In 1999, tg STAN and Rosas agreed to make their first coproduction: Quartett, German author Heiner Müller’s adaptation of Choderlos de Laclos’s scandalous novel Les liaisons dangereuses. Twenty years later, the original lead actors are sinking their teeth back into the piece with great gusto.
In Quartett, German author Heiner Müller rewrote Choderlos de Laclos’s scandalous novel Les liaisons dangereuses into a gruesomely ingenious dialogue in which the decadent Vicomte de Valmont and Marquise de Merteuil soflty pinch one another to death while the world outside burns.
Antwerp theatre company tg STAN and Brussels dance company Rosas staged the dialogue as their first coproduction in 1999, with dancer Cynthia Loemij and actor Frank Vercruyssen in the lead roles, and the sisters Jolente and Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker directing.
On the occasion of the show’s reprise at the Festival d’Automne in Paris, at which Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker is the central figure, Vercruyssen and Loemij are again eloquently driving each other crazy.
Müller’s text is timeless, but you are perhaps less so. What are the differences with 20 years ago?
Frank Vercruyssen: The most obvious difference is the way time has affected our bodies, our minds, our attitudes, and our relationship. The tragedy of ageing, the cynicism, and the confrontation with ageing bodies all come more prominently to the foreground.
Cynthia Loemij: While the text used to overwhelm me, I have now become much more aware of its layers and contradictions. It is simultaneously complex and simple, sad, cruel, but also funny. Our performance is less serious than it was twenty years ago.
Can such a multilayered text be summarized easily?
Loemij: There are of course the double roles – Frank plays Valmont and Madame de Tourvel, while I play Merteuil and Cécile de Volanges, and I imitate Valmont – but once you have grasped that, the basic concept is simple. It is about two people who terrorize each other verbally. It is a reflection on terror, love, death, fear. And a power game between a man and a woman. You see two people who use an enormous number of words but are very miserable.
Vercruyssen: The poetry is fantastic and Müller’s mastery of language is unparalleled. The text is the opposite of anecdotal. But you have to deal with it in one way or another. If you were to explore every word meticulously, the show would take seven hours.
Talking about power games with sexual implications in this day and age, we cannot but mention #MeToo.
Loemij: The text is about much more than the power dynamic between a man and a woman, but it is clear that this theme is currently even more relevant than it was twenty years ago. It is striking that for Müller and Laclos, Valmont and Merteuil are on the same footing as far as power games are concerned. Merteuil even has the upper hand.
Vercruyssen: The interaction between the two is incredibly clever and intelligent, but Valmont is rightly defeated. And of course the seduction scene between Valmont and the young Cécile has even more impact today.
Müller sets his piece both before the French Revolution and after the Third World War.
Loemij: When we performed the piece in Toulouse there were enormous demonstrations outside the theatre during the gilets jaunes protests.
Vercruyssen: The audience had to navigate around the barricades to get inside. When Merteuil says “What I fear is the night of the bodies,” the audience feels very palpably that there are two aristocrats playing games while the revolutionaries are at the door.
Generally speaking, for the audience it is important to transcend the enmity and bile instead of cultivating it.
Vercruyssen: Of course, but if a gifted author with great insight into humanity and literature treats such a subject, it can be very beneficial. Like in the work of Ingmar Bergman, for example, you realize as a viewer that, all things considered, we are doing rather better than the people who are killing each other on the stage, and that you want to ensure it never comes to that. The poetic description of cruelty can have a consoling or enlightening effect. Cynthia’s staging and dancing hopefully also contribute to that.
Why is dance so appropriate for this text?
Loemij: Because the text has a beautiful rhythm and a certain musicality. There is a space and silence between the reposts, and the metaphors also leave a lot of room for your imagination. The choreography was made separately from the text and is abstract. The text and the movements lend themselves to interpretation. As a viewer, you can make the connection yourself.
23 > 26/1, 20.30, Kaaitheater