The Flemish Wave Gets a Second Wind

David Willinger*

Abstract

In the 1980s, a group of innovative directors and theatre companies burst on the scene that became known as “The Flemish Wave.” This article examines four recent productions in Flanders whose innovative approaches hint at the arrival of a second Flemish Wave. Discussed are Vake Poes by Lisaboa Houbrechts; Maeterlinck House by Teater Immobiel, directed by Thom Luz; Bovary with a text by Michael De Cock and directed by Carme Portaceli; and Moby Dick, written by Gorges Ocloo and Ben Okri and directed by Ocloo. All four are drawn from big epic works or Ur-narratives from history; they all leaned on music and sometimes dance as central expressive elements, with many of the performers being chiefly singers and dancers; each has at least one well-known, highly skilled veteran actor from the previous generations; all plumb the potentialities of the human voice; none employed any video.

Keywords: Belgian theatre, Flemish theatre, Flemish wave, European avant-garde, theatre innovation, Lisaboa Houbrechts, Josse De Pauw

Is a second Flemish Wave currently in the works? It would be tempting to infer trends and movements from my month-long trip to Belgium, but it might be wiser to view these conjectures as tentative hypotheses needful of confirmation as February 2023 may or may not have been a typical month. It would be more prudent to regard what I took in as a snapshot of where things currently stand but it would take a much more protracted look over the course of many months to come to firm conclusions regarding how things are developing in the post-pandemic Flemish theatre scene.

The First Flemish Wave: An Overview

The phenomenon known as the Flemish Wave came into being in the early part of the 1980s first in the world of Modern Dance with Anna Teresa De Keersmaeker and Wim De Keybus, among others. This was followed in short order by the appearance of a series of young directorial innovators as well as headless ensembles: Luc Perceval, Guy Josten and their Blauwe Mandaag Compagnie; Jan Lauwers and Needcompany; Ivo Van Hove, whose early companies had various, rapidly changing names and organizational plans; Guy Cassiers; TG Stan; Abattoir Fermé; Arne Sierens and Compagnie Cecilia, Jan Fabre. The list goes on. They weren’t all doing the same kind of theatre, but they were all doing theatre that broke artistic barriers and limits and theatre that made the audience interested, even if it wasn’t universally admired. They came on the scene as the established repertory system at the large state theatres was being unmasked as the calcified, bureaucratized and barren institution it had settled into being, one whose threadbare repertory, routinized production values, and lackluster acting was losing audience in droves.

Flanders had been a place where innovations, when they arose, generally came on the heels of the same innovations somewhere else. All of a sudden, the work of these young artists really was in the vanguard of international developments and brought imitators from abroad in their wake. For the first time since the 1890s, it seemed, Flanders was looked to as a seedbed for new theatrical ideas and practices and not a backwater where they were always playing catchup.  This wave of remarkable theatre has gone on unabated since then, although the generation of youngsters, having had remarkable, sustained success that has come in many forms, are no longer young.  The question of what would come next has been in the air for some time.

Administrative Changes

From the point of view of artistic leadership, there is no question that some sort of seismic shift is going on once again at this juncture, as artistic directors are departing from two out of three of the major municipal theatres—NTGent in Ghent and De Toneelhuis in Antwerp. The new situation at the latter is resolved with Guy Cassiers leaving and a new team installed, but the playhouse in Ghent is just beginning to morph, and the search for successor(s) is only now getting cranked up.

To speak of Belgian theatre or Flemish theatre these days, a certain clarification of terms is needed. The artistic director of NTGent, one of the three main Flemish theatres (KVS in Brussels, De Toneelhuis in Antwerp and NTGent in Ghent) for the past six years has been the bold, idiosyncratic Swiss, Milo Rau. Yet, he brought two of his recent NTGent works, Grief and Beauty (which I managed to see) and Famille, to Théâtre de la Colline in Paris. Now that Rau has departed from NTGent, while leaving open the option to direct there from time to time, a radical change, of course, has once again become possible, depending on which Artistic Director they select to succeed him. The KVS’s recent adaptation of Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, in an adaptation by its Flemish artistic director Michael De Cock, is directed by a Catalan theatremaker, Carme Portaceli. Does that make the French classic Catalan theatre or Flemish? The world-renowned Flemish director, Ivo Van Hove just worked on a Tartuffe by that most quintessentially French playwrights, Molière, at the most quintessentially French of houses, Comédie Française, with a cast entirely composed of French actors. Can we call it Flemish theatre or is it really French (it sure looks French!)?  And yet another Swiss director elected to stage a dramatic collage of the works by Maurice Maeterlinck, an iconic Flemish/Belgian playwright from the past with a team of Flemish performers. Is the production Swiss or Flemish? Perhaps these labels have lost their utility entirely in a context where European artists are on a continual circuit of exchange and interchange in a game of musical chairs.

