the oeuvre of Alain Platel's Les Ballets C de la B from which La Geste originated, describes how sexual abuse by a Roman Catholic priest affects generations. The performance can be seen at the Holland Festival on 16 and 17 June.
According to the 1992-born artist, whose star is rising rapidly in international theatre, the performance is not an indictment of the church: 'But it is separate from the Roman Catholic Church. The performance is about experiences in general. The performance is not just about the greatest act of violence, but all the way to it. And that violence an sich is not as monstrous as is often portrayed, but has much more nuance, much more and is also connected to love.
That stirs up a lot of emotions.'
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Or read the transcript (edited for readability) here
WS: It has become an intense piece, the reviews are all positive, but it is also not very uplifting. What did you make?
Lisaboa Houbrechts: The show was originally conceived from the idea of writing a novel. But because my theatre language has developed over the years in such a way that written language is related to images and music, I found a broader story more interesting. Another factor in this is that music offers comfort, which was very welcome with this heavy theme. In this story, I see Bach as the connecting factor in a family story that spans three generations.
The project is about a 12-year-old girl from today who travels back in time, to her grandfather's memories and my father's memories. In all those memories, she constantly encounters a recurrence of violence within that family. Specifically, it is also about recurrent sexual abuse within different generations, and about victims becoming perpetrators.
The idea was to create a fairly intense performance, but seen through children's eyes and with the requisite poetry. It is not just provocative. Nor was it meant to be provocative, but to have a 12-year-old girl search for beauty in a very dark story. And yes, for me it was especially a joy to see that story, which I wrote and lived, suddenly on stage. With such a large group and people from different disciplines, it is also a celebration of theatre and a celebration of life, even in its deepest nervousness.
WS: You first wanted to turn this into a novel. However, the step from the intimacy of a novel to the big stage of Flanders Opera is quite a big one. Why did you want to make this a novel first?
Lisaboa Houbrechts: Because certain fragments or moments from the characters' lives visited me in the form of images, while I actually had language in mind. Therefore, it is also quite monologue-driven. The monologue actually has the power of an aria, if you compare this to classical music. So opera was not that far away. The arias I wrote in those monologues dovetailed with Bach's St John Passion, which is actually more of a reflection. There is an inner space of the singer singing mostly about God. That created a strong connection between musicality and language. The step from writing to connecting with music was actually not that big. It was an instant connection.
This also applies to my earlier work. The performances I did for Vake Poes also had big gestures on the big stage. This is something that I explore and through which I feel my images develop more and more in the writing. I found it interesting to interrupt certain texts and make space for an image or metaphor that doesn't actually need language anymore. Then the text is no longer an illustration of the image. The image is not an illustration of the text. I find this kind of thinking exercise interesting.
If this then also leads to emotional stirring in the audience, that is what I am trying to achieve. I want to create an experience and theatre offers many opportunities to evoke such an experience. Perhaps more than what I could achieve with a pen, a text or a novel.
WS: A novel is still small, uncluttered and private. Theatre, on the other hand, is grand and huge, anything but small. Surely the subtlety of a novel is different. But, as with writers of literature, the question is relevant: how autobiographical is this? Of course, it's a bit of a fad to ask that, but to what extent is the 12-year-old girl connected to you as a person?
Lisaboa Houbrechts: Yes, this is a big trend. We live in a time when the personal is getting more and more attention. I think the story is mostly universal and it touches on certain aspects of my own life. But those aspects also touch other people. It's about abuse of power and sexual abuse. So there are a lot of issues that are much bigger than one life. I also drew inspiration from other lives. The show begins in the 1940s, where the little boy who represents the little girl's grandfather becomes a victim of sexual abuse within the Catholic Church and is then freed by the occupying forces.
The German occupier enters in the 1940s and relieves the clergy of their duties. For such a little boy, this becomes a kind of liberation. The Nazi as liberator from the sexual abuse committed by the Catholic Church. This is a great idea that shows how big history can intervene in the intimate world of that little boy and girl, who meet as grandfather and daughter and granddaughter.
These are elements that I have added and dramatised. I try to give them meaning within a larger history. So things come together that are separate from the autobiographical, but no less real for that. You fantasise within reality, blurring the distinction between fiction and autobiography.
