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Theatrical Landscape of Belgium

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Theatrical Landscape of Belgium
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The language of others

by Georg Weinand

Going to the cinema to watch a Hollywood production is a multi linguistic experience in Brussels. All American films are shown in English and are double-subtitled: In French and in Dutch. The Belgian capital is bi-cultural and double-jointed, due to the fact that two great cultural societies of Brussels are present: The French-Romanic culture of the Walloons and the Dutch-Germanic culture of the Flemish.

Because of the double-subtitles the text changes quickly, which doesn't cause any problems for the visually trained Belgian (film-) theatre visitor: The (spoken) language is only one of many resources (occasionally a political one). As naturally as Shakespeare, Goldoni or Schiller are used as cultural references in other countries, visual artists such as the painter brothers Van Eyck or the comic artistes Hergé and René Magritte are referred to here.

"Belgian" doesn’t exist
Belgium was founded in 1830 as either an outcome of an opera performance followed by a "national uprising" or calculated European politics: A geographic buffer was to be created between the rivalling Great Powers. Until today Belgium is a country without a unified language. "Belgian" doesn't exist.

The inhabitants of the three cultural communities (There are round about 6 million Flemish, 4,5 million Walloons and a small German-speaking community in the eastern part of the country with only about 70.000 inhabitants) speak Dutch, French and German. The Belgian government structure is so complicated because the country is divided into three cultural communities by language and at the same time geographically divided into regions: The Flemish region, the Walloon region and the region of Brussels ("regions", "communities" and the nation state each have their own parliament with different fields of duty; only Flanders has pragmatically merged "region" and "community" officially). The political alliance of different cultural groups created an institutional mayhem due to ongoing simmering conflicts. This becomes especially clear in Brussels, which is francophone to 80 per cent, yet lies in the middle of a Flemish region...

The roots of the kingdom's inhabitants are different when it comes to anything that goes back further than the 19th century. In the country's schools the first official foreign language is English and no longer one of the confederate's languages. They regularly watch the neighbouring country's television. This explains why politics believes that culture is something worth investing in. One of the results is the "Flemish wave" of the eighties and nineties with innovate dancing and other dramatic combinations.

Open cooperation form
In the course of several state reforms the responsibility for 'personal spheres' (including education and culture) was directly given to the cultural communities of Flanders, Wallonia and the small German community in 1975. In Flanders the different expert commissions regularly evaluate the plans of the sectors' artists and cultural institutions and then give advice to the minister, who determines the amount of the project-linked benefits for two or four years. This procedure is based on the Dutch example, whereby the granting of funds has meanwhile been decentralised there

 


The venues are divided into three categories: There are werkplaatsen (productions of innovative art), kunstcentra (production and presentation of innovative art) and cultureel centra (presentation sites for the general public). International co-productions are a rule, and the three big "town theatres" (NTGent, Tonneelhuis Antwerpen and the Koninklijke Vlaamse Schouwburg Brussel/KVS) have developed open forms of cooperation. Merely the opera, a few museums and the Flemish orchestra persist as big, autonomous institutions. Not only in the artist's city of Brussels is there an inflow of international artists who find access to government funded culture. And as there isn't a town theatre structure it doesn't make sense to speak of a delimitative freelance scene.

The resources for culture in Flanders have doubled since 1999 and is meanwhile comparatively high: Besides the costs for the "big institutions" the culture in Flanders has 98 Million Euros available for the upcoming year (cf. the Flemish newspaper De Morgen from the 15.5.2009). In the German state North Rhine-Westphalia, which has three times as many inhabitants, about 140 Million Euros are planned for 2010.

In Wallonia they have the same financial system. Here too so-called contrats-programmes (programme contracts) are reprieved. However, it doesn't take place at a consistent time and the number of cultural actors is higher. Both lead to a certain degree of confusion.

Non-dogmatic and post dramatic
The relation of drama and literature is different in Flanders than it is in Germany. At the beginning of the eighties the political text and stage-direction theatre was driven out: new ways of staging fragmented texts and stage texts were constructed from rehearsal materials. Written texts were no longer the means of productions. The Flemish actor and stage director Jan Decorte "stuttered up" classics and by doing so laid the foundation for Flemish theatre writing: physicalness, visual poetry and a struggle for language rather than a textual domination.