Cassiers’s tenure at De Toneelhuis in Antwerp was marked by a prolonged battle between him and the right-wing local government headed by Antwerp’s powerful mayor, the rabble-rousing demagogue Bart De Wever, who considers Cassiers and De Toneelhuis as a bastion of progressiveness (which they are) and did all in his considerable power to strip their budget to a bare minimum, annually grinding Cassiers and the Toneelhuis company down. In this thorny situation, Cassiers, who, despite his refined and gentle manner, stood up to Goliath, but was backed into a corner: due to draconian cuts to the cultural sector, he had either to let go of permanent personnel or cut back on the once relatively lavish production values. He chose to protect his staff and opt for stark, spartan productions.

This stand-off with the anti-culture mayor of Antwerp took a toll in the long run, and Cassiers finally opted to surrender his spot and go free-lance. In his highly responsible and thoughtful way, he carefully strategized leaving his place not to a triumvirate but a quinqumvirate of leaders; their multiplicity gives them opportunities for compensatory funding that Cassiers in his singularity didn’t have, so they are no longer condemned to the stripped-down aesthetic which had characterized De Toneelhuis of late.

The five are comprised of two theatre collectives—Olympique Dramatique and FC Bergman—together with three individual directors: Lisaboa Houbrechts, Benjamin Abel Meirhaeghe and Gorges Ocloo. On the Toneelhuis homepage, they call what unifies them “radical change,” but, they hasten to add, “not a revolution.”  Each member of this artistic “core” has their own artistic brand, building on the foundations laid down by the previous artists from the first Flemish Wave and a track record for fascinating explorations that push up against the boundaries of traditional theatre practice. 

At BAM, the New York audience was recently treated this past fall to FC Bergman’s theatre installation masterpiece 300 el x 50 el x 30 el.  From my personal point of view, their short visit, seen by relatively few, was the high point of the New York fall theatre season.

FC Bergman had nothing playing in Antwerp at present, but the four Flemish shows I saw during my recent trip to Flanders (not counting the Rau or Van Hove shows in Paris) all had certain elements in common: They tackled big epic works or Ur-narratives from history, even as they tapped into veins having contemporary resonance; they all leaned on music and sometimes dance as central expressive elements, with many of the performers being chiefly singers and dancers; they engaged in direct narrative address; they each combined a young ensemble with at least one well-known, highly skilled veteran from the previous generations’ pool of actors, which brought added levels of artistry and virtuosity; they all evinced the consequences of lengthy, deep periods of rehearsal explorations; all plumbed the potentialities of the human voice; none employed any video, which is a significant departure from so much work which has gone before. 

At least two of these productions, Moby Dick and Bovary, had been brought to a mature state of readiness when COVID hit three years ago which relegated them to a back burner, only recently being able to reembark and be brought to fruition.  The enforced hiatus now gives those belatedly completed productions an intensified aura.

Vake Poes

The first show I had the fortune to see was Lisaboa Houbrechts’s Vake Poes at De Toneelhuis. Of all four shows, it was the only one not adapted from extant literary material. Instead, it draws its subjects from narratives of the Second World War down through later decades of child abuse by priests in Catholic Flanders, and it somehow blends these disparate historical/social threads into a coherent whole.  With a text written by Houbrechts, this spectacle is a co-production between Toneelhuis, La Geste (Alain Platel’s les Ballets C de la B), Opera Ballet Vlaanderen and Kabinet K, a dance company that often uses children performers. While they come from different places and disciplines, all the performers are seamlessly blended into a unified ensemble.  As such, Vake Poes exemplifies a new realization of Wagner’s idea of Gesamtkunstwerk in an iteration that is particularly successful. 

The dancer Boule Mpanya joins the production from the famed Ballets C de la B.  Of the principal actors, Elsie De Brauw is remembered from her tempestuous performance in Ivo Van Hove’s 2007 production of Cassavetes’s Opening Night and many other shows. Stefaan Degand has had a prolific career with such experimental companies as De Roovers, Abattoir Fermé and Compagnie De Koe. Both actors bring a full armory of creative experiences in pushing against limits to this performance. They are veterans but not calcified or complacent ones resting on their laurels and playing it safe. They both are committed to going beyond themselves with no holds barred, the direction Houbrechts intends to take everyone.

The stage is dominated by a gigantic black cube. Actors enter from behind it, circle it, dancing or marching. It can’t be avoided. In addition, there is a set of low step units and sundry small platforms downstage left. These are reconfigured during the show as needed to change the stage’s definition, now into a playground, now into church pews.

Dance, movement, and song are woven through non-chronologically arranged dramatic sequences. Just as this composite work, subtitled Or How God Dissappeared, weaves performing art forms together, it also braids such narratives as Nazi depredations during the war, the collaboration in Flanders, intra-family abuse, Catholic priests’ pedophilia, and it even invokes the inception of the atomic bomb and the arms race. The action is both fluid and disruptive, the theme ultimately cohering into a comprehensive question of how God can exist when so much evil issued forth throughout the twentieth century into the present one. It can all be encapsulated in one character’s question, “World history, what has it done for me?”

The character of the mother who utters this plaint is a devout Catholic who won’t allow the legion peccadillos committed by the priests she had trusted, even to the detriment of her own