And there also lies a big difference between the private and the personal. Text is always something that goes through your own body. Even when you play a role like Medea, you carry it all the way through your own body. What then remains is not autobiographical, but it is personal. This is how I processed and digested my own history, but also the histories of others. I also interviewed people. That was about the power of Catholicism over children in the 1940s. That is sometimes hard for us to imagine, but very specific to that generation.
I also requested certain files on cases known in Belgium about sexual abuse within the Catholic Church. What kind of imaginations do children with such trauma have? What do they see and what nightmares do they have when something like this happens?
The performance is a kind of fever dream and not a representation of reality: you dive into the inner world of certain characters.
WS: It gets intense pretty soon after the opening. You see the 'grooming' of a little boy by a priest and hear the sequel as they go off stage. That hits you to the bone. What is it like for the children who play along on stage?
Lisaboa Houbrechts: We worked very gradually with the children. The children were aware of the stories. We also worked closely with the parents, who understood that these are things you experience. Children have heard about that reality and are more aware of such things than you would think.
Throughout the process, we also worked with a therapist and a psychologist. I talked to them and we took a play-by-play approach.
But it's not just about sexual abuse. It is also about the Catholic Church and that was harder for the children to empathise, to understand and play with. What does it mean to pray confidently when the children are not religious? They don't know what the power of a pastor means. So what does it become? They are more likely to see it in the role of a teacher. We had to translate that into other things, and so we had someone to help us make connections that the children did have an affinity for.
They are also children who have had experience in theatre classes after school or have participated in musicals. There was even a boy who participated in the musical about Daens. He said Daens was much more intense than what we evoke through suggestion and poetry. I also think that as adults, our imagination works differently when we hear such sounds. We immediately project a whole story, while it works differently for them.
Today's kids, 11 or 12 years old, of course, all have their phones. Their access to knowledge is different from when I was young. They are aware of many things. On an American film or on a phone like that, they can find more shocking images than what we made and for which we went through a whole process, had conversations, worked with poetry, to make sure we worked with children in a human and gentle way, and that everyone was involved, from the parents to the psychologists to the production team, to make sure that everything was monitored properly and that they have the dream of actors above all.
We talked a lot about 'how do you play something like that?' They liked that. Pieter, who plays an intense scene, is an actor who had a good relationship with the children. He is very cheerful, so the children enjoy playing those scenes with him. It is remarkable that the performance has a lot of heaviness for us as spectators, but is a joy for the children themselves to play, and that they dream of one day being in a big show or playing the biggest dramas.
WS: Speaking of drama, the St John Passion plays an important role. We will let you hear a piece.
Lisaboa Houbrechts: That moves me, also moves me to hear it here. The opening was one of the reasons I wanted to make the piece that way. That's that oboe in there that really reaches for heaven. This is the music that almost makes you religious. It really moves me.
WS: It is the master of all masters. I love it too. But also a bit scary. Can you imagine that too?
Lisaboa Houbrechts: Yes, it has a deep impact, of course, but it is not an expressionist work à la Strauss. It is a passion, sung by the people, by the people in the church. So it also has something very connecting. It's very Protestant too. So that is also a different origin from Catholicism.
Passion is about reflecting, about confessing sin. It is also about that sinful nature of man. That is something scary, but at the same time the music is almost cosmic. Still, I am always reminded of that fantastic film scene by Tarkovsky. In The Mirror in which the camera then glides over the forest and over all the insects in the forest and the leaves.
It is actually really about the magical power of life. It is dook a translation of that majestic idea that everything is connected. That is indeed something scary. In particular, I think Bach is very masterful in the softness and wistfulness of that oboe. The simplicity of it and going straight to the heart.
WS: Your performance does not exactly advertise Catholicism.
Lisaboa Houbrechts: It is about the history of a Catholicism, of a certain image we have of Catholicism. I did choose St John's Passion to defend the faith. It is about a movement of attacking and patching up that is constantly in the performance. I wanted to use the Passion for that, because in the story of the girl travelling through history, there are also the family members who want to nail Jesus to the cross again, who actually say that this Jesus is responsible for the suffering in the world. And if there were a God, why does that God allow all the misery? So they crucify Jesus again. This is done in the show using a small Jesus doll made of newsprint.
