The battle against neglect

We reflect on the sharp edges and soft contours of care in our society. And the battle against neglect. We, theatre creators Lisaboa Houbrechts, Barbara T’Jonck and Martha Balthazar, KVS dramaturge Dina Dooreman, and me, Anna Luyten (philosopher and dramaturge).

Barbara T’Jonck and Martha Balthazar, who previously worked together on Boerenpsalm, are now working on Rustoord, a play about care and aging. They are once again working together with Jana De Kockere and Mats Vandroogenbroeck.  In recent weeks, they have been looking for two actors from an older generation to join them for this production. They chose Mieke Verdin and Mark Verstraete. Their piece is based on interviews and observations in nursing homes. 

Lisaboa Houbrechts has just arrived from Hannover, where she is in the final stages of the direction of the opera Orfeo ed Euridice. In her head, the contours of Mother Courage (and her children) are already taking shape: an anti-war play Bertolt Brecht wrote in 1939, during his exile in Scandinavia. It’s an epic plea against Nazism, a reproach of those who profit from war. But it’s also the story of a woman caught in a battle between her entrepreneurial spirit and her motherly heart.

Anna: “You create a new world together from differences. You both work based on people with various points of view, ages, and backgrounds.”

Martha: “We interview and investigate with the curious gaze of a layman and do so broadly: both the residents and their families. In addition, we take in the entire hierarchic ladder of the staff: directors, managers, shareholders, investors, people who cook the food, caregivers, psychologists. The people who make money from and lose money to the system.”

Barbara: “Our stays in nursing homes form the starting point. But we also look at informal caregivers or help at home. We want an embodied insight into care. When we move towards the concrete production after the research period, we start by listening to all the collected material, which we then edit and bring together in one montage. We stay close to the voices we spoke to.” 

Lisaboa: “Mother Courage and her Children is a repertoire play. Brecht’s heirs demand that you perform the original text. You can’t add anything, but you can scrap. I am looking for the meaning of rep work in our times. The freedom is in how you put the play on stage and who plays the roles. We embody the story of Mother Courage with an intergenerational, diverse cast.”

Lisaboa: “Mother Courage is a fable about vulnerability and mechanisms of defence in war. She travels with her two sons and daughter behind the troops heading for the front. The children have three different fathers, who each disappeared from the picture. She sells daily wares for regular soldiers. She triumphs in the profitable economy of war. The arrival of peace spells disaster for her. But she also loses her children to that same war. Her cart carries heaps of symbolism: it’s an external womb, and a sort of tumour of war.”

Dina: “Brecht’s politicism is in the alienating performance style. He created a tactic of distance between performers and audience. He made sure you don’t empathise, but rather take the play home – to make sure you have to think about it.”

Martha: “I can imagine that Brecht had the same ideals as we do with our theatre, we tell a socially urgent story, we don’t hesitate to make political theatre. But we still chose a completely different method. What makes a performance ‘social’, and what is the difference between documentary and social realism in theatre?”

Barbara: “However, the performance is not a place of judgment but of reflection and listening. We unite people around a question. We make a commitment by showing what theatre can still achieve: enable conversations. Although we don’t want to present a ready-made answer or solution, our theatrical setup is political in that respect.” 

Lisaboa: “Creating together, that’s the strength of theatre. Something special always happens in the search for a space of trust and a way of speaking. It’s very special to work with a celebrated actress like Lubna Azabal, next to Aydin Isleyen, a Kurdish boy I met in Athens, who has never acted before and will be coming to Belgium for the first time. I build aesthetic worlds. The framework is clear, but actors always add something personal.”

Barbara: “There are four of us on stage: Martha and me, along with Mark Verstraete and Mieke Verdin. Two actors from a different generation. We wanted to include the intergenerational conversation on stage.” 

Martha: “Our imagination about growing old is stuck, as is society’s collective imagination. The black box is a space to break open imagination.”

