It is true of all of the FC Bergman collective’s productions, but 300 el x 50 el x 30 el is perhaps the strongest case for it, that the performance works at the viewers’ guts while simultaneously firing off intellectual and emotional triggers. This complex, visceral theatrical experience is brought to the viewers by everything starting from the various–unambiguously decipherable or ringing vague bells–cultural references, through the rich scenery and the choice of stomach-churning music that is played at a high volume with perfect sound quality, right up to the fragmented storyline constructed from the combination of acting and live video projection perfectly complementing each other.
Aiming The Guts
The FC Bergman collective was founded in 2008 by artists then in their early to mid-twenties, Stef Aerts, Joé Agemans, Thomas Verstraeten, Marie Vinck, Matteo Simoni, and Bart Hollanders, who fundamentally still make up the backbone of the group. Their performances are created collectively, and as the group consists of four thespians, a film and video artist (Verstraeten) and a technical expert (Agemans), their productions can be regarded as pan-artistic works. Their theatrical language is–in their own words–”anarchistic and slightly chaotic, but fundamentally visual and poetic,” their performances are based on monumentality, (hyper)realism and a sort of ruthlessness. They regularly invite guest artists (like the Dutch composer Liesa van der Aa and the Solistenensemble Kaleidoskop from Berlin in their 2013 Van Den Vos), and their show was more than once tailored to an irregular site (e.g.: the ornate inner courtyard of a baroque palace served as the space for their 2010 Walking Along The Champs-Elysées With A Tortoise So As To Have A Better Look At The World, But It Is Difficult To Drink Tea On An Ice Floe If Everyone Is Drunk, and in 2012 their Terminator Trilogy was put on stage on commercial harbours and seaside sand banks).
Instead of a linear narrative, the performances of FC Bergman lean on the totality of impressions sprouting from (mostly monumental and realistic) visuals, powerful images, and series of fragmented scenes, while exploring, circumnavigating a philosophical question or set of problems. In the center of their productions we usually find a human or a group of humans struggling with some sort of “superior” force–either natural (like in the case of 300 el x 50 el x 30 el), moral (like in Van Den Vos) or even one forced upon us by mass culture (like in the Terminator Trilogy).
Another constant feature of their shows is working with a large number of extras, who are not on stage all the time, they only appear at the climax of the fragmented stories (e.g.: in the site-specific performance of the Terminator Trilogy they are elegant city-dwellers appearing from or disappearing to the infinite space that is open towards the horizon, and in Champs-Élysées they are the crowd dancing on broken floorboard pieces). The appearance of extras in cardinal moments of plays with only a handful of roles could refer to the generic, universal nature of the individual’s struggle, but rather it suggests the indifference and disinterest of the environment, the solitude of the heroes.
300 el x 50 el x 30 el was one of the first performances of the collective, it premiered in 2011 in Bourla in Antwerp (where FC Bergman is active as a resident collective), and they regularly go on tour with it ever since. The “el” in the title is an old Dutch unit of measure (approx. elbow), and the numbers refer to the dimensions of Noah’s ark (in the Bible we have cubits instead of el). The play gives us a glimpse of the lives of villagers dreading an unstoppably approaching flood (and as the reference to the flood in the Old Testament is pretty clear, we cannot but ask what the villagers have committed to have provoked the threat of the same punishment). Contrary to most performances of the collective that are preceded by months of intensive creative work and rehearsals, 300 el x 50 el x 30 el was put together in a month, so the “usual” philosophical layer is somewhat thinner, but the implementation on the stage is just as elaborate and professional as that of their other productions.
As soon as we take our seats we get our first impressions, as the viewers are greeted by a strong (natural) odour of pine trees and fallen leaves–which already forebodes the relativization of the frontier between the realities of the stage and of the theatre, a motif that gets more prominent as the play advances. A middle-aged man is sitting on the stage in front of the iron curtain, and is angling in an artificial pool, puffing idly away at his cigarette, and up above we see a projection screen and the picture of an old man in his sickbed on it. At times it appears to be a photograph, at other times we seem to detect minute movements on the seemingly motionless image.
When the iron curtain rises, the old man on the screen moves too. The carpet of leaves covering the front-stage continues beyond the iron curtain, the background is obscured by a thick pine forest, there are wooden cottages and makeshift huts around. As the surrealistically hyper-realistic scene emerges, the old man on the screen gets out of bed, talks a little to the pigeon in the cage hanging from the ceiling of the extremely poky cottage, takes a hammer and steps out of his home–and at this moment the actor appears on stage. From then on we see all the scenes of the play from the front (on stage) and from the back (projected onto the screen above), as the events are tracked by the cameraman on the camera dolly running on the rails around the stage.
