“After all those productions the time had come to stage something vital”, explains Guy Cassiers in Staalkaart. We wanted to explore a couple of themes in depth, really get our teeth into something. In recent years we had tackled a number of things we had been unable to take any further. Orlando was our chance to do that.”
Read the full interview with Guy Cassiers and Katelijne Damen in Staalkaart here.
After the large doses of gravity and horror in the plays of recent years, director Guy Cassiers and actress Katelijne Damen felt like something with a more positive undertone. They wanted to do a production that would leave the audience feeling good (‘Better make that fortified, it sounds less banal.’) Their eyes and ears fell on Orlando, a novel by Virginia Woolf. The resulting piece is an ode to life, imagination and language.
We have an early Monday morning appointment. Wet snow is falling and the Toneelhuis staff drip into their offices, donned in scarves and hats. Katelijne Damen lays hers on the radiator to dry. Coffee and water arrive on the table. Toes tingle, hands warm up again. A good setting for a talk about literature and theatre, beautiful words and the joy of life.
‘Katelijne and I have known each other for quite a while now. The first time we worked together was back in the days of the Ro Theater,’ says Guy Cassiers.
Katelijne Damen joins in, ‘The first production we did was Lava Lounge (2002 - eds.). You don’t usually hear much about that play, but it was a very good show.’ It was the first of a long series of collaborations. When Cassiers became artistic director of the Toneelhuis, Damen moved to Antwerp along with him. There she became one of the mainstays on stage.
‘And after all those productions,’ explains Guy Cassiers, ‘the time had come for the two of us – with not too many people around – to put something essential on stage together. ‘We wanted to take our time and investigate a couple of themes in depth, really get our teeth into something. Over the years we had encountered several matters which we hadn’t been able to develop further. Now Orlando has given us the chance to do that.’
Virginia Woolf wrote the novel Orlando in1929. It is generally considered a masterpiece, although a short description of the plot could easily put you on the wrong track in that regard. The main character is a young man, Orlando, who has lived for over 300 years and during that time switched gender. He fell asleep as a man, woke up as a woman. Only in the hands of an author of the calibre of Virginia Woolf can such a departure point become great literature.
Guy Cassiers is not afraid of taking on a classic or two. He has already adapted Proust, Musil and Malcolm Lowry. Even though Orlando is considered one of Woolf's more accessible books, this time too, Cassiers by no means chose stylistic simplicity and easy entertainment.
‘I proposed Orlando because it is a work in which Katelijne can express all of the aspects that are in her, without repeating what we have already seen from her,’ says the director.
‘It's a challenge,’ adds Katelijne Damen.
‘That's right,’ echoes Cassiers, ‘it certainly is a challenge – a role that only the great among us can perform – precisely because it's such a terribly rich and complex book.’
The actress on the other side of the table barely manages to suppress a blush at the compliment, which she brushes away with a soft ‘Oh…’.
Guy Cassiers continues unperturbedly, ‘What's more, Katelijne has to succeed in bringing out the book’s frivolity and liveliness without getting caught up in its complex language. That's difficult enough for the reader, but it's extremely difficult for the performer to express, in a single recitation, the richness of the text with the elegance and freshness that Virginia Woolf offers us.’
Guy Cassiers has been fascinated by Virginia Woolf's bio and biblio for years. ‘Just like Proust and Musil, throughout her life she moved in a higher social circle, but she never felt really at home in it. She adopted the attitude of an outsider, and from that position regarded her surroundings with an extremely sharp and critical eye. She digs up the nasty sides of people and describes them in a refreshing language with a style that clears new paths. As a result of that interplay, she doesn't get bogged down in cynicism: through language, she hints at precisely the opposite of what she's literally saying. In Orlando, she actually is above all emphasizing what the individual can achieve.’
‘There's a lot of love in her cynicism,’ agrees Katelijne Damen. ‘She criticizes, but never runs something into the ground completely. She looks around her in fascination and reports on what she sees.’ Until now, the actress mainly knew Virginia Woolf from her publicized diaries. ‘When I keep a diary, I write about this that and the other. But her! She often writes about literature, both about what she has read and what she has written herself. And she does it in such a beautiful language that you often want to turn back the pages and read it again. With her novels, it’s the same, in fact. You can't just read a book by Virginia Woolf – you have to work at it. Where does this sentence end, for God’s sake, you think to yourself. Or she'll jump without warning from one character to the next and continue with that other story. So her books aren't suitable for reading a few pages every night before you go to sleep.’