Altogether there is an intimate dialectic between theatre texts and theatre practice. The "Ten oorlog"-trilogy by Tom Lanoye (1997) would be unimaginable without the work of the stage director Luk Perceval (in 1999 the German version of the Wars of the Roses-adaption named "Schlachten" (which has a double meaning: slaughtering and battles) appeared at the Deutsches Schauspielhaus in Hamburg). However, this applies to nearly every important  Flemish book author: Josse de Pauw with his monologue staging, Arne Sierens and his down-to-earth patterns, Willy Thomas' linguistic games, Jeroen Olyslaeghers as a representative of dramatic theatre, Peter Verhalst and Stefan Hertmans with their epic dramas, Hugo Claus and the philosophic fables of Pieter de Buysser.

Their texts merely pass on the visual work during the Flemish culture's self-discovery (which in a political context partly as an extreme right-opposition to the French-speaking neighbours in their own country has been and is being practised). The actual actors of the Flemish stages were Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker, Wim Vandekeybus, Jan Fabre, the Needcompany from Jan Lauwers as well as Alain Platel and Les Ballets C. de la B. The post dramatic theatre was reality in Flanders, before it was dogmatised.


At the beginning of 2009 the Flemish theatre institute announced that 77 percent of plays by living authors had been performed in the last decade, 52 per cent of which were Dutch-speaking authors (and only 9 per cent of them were Dutch).

Relations as in France
The theatre of Wallonia has a different story: it begins in France. For a long time it was strongly orientated towards the 'Grande Nation' with its rich theatre tradition. It is therefore understandable that the influence of French drama (from Racine to contemporary literature) and theatre culture is stronger than that of the Netherlands or Flanders. This has two important consequences for the French-speaking Belgian theatre. Because of the French repertoire's central role the francophone Belgian drama has remained relatively small. At the same time the text plays a greater role.

With round about 30 dramas Jean-Marie Piemme is the most famous Belgian-francophone stage author. "Writing is boxing" – with this Piemme means the realness and truth with which he deforms reality, instead of creating ornate counter worlds. One meets his characters in a pub around the corner or in the bar of the Brussels Theatre Varia, which is directed by Delval, Dezouteux and Sireul, and where many of his texts are performed.

Jacques Delcuvellerie is an author and stage director who also plays a central role in the Wallonian theatrical landscape. "Ruanda", which was created in 1994 after the debacle of Belgian Blue Berets in a civil war country, is impressive political documentalist theatre which is linked to the heavy Belgian heritage of colonial power. Delcuvellerie works at the Liege Theatre de Place and links to the topics of Flemish Hugo Claus' texts and is, like his stage director colleague Armel Roussel, part of the scene.

Paul Pourveur is Belgian in his own way: He grew up speaking French and writes in French and Dutch. He developed his drama in a dialogue with the Flemish and Dutch scene (e.g. Guy Cassiers produced Pourveur). Now he is increasingly heard on the francophone side.  His experimental patterns are playful, and partly appear to be written in the form of an essay and encourage expressionistic productions.

German is spoken

The "most protected minority" of Europe, the German-speaking community in Belgium, not only has its own parliament with its 70.000 inhabitants, but also AGORA, an independent ensemble which has been touring Europe with visual theatre for over two decades. The artistic director Marcel Cremer developed an 'autobiographical theatre' as a working method and presented stage texts, which have partly been translated into French and Dutch.

Belgium: surreal and paradox
Until today no official cultural agreement has been achieved between Wallonia and Flanders.  In Belgium Europe is rehearsed, although the wires often cross. Nevertheless, Belgium has its own identity: It is surreal, occasionally paradox and close to humans. Both reasons make many artists worthy of preservation and loveable too.

In Brussels the Flemish Theatre (KVS) and the francophone pendant which lies 300 m next to it, the Theatre National, are practising cultural exchange: Many productions are shown with the subtitles of "the others" – a technique which is already performed in Brussels' cinemas.

Back to the beginning

Here are the texts on Paul Pourveur

 

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