Anna: “What is Brecht’s approach to care? Is Mother Courage caring, or do her peers keep her afloat?”

Lisaboa: “That’s the big question. Mother Courage makes friends with the occupier. The aggressor is never a one-sided aggressor. There is ambiguity in who needs care. The children don’t necessarily need care. Her favourite son is terribly aggressive to the peasants. Women and love, sexuality, abuse, … Mother Couragedrags all those histories in her wake.”

Dina: “Brecht questions the idea of motherly care. Mother Courage is a non-typical woman, which is why people struggle with her. What makes her so fascinating, is that she does not show care in the classic way. She is more engaged with her business. She has always been portrayed as a rough, robust woman with no soft characteristics. For me, it begs the question: how do we see mothers? She is a contemporary woman: a woman under tremendous pressure, because she has to relate to so many different situations.”

Anna: “Care exposes the instability of the ideal: the ideal mother, the ideal family, the ideal youth.”

Barbara: “In elderly care, you immediately notice that the tension between freedom, care, and discipline is significant. How do you let someone take care of you without feeling that you have to sacrifice personal freedom? How do you take care of someone without it coming across as authoritarian? It’s possible, but in most nursing homes that care is stuck in tight schedules: fixed times for washing, eating, sleeping, … The care relationship is hardly a human dialoguing relationship where there is room to explore the ambiguity between recipient and caregiver together.”

Martha: “Within a bureaucratic, commercialised system, care takes on sharp edges. Society would benefit from other types of care. Interesting alternatives were devised in youth care, we can do the same for elderly care.”

Barbara: “The fear of the non-normative, both physically and mentally, is deep-rooted. The cult of health triumphs. We all think it’s deeply sad to see someone no longer able to do things. Aging therefore feels like a tragedy and elderly care as a sad thing. That idea of health and happiness stands in the way of truly caring for each other. That’s why we approach Rustoord as a coming of age, aging as something in which we continue to grow, can continue to explore.” 

Dina:  “How do we think we can care for the elderly, if we see them as people who are not perfect and don’t fit in our world view? We have to learn to care again.”

Martha: “That care between older and younger people used to be much more mutual. As beautiful as it is to be dependent on and to care for each other, it can turn just as ugly when dependency becomes unilateral. As if, by letting someone care for you, you give them the power to take responsibility over your life.”

Martha: “It’s also important to tell how much can be learned from elderly care. Despite the socially precarious frameworks, you feel the energy of people doing the difficult but beautiful work. Someone told me, for example, about the power of touch, how it becomes fundamental to care when someone can no longer speak well.” 

Lisaboa: “Mother Courage and her Children contains something similar to your story about care homes. It’s a mini society. They have to learn to thrive in crisis situations and are constantly confronted with death. Power abuse can more easily manifest itself when death is around the corner. In survival mode, necessity knows no law and morals become tensile.”

Anna: “In war, in crisis situations, the fabric of relations unravels. Repeatedly renewing and repairing that fabric is also a form of care.”

Martha: “Mother Courage’s entourage feels like a group of misfits on the road. After years of war, everyone is fraying at the seams.”

Lisaboa: “They often remind me of a travelling circus. It entails other ways to care for each other.”

Barbara: “We are all part of society’s fabric, and we help shape it. Currently, we are taking people out of that fabric and planting them in a new place, where they need to find new roots. However, experiments are also being conducted with projects that consider what it means to form a community where you can grow old. We can work on a different worldview in which we give more meaning and attention to our environment, neighbours, friends.”

Anna: “Mother Courage, no matter how alone, keeps pulling her cart …”

Lisaboa: “Always in the same groove: ‘We move forward …’”

Anna: “Is that also the strenght or the tragedy of care staff?”

Martha: “Every caregiver who works within such a system, under pressure and responsible for so many people, but still dares to give agency to a person in need of care, making it not easier but more humane, that is truly inspiring and courageous.” 

Anna Luyten