Ontroerend Goed - Sydney Festival
In 2019 I had the exquisite pleasure of catching Belgiun theatre company Ontroerend Goed conceptually daring “Are we not drawn onward to new erA” at Edinburgh Fringe Festival (originally made in 2014). Four years later, a pandemic and a load of international presentations the show finally arrives in Sydney. Director Alexander Devriendt’s production is a visual expression of a question on everyone’s lips. Now we agree that the way to avert climate catastrophe is to wind back the clocks, how much of the environment have we permanently damaged?
We are informed by numerous press-releases the title is a palindrome. Information about the show contains a Kierkegaard quote: ‘Life must be lived forwards but can only be understood backwards.’ This is what rigorous theatre looks like in 2024. It’s the kind of show that makes some arts festival attendees see red and walk out – their patience exhausted by the invitation to engage with challenging form. It is a devastating reflection on the current plight of humanity, on the brink of environmental meltdown. As theatre this is a show of extraordinary visual beauty, set in a garden (of Eden) corrupted by the political veneration in the form of a giant gold statue, and of breath-taking ingenuity, as we realise – in the second half - that the strange gibberish language the performers are speaking in the first half is actually the English of the second half, backwards, and that the whole spectacle has been videoed (Jeroen Wuyts and Babette Poncelet), to be replayed to us, in reverse. It really is a coup de theatre.
At the mid-point a performer steps forward to tell us that now, right now is the time that our future must start over. It’s hard and not everyone agrees but the simplicity of her words and understanding are incredibly moving; a melancholia pervades the stage as the ensemble of 6 actors begin again (Angelo Tijssens, Jonas Vermeulen, Karolien De Bleser, Leonore Spee, Maria Dafneros and Vincent Dunoyer). These acts are accompanied by a haunting original musical composition “Disintegration Loops” by William Basinski played by a sextet of musicians from the Spectra Ensemble.
Duška Radosavljević describes things best: “The show draws attention to the action, labour and, amid that, to the somewhat meta-theatrical dimension of artistic labour and the specificities by which this particular piece of theatre has been made with such meticulous precision. One wonders where the company started from, what came first, how exactly they found the convincing palindromic effect of each detail, the dramaturgical power of each moment… But aside from the formal considerations, the searing significance of the show’s content is inescapable and multiply layered too – what are we doing, where are we going, can we rewind and start over again, how badly have we messed up, in fact? These questions evoke not only the Bible and Becket but also the very pressing issues of our ecological reality in the 21st century. Formally, there is an apparent sense of wishful thinking, a whiff of a fairy-tale, a formal feelgood factor to the piece, but nonetheless, it is steeped in fragile and deeply conceptual poetry, and those central questions are very much alive and haunting for a long time after you’ve left the theatre.”
For me, a visually arresting, emotionally charged and an outstanding technical achievement of a production. To see it a second time, years apart, makes for contemplation of what we see in drama when we stop searching for plot and character. It’s even better.
And reminded me – in the words of the great Joni Mitchell –
“We are stardust, we are golden. We are caught in the devil's bargain. And we've got to get ourselves Back to the garden”