A copy of Ovid’s Metamorphoses in a Brussels book shop became the starting point for an artistic collaboration between theatre creator Manuela Infante (MI) and artistic director of KVS Michael De Cock (MDC). City dramaturge Kristin Rogghe talked to them during the first week of rehearsals for their version of Metamorphoses.
My theatre creations always start from a fascination for the non-human.
Ovid’s Metamorphoses is the starting point for your first artistic collaboration. What attracted you in this ancient text?
MI: My latest theatre creations have started from a fascination with the non-human, the in-human, and the invention of such a divide. We live in a time when the impact of man’s dominance on the planet is becoming brutally visible. I have been asking myself how I can create non-anthropocentric theatre, how I can approach the non-human through theatre. That immediately creates a political question: how can you represent the other? Can you speak for others? I search for theatrical strategies to deal with these complex questions. For Estado Vegetal I immersed myself in the world of plants. Plants are not the protagonists of the story, but rather the play is a vegetal play, plants govern the narrative structure of the play. The non-hierarchic manner in which the plant world is organised served as a blueprint for the construction of my creation. You could carry that thought further: what if we restructure our society, or the state – ‘Estado’ – based on plants’ organisational model? In the non-human outside, and the non-human repressed inside us, I find alternative models for the future – and inspiration to innovate in writing and theatre creation.
Michael saw Estado Vegetal at the theatre festival Santiago A Mil in Chile and invited me to KVS. One day we were walking through Brussels together and he pointed out an edition of Ovid’s Metamorphoses in the window of a bookstore. I don’t know if he had planned that – Michael loves the book and had worked with it before. I rediscovered it as an incredible bundle of stories where the boundaries between the human and non-human are at stake. Because that’s what happens in Metamorphoses: characters transform into trees, rivers, stones, animals, … At the same time, I was struck by how much violence was inherent in these stories, especially against women. They are raped, have their tongues cut out, … And their transformation into a non-human form is more often punishment than salvation. And so I saw two important elements of my work come together in Ovid’s Metamorphoses: the non-human, and feminism.
MDC: We discovered a shared fascination in the Metamorphoses. I love the Greek and Roman classics. Like for many, they were formative for me. I love the wild imagination in those stories. It’s a soulful world, not binary or linear. It is very confronting to read the Metamorphoses today from a gender perspective. You notice that in the first book alone, three of the stories deal with rape or assault: Daphne and Apollo, Zeus and Io, Pan and Syrinx. I have known this book since I was a boy, but I had never read it that way. The metamorphoses of the female characters seemed like a way to protect them from further harm. But you can also read it as a way to silence them, to take away their agency. Take Daphne, who refuses to answer to Apollo’s advances. To escape his pursuits, she asks her father to take away her beauty, and he turns her into a laurel tree. Something similar happens to Syrinx, who flees from Pan and is turned into reed – which he then makes his pan flute of. It reads like a fairy tale, you hardly realise that it deals with rape. Throughout art history, those myths have also been pictures countless times, and countless times the misogyny was reproduced in Fine Art, without any questions asked.
I believe we are living in extraordinary times right now when it comes to the battle for gender equality. On the one hand, there are patriarchal macho figures like Trump, but on the other hand resistance movements like #MeToo are stronger than ever. This means practices that were considered normal for decades are now under discussion or no longer acceptable. In the theatre world, too, I experience a real sea-change.
Decolonised feminism is also very important: the realisation that the dominant perspective of who is human and who is not, is a white, European idea.
What does feminism mean to each of you?
MI: To me, feminism means actively contributing to ending an era that has centred around the exploitation of others – not only women, but all sorts of ‘otherness’. Feminism wants to shift the paradigm, away from one where we create otherness only to subsequently exploit it.
The massive popular uprising that we currently experience in Chile, against extreme capitalism, originated from the feminist movement.
My understanding of feminism evolves every day, because it’s a broad subject, harbouring many positions and perspectives. Decolonised feminism is also very important: the realisation that the dominant perspective of who is human and who is not, is a white, European idea. To create this idea, a whole host of groups and people were basically banned from the human domain. And to keep the idea going, it had to be repeated and affirmed again and again throughout history, also in art. This is what philosopher Rosi Braidotti calls policing. The boundaries of what we consider human are a construct, one that requires constant guarding. The Metamorphoses, in which women are portrayed as figures who are either raped or banned from humanity – and sometimes both – also contribute to the construction of those boundaries. With my interpretation, I want to mess with those boundaries and the way they are kept intact today, also in western art history. Because colonialism certainly isn’t over yet: the same processes are still at work, neo-colonialism is everywhere. My messing with this European classic text, from the perspective of the “exiled” could be inscribed in a decolonizing practice.