By now, Damen knows Orlando inside and out. ‘Because we’ve been working with it so intensively, it suddenly seems like a much easier book.’
Virginia Woolf uses an idiom that today’s reader or spectator is not accustomed to. ‘But,’ emphasizes Guy Cassiers, ‘in her own time her language was also anything but average, let’s be clear about that. It's not the distance in time that makes her work complex. It has always had that complexity. Actually, in that way Orlando also says a lot about writing: what is a novel, and how does an author break out of the straitjacket of forms and standards? In her novel, Virginia Woolf ultimately gives you a very qualifying view of the medium of art.’
‘And of herself,’ offers Katelijne Damen.
‘And of what the individual can and ought to be,’ concludes Cassiers. ‘What responsibilities does a person have? What are his or her possibilities? What does an individual have within himself and what does she develop too little? Virginia Woolf’s departure point for that is a view of life highly focused on the senses. The essence of the novel is the relation between nature and culture, and the way in which each individual seeks the right balance between the two.’
Biographer, Character, Author, Actress
A person who lives for more than 300 years and within that period switches gender. Virginia Woolf makes it believable. In order to give her novel an air of historical accuracy, she introduces a very fascinating narrator: the biographer. He presents himself as a historian, a champion of facts and truth. At the same time, he is anything but objective. He has an agenda of his own, which sneaks into the book by way of double stops and commas.
The biographer, the main character, the author. The language, the style, the plot. How does a single actress communicate all of this to the audience? The figure that Katelijne Damen renders on stage represents all of it simultaneously. There is not just one character standing there. It is a person comprised of little bits of everyone involved – Orlando, certainly, but also the biographer, a touch of Woolf, a dash of Damen.
‘Readers generally pay a lot of attention to Orlando's change of sex,’ says Katelijne Damen. ‘But in essence, that is not what it’s about. It's not about gender, not about colour or sexual preference. It's purely about being an individual person, in all of its aspects.’
Guy Cassiers adds, ‘Orlando grows into maturity and a mature way of thinking. Only, it takes him/her a very long time to do this. He/she deliberately takes that time – that's what's so great about it. Orlando is absolutely unconcerned about the ordinary facts of life, that a person lives for an average of so many years and if you have a penis, you are a man. No, those things don't matter. What do I feel, what do I smell, what do I see and what can I do with all of this? That's much more important.’
The actress stands on a floor that incorporates all of the historical facts from the novel: the biographer's playground. The spectators in the auditorium cannot see this. With the help of cameras that create the effect of a giant overhead projector, Katelijne Damen manipulates bits of history onto the stage and into the auditorium.
According to Guy Cassiers, ‘The biographer professes to be teaching history, but very soon identifies with his/her character. This creates a constantly expanding twilight zone: as time goes on, it becomes less and less clear who is actually speaking. Is it the teacher or the person being analyzed?’
‘Or is it the inventor (Virginia Woolf), or is it me?’ adds Katelijne Damen.
‘We play a constant game of seduction: Is what we are saying here true or not? After all, in theatre that's the best game of all.’ Within the framework of facts questionable or otherwise, Virginia Woolf creates – as do the makers – Orlando's fantasy world. ‘We hope to sweep away the audience in that wealth of images, in the sensory experience of odours and colours…. Most of all we want to stimulate the spectator’s imagination.’
But in the final analysis the basis of the production remains a story that the audience hears from the mouth of the narrator. ‘That's why Katelijne is always the central focus on stage. She takes the audience to the essence of the book,’ says Cassiers. ‘And what we can't tell in the wonderful words of Virginia Woolf, we communicate through images, music and other disciplines. In that respect too, by he way, Katelijne has a much greater contribution than usual in this production. She is the one who is in control of each of the disciplines, and thus she also literally manipulates everything that happens and is said.’