The old man shuffles to the pine forest through the carpet of leaves, and after he disappears into the woods, we hear the sound of the hammer for a long time–as we learn later, he is tinkering with an upturned boat, the only reference to the biblical ark (apart from the title) in the play. In the meantime, the camera dolly makes its first round around the stage, and for the first time, we get a glimpse into the life of the cottage dwellers. The lives condensed into the few square meters of the huts are surreal, bizarre, touching, funny, repulsive, and upsetting at the same time. But each home hides sins, with which the villagers–presumably–call the inevitable flood upon themselves. As the camera leaves the first hut (in pace with the old gentleman), it shows the people living next door at once: an elegantly dressed mother sits by a lavishly prepared table, and silently terrorizes her husband and her daughter with Down-syndrome, who obediently serve her at the table. Her preteen son, on the other hand, (as we learn during the second round of the camera), sneaks into the neighboring house abandoned by the old man, and tortures the pigeon left there (but it is all too obvious for the camera that the boy swaps the live bird to a stuffed one before the torture, so the scene becomes a source of humor instead of outrage). In the next home a mother is giving her daughter a piano lesson, but as she beats out the rhythm with an eraser-tipped pencil on the top of the piano that is hopelessly out of tune, she snoozes off now and then, at which times the girl sneaks off to the boy living opposite them. As the camera continues its journey, we see into the home of a surreally perverted couple. The man tries phone sex (which apparently does not arouse him more than the fixing of the telephone), while the woman moans loudly in labor, only to give birth to a huge seashell that is later to become their sex toy. In the next hut four men are drinking beer, smoking, and playing darts, but when they get bored by all that, they start playing William Tell with an apple placed on the head of the youngest member. And in the last hut a young boy is building a model of the settlement, and when the girl from the opposite house escapes from her piano lesson to visit him, they blow it up together.
After the camera peeks into the sixth house, we get to see the camera dolly, the cameraman sitting on it and the assistants moving it, and the creators of the show make no attempt to conceal the presence of the workmates interfering with the theatrical reality, on the contrary, with time the filming team becomes an organic part of the stage image just like the huts and the pine trees. The camera dolly and the camera image with it make a few rounds around the tiny community, unveiling newer layers of the surreal life of the village with every lap. It is hard to decide whether these scenes from life become all the more “intense,” because the villagers feel the unstoppable approach of an apocalypse of sorts, or the apocalypse befalls them because they commit surreal sins. Watching the performance I was reminded of a novel by Borislav Pekić called Rabies, in which a deadly virus gets loose on Heathrow airport, and the contaminated people are forced into a temporary community in the quarantine. And although it is “merely” the shared tragedy, the caught virus, that mold them into a quasi-community, the waiting for it to end becomes so protracted that the group of the sick develop an ersatz-life, in which love, hostility, and camaraderie are born. And in this suspended, temporary life everything is magnified and made insignificant at the same time by the approaching tragedy–the proliferation of the disease in Pekić’s book, the unstoppable flood in the FC Bergman play.
The first sign of the flood is a sheep cadaver fished out by the angler from the little lake at around the middle of the performance, after which water drips evenly from the fleece of the sheep hanging from a hook above the water, so that we do not forget the threat of natural disaster for a moment. The next sign of the catastrophe is when the pine forest–literally–stands on its head: the trees hooked onto pin rails turn 180 degrees, so that the back-stage is no longer obscured by the “forest,” the drab boat that the old man was repairing at the outset of the play becomes visible–at the same time the realistic stage image becomes more and more surrealistic. We are not even surprised anymore when the kissing young couple who ran away into the woods are suddenly grabbed by octopus arms, when chunks of soil fall onto the houses from above and water somehow starts seeping into every home. The boy torturing the pigeon tries to drown the bird, the husband of the gorging woman fights the fish and octopuses that come to life on the dining table with a harpoon, the piano teacher mother confronts a crisscrossing seaweed in the bathtub, the phone receiver in the hand of the man making the sex call turns into a showerhead, the beer-drinking men cry like gulls while bandaging the head wound of Willian Tell/Trepljov.
The closing scene of the show is built entirely on Nina Simone’s ten-minute long song, Sinnerman (the choice of music plays an incredibly important role throughout the whole production, from Vivaldi’s Four Season to the acapella song Oh, Heavenly Salvation of The Persuasions). Accompanied by Simone’s powerful music, the first one to rise is the angler whose constant presence has made him almost invisible. He sticks his head into a bucket full of water and keeps it there as long as he can hold his breath, and emerges almost drowning. The camera on its usual round shows the interiors of the houses one by one, where the occupants all stick their heads into buckets, and then one after the other emerge into the central space surrounded by the houses–a place where the villagers assembled earlier as well, in the moments foreboding the flood: when the sheep cadaver was lifted from the pond or when the young couple tried to escape from the crisis community. The villagers assembling on the central square keep sticking their heads into buckets, and at a given moment pour the water on their heads, and launch a monotonous, persisting choreography.
During the play the fragments getting all the more surreal project the incomprehensible natural, and yet seemingly supernatural catastrophe with increasing power, and at the same time, they construct the dramaturgical curve perfectly right up to the climax, where the expressive music and the monotonous, synchronized choreography all contribute to the visceral theatrical experience. The characters go on with the demanding choreography for minutes as the camera dolly speeds faster and faster around the scene, the camera view switches between the flashing images of the actors and the close-ups of the workers frantically pushing and pulling the camera dolly–their physical performance is a match for that of the actors, making the reality of the stage fall apart and get muddled up with the reality of the theatre. When the monotonous choreography and the madly paced livestream following it becomes almost unsustainable, the stage is suddenly crowded by forty-fifty “civilians,” but the characters with their persistent jumping still remain visible within the motionless mass. By the time Nina Simone’s song comes to an end, the extras join the sinister, superhuman dance as well. Before the curtain goes down, all we see on the stage is a heaving, cohesive mass of humans.
Translated by Péter Papolczy
This article first appeared in Revizor Online on May 10, 2018, and has been reposted with permission.