But in the end, when that Jesus has died, the misery does not end. Then it is the grandmother who takes the floor and says: What does comfort mean? When you have dissolved every form of spirituality, does existence become lighter or easier? The grandmother and granddaughter connect in indeterminate spirituality, something not necessarily Catholic, vis-à-vis a generation of children from the 1940s who actually have a hard idea of Catholicism.
For instance, there is a difference there in the representation between an old religion in old Catholicism and a possible new spirituality. Also, more than ever, I think spirituality is incredibly hip today. If you think of all the people doing yoga and how many horror films are being made around spiritual themes. It's something that permeates our pop culture. But it's also, if you go to Jerusalem, that that also has an incredibly deep impact. Then you feel that something vibrates there, that goes beyond all the systems that have been made around that in Catholicism and Judaism.
There is also something that man wants to believe, though, because man needs an outside view, or something like that. To not be alone and find a destiny, but that that can also be in the self. That is in the granddaughter in Vake Poes: at the end, she almost becomes a saint, but a saint of herself and not necessarily a saint of an institution.
WS: Were you raised Catholic yourself?
Lisaboa Houbrechts: No, not at all. I was brought up really liberal and never went to church either. It was a discovery to attend mass with all that church music. And of course Western culture is full of Catholic religious symbols. So it was actually through art that I got in touch with it and there was a fascination that was actually kept out of my family, from the idea that religion only brings abuse and pain.
I think that was something that does live in many people and heads and that was one of the reasons she did not want to oppress her children with that kind of loaded thinking. It's why a lot of children rediscover those religious stories as if they were myths. The new generation approaches it much more as a poem or something poetic than as a norm you have to live by.
WS: In Flanders, the cesspool of Catholicism, of abuse, has really opened up fairly recently. Do you also feel that in the hall?
Lisaboa Houbrechts: People sometimes come to me crying to tell their stories, things they have experienced. But it is more separate from the Roman Catholic Church. The show is about experiences in general. The show is not just about the biggest act of violence, but about all the way to it. And that violence an sich is not as monstrous as is often portrayed, but has much more nuance, much more and is also connected to love.
That triggers a lot of emotions. And Bach's "Erbarme Dich", which is then about feeling sorry for the offender. You don't know if you are guilty yourself. It is mainly that ambiguity of those situations, that it is about the act of violence that is not actually an act of violence.
That stirs a lot of emotions, because of the recognisability. That touches perhaps more than the literal stories from the Roman Catholic Church and that - as you called it - that cesspool. We have had writers like, for example, a Hugo Claus who wrote "The Sorrow of Belgium". A lot has already been processed on a collective level within literature. What really speaks to it now is that it's an intergenerational narrative, where a very recognisable girl of today, is going through all those traumas again.
But she is not stuck in that Roman Catholic violence of the 1940s either. She also takes another journey through which she must eventually also free herself from certain things that happen in the now. It is that timelessness of reproducing the same system that is more about the emotions than that particular situation regarding the Roman Catholic Church.
WS: You haven't even been around very long, but your star has risen quickly. You just finished a premiere at the Comédie Française. Guy Cassiers has grown you into a special project soon after your training. You make great theatre, and somehow I wouldn't expect that when I see you, as a not hugely overwhelming type of person. What have you experienced that you are already this far along?
Lisaboa Houbrechts: I started doing plays outside school when I was eight years old. You learn to recite poems. I think at a young age I had a great connection with texts, language and developing language. I was sensitive to telling stories and reciting them.
Then, after humanities, I started studying at KASK. The drama course was among all the other courses in visual arts, in film, in music. There was an incredibly interdisciplinary environment there where all the other sources worked together.
My first company I founded was more concerned with visual art. We organised exhibitions, and when making an exhibition of abstract painting, I thought: maybe it would be nice to have a performance here. That's how I started collaborating with students from different fields. Before you know it, the work becomes a bit baroque in size and transcends that studio context.
That was the moment Guy Cassiers came to see. And he asked to forward my own text. After a conversation and seeing my work, I was invited to become a permanent artist at Toneelhuis. That was a tremendous opportunity for me, to go and work for the biggest city theatre in Flanders just after graduating and then also do two performances there. Hamlet by Shakespeare was very important for me to explore the repertoire.