Not only did Katelijne Damen sign on for the acting and manipulating the various media on stage. She is also responsible for designing the costumes and adapting the text. ‘I especially found adapting the text to be extremely addictive,’ she says. ‘When we decided to start working with Orlando, it turned out to be not so easy to find a suitable Dutch translation. Then I got the wild idea of translating it myself, but I ended up with a very literal translation, and although it did sound special in itself, it proved unworkable. After that we went on to an existing version, which I adapted into a dramatic text. We actually started out in very simply – a little crazily, even. First, Guy, dramaturge Erwin Jans and I selected the parts and elements that we liked the best. Then we chose from that. Every time I had something ready, I presented it to Guy. We would discuss it, cut things, add things. It was such an addictive process that I kept going over the last five pages, changing and adapting them again and again. In the end I was chewing over every little word: no, that's not it after all, there must be a better word…’
'Now I'm especially curious about what a young audience will think of the language in the show. Wolfe's language is so diametrically opposed to today's text messaging that its classical atmosphere almost becomes revolutionary again in this day and age,’ opines Guy Cassiers.
‘I'm extremely partial to that kind of language,’ Katelijne Damen says. ‘I absolutely love reading old books with a classical linguistic usage – it's so rich. I must admit, though, that I learned an awful lot about myself during the reversals for Orlando. The articulation, the sounds, the enunciation have to be one hundred percent perfect.’
Voyage of Discovery
Rehearsing a monologue would seem to be completely different process than rehearsing a play with a large cast. Yet Katelijne Damen does not necessarily agree with that. ‘This is my first monologue, and it certainly is a stringent process,’ she says. ‘But no matter whether I'm alone on stage or with lots of other people, it doesn't feel all that different. Guy is a director who gives enough attention to every actor anyhow, no matter how large or small their role may be. What I find really great is that we can embark on a voyage of discovery together now. We both like to try new things and now we've got plenty of opportunity to do so. What's also fascinating is that after a while you need so few words to understand each other.’
‘Over the years the two of us have traversed a certain trajectory,’ says Guy Cassiers, ‘and we were looking for the most meaningful next step in that. Precisely because we know each other so well, we were able to skip a step here and there. Then I’d say, No, Katelijne, we've already figured that out for another play. Let's do it differently now. You try to tap new sources, and a monologue lends itself perfectly for that. Here, Katelijne is completely central, whereas a role in other plays is often at the service of the larger whole. All of the cards are on the table to show a Katelijne we have never seen before.’
What's also different from most rehearsal processes is the long run-up to the show. Usually a play goes through an intensive preparatory period in the weeks or months directly before the premiere. ‘Seeing as Guy has had to spend a lot of time abroad for opera productions lately, we decided beforehand to start early enough,’ says Katelijne Damen.
‘Now we’re very happy about that, confirms Cassis, ‘because it has strengthened a number of things. Last season, we already worked really hard on this production. At that time, for example, we established all of our codes, designed our playground – the images, the sound, the light and the video – and determined the relations between them. Except for those last five pages, the script was also ready and Katelijne had it in her head. As a result, we created a kind of rest in the weeks before the premiere, which gave us the chance to determine exactly what we wanted to do for every sentence and every word.’
There were months of time between the two rehearsal periods. ‘Because of that, we could take a step back,’ says Katelijne Damen, ‘look at our work from a distance and go on from there.’
Guy Cassiers concludes, ‘We worked on Orlando the way a writer works on a book. Right before it had to go to the printer, we were able to take another look at it and delete certain passages or move them around, give it a last critical revision. You generally don't have that space in theatre. We hope that this rest and space has enabled us to make better choices.’
If all goes well, the audience will leave the theatre feeling good. ‘We want the spectator to feel strengthened in the belief in the individual. Each person starts with their own possibilities, and these are immense. Politics and the media mainly propagate fatalism nowadays: we must stand behind one leader – together we are strong! – and that leader will take care of everything for us. Orlando expresses precisely the opposite mentality: you can do a lot yourself, you have an opinion and your personal contribution – no matter how small – can most certainly be very meaningful for the totality in which we all live.’
Premier: 10 January, Toneelhuis, Antwerp
Ines Minten / Staalkaart 15 January 2013