We need these new perspectives, because on the opposite side there’s the alt-right movement, which draws on authors from antiquity to propagate their reactionary thinking online. In her book Not All Dead White Men, author Donna Zuckerberg – sister of the Facebook founder – focuses on alt-right communities who combat feminism because they see it as a threat to ‘our’ age-old civilisation. They frequently use and abuse the works of authors like Marcus Aurelius or Ovid to prop up their sexist and misogynist world views.
What do you do with a repertoire that is problematic in many ways? Should you throw it all away? Or do you try to reclaim it in a different way?
MDC: What do you do with a repertoire that is problematic in many ways? Should you throw it all away? Or do you try to reclaim it in a different way? It’s a question we have to ask time and again when we work with Greek or Roman heritage in theatre. Some say enough is enough, it’s time for something new. I actually think it’s fascinating and important to confront old writing with new perspectives. Well, new – feminism has been around for several decades, but compared to Ovid’s 2000-year-old text, it’s relatively new.
What does feminism mean to you, Michael?
MDC: VUB rector Caroline Pauwels taught me that it’s not about equality but about equivalence between sexes. We are not the same, but we are equal in value. Many things are moving on that front today. I am also confronted with it when I look at my daughters. The new generations handle the issue differently, with more awareness. We thought we had come quite far in the 70s, but we’re still not nearly there.
In a professional context, I also see these changes nearly every day. The way we handle authorship and authority in theatre is changing drastically. A revolution is happening in the entire society.
MI: We see changes, but also a lot of resistance. It’s a war with a whole lot of backlash.
MDC: That’s true. Statistics show that gendered violence is on the rise, rather than declining.
This is your first artistic collaboration as a duo. How’s that going?
MDC: I’m writing, Manuela is directing. We talk a lot and Manuela feeds me with all sorts of perspectives on the material. I am slowly writing new scenes and am pleasantly surprised to see what she does with them, together with the actors and the musician.
MI: I am not used to working with a second author; I normally write the texts of my performances while I am creating it with the other actors. I get a lot of ideas by working with the creativity of the actors. Writing for me is mainly a question of bringing structure to the material that arises in rehearsals. Through the collaboration with Michael, we are slowly finding a new method. To me, who does what is not strictly delineated.
What can we expect to see on stage?
MI: We just cast three actors. Jurgen Delnaet is a man in his fifties, Luna De Boos and Hannah Berrada are both still in high school, studying arts. At some point we became aware of the age gap between the male and female characters in the Metamorphoses, between the nymphs or young girls and the gods or older men. We thought: what if we simply cast it that way? Simply by putting those profiles together on a stage, you feel a tension. A whole history of power dynamics in gender relations becomes visible at a glance.
We were actually only planning on one man and one girl, but too many talented girls came to audition (laughs). Luna is an actor, Hannah also plays the cello. It’s an unexpected bonus to have her as an extra actor and to be able to experiment with her instrument.
Music and sound will play a certain part in this performance. Is there anything you can tell us about that yet?
MDC: Ovid wrote his Metamorphoses as a poem, so we will pay a lot of attention to the musicality of the text, not only the meaning.
MI: The sound is the most important medium in this performance. I am working with musician Diego Noguera on the voices of the actors. We don’t just consider their voices as carriers of words and meaning, but mainly as autonomous sound material, that we experiment with fully. What happens when the voice is disembodied? The dislocation of the voice plays an intriguing role in the Metamorphoses. Characters transform into a river or a cow, for example, and when they try to speak, they hear a strange noise. They don’t recognise their own voices. The dislocation of the voice punctures the idea of identity as a permanent, closed concept. It upsets the hierarchy of things. The voice becomes a power in and of itself.
MDC: Working with voices also fits with the questions we ask: who gets to speak, who gets silenced? Can we speak for someone else, can we give a voice to the voiceless?
MI: Or: can we give a voice to those who have a language we do not grasp? It reminds me of what philosopher Walter Benjamin says about imitation: wanting to be someone else with your own body. That’s what we do in theatre: we imagine what it is like to be someone or something else. For me, the point of theatre is not to spread a message or formulate criticism. It is a physical exercise in understanding the position of someone else – human or not. In trying to become-other the territory that was bounded begins to lose its form. Even if that attempt is doomed to fail from the start. That way, theatre lets us catch a glimpse of the mystery that is a human: the non-humanness lurking inside. A small particle in a network of powers and things.