It was interesting to note that even something from the canon can still be very experimental too. It was fun to work with that. And now indeed Faker Poes and Medea at the Comédie Française, the pantheon of French repertoire. When I walked in, I felt it was all very natural.
Because, of course, they are all great people, but it is very organic. There was an immediate connection with the actors, some of whom have been working there for years. One of the actors, who is very well-known in France and plays Creon in Medea, is 76 years old, but it felt like we have similar lives, even though we are of course from a different generation. We both have a love for theatre, for the character, and you immediately feel that energy emerge. That is magical. That is so beautiful that theatre still makes it possible to build bridges between generations, between people, between cultures.
WS: It could also be different, because you have such a company of people who have been in the business for years, have been in the business for decades, have been in the business for a century, and then you get there. Cold from art school, with a big idea to do things completely differently. I know plenty of anecdotes of people who didn't survive that. Why did you succeed?
Lisaboa Houbrechts: It is very crazy, but when I enter a place like that or see a theatre like that, I know what to do and that also keeps me whole. I am very happy with that because it is so practical. Clean. You see a scene and you have an idea and there is work and then there is a whole process to get there. And then the joy of getting to know people I don't yet know in that and sharing a story that means something to me. And then to feel that that has value even within such a context and that people find that interesting. That's a gift, a gift. For me, as I said, it remains quite practical: I enter such a space and think: ah, here I can breathe!
It is surprising. A painter might also have that when he stands in front of a white canvas with his paint. It is harder to come out after rehearsal and then stand in a city like Paris and think what should I do now outside this work. The special thing about theatre is that work and life are so intertwined. Inspiration comes to visit you at moments in life and before you know it, a theatre work has emerged.
But I also did feel that before the Comédie Française, I had a lot of experience with my own work anyway. The invitation from the Comédie Française was not straight from school to there. That did go a long way. It's not just a wild experiment or anything. It's really premeditated that I was chosen, though. People also help you discover yourself. It's nice that people want to think about your destiny and what you can do with your talent.
WS: Which I like, because I can imagine that maybe others have broken down at the Comédie Française were too impressed or something.
Lisaboa Houbrechts: Yes, you can. You come in and there are a lot of rules. You can only rehearse for four hours a day. The set has to be able to be built in an hour, and taken down in an hour. You have to deal with all kinds of restrictions and that's what I like about it. It's about mastering those ground rules and then you can actually do a lot if you know what your restrictions are.
I played with Ivo van Hove at Age of Rage and watched his rehearsals. And that's also very tight how he directs there. I found that he was a bit alienating at first. In my own practice, I am much less rigid in the schedules. But then you see how that can work to full effectiveness.
If you can really master that, it's nice when you come into the Comédie Française and then not naively wanting to kick everything and say this isn't right, it should all be different, but to follow the system for once and see if it can do anything for me. It's interesting, but it is intimidating to rehearse in the theatre for, after all, six weeks and know that this was where Molière worked and died.
You also have all these hundreds of people walking in and out, because rehearsals are always open. The door is open, so you can't work in intimacy. It's very visible. Everything is seen by everyone. Everyone talks about every rehearsal. But I think it's just special that such a house wants to be involved in my work in such a way. But it is intimidating in that sense.
But so are the Greek tragedies. How many Medea's are there? I also sometimes like to know little then and not go into every Medea, but trust that inner imprint Medea has in everyone's mind. Everyone has their Medea. Then it is good to stay as close to it as possible in a context that is filled with history and filled with icons and filled with customs and rituals.
It is good then to think about that little imprint that is in my head or in my heart. That is the only way to contribute something to this that might also be valuable.
WS: I am very curious to see how Vake Poes will work in Amsterdam, how the Amsterdam audience will react to it, because there is a big difference between Belgium and the Netherlands.
Lisaboa Houbrechts: I am curious to see how they will react to the Flemish context or the Flemish language. We have already played with Breughel, also a kind of icon from the Low Countries. After all, we don't know whether Breugel is from the Netherlands or Belgium, but it was interesting to feel how the language is different from the Netherlands after all.
I can well imagine that the Passion in music is a tradition that lives more in the Netherlands than in Belgium. And Elsie de Brauw is on the scene. I hope it will be a nice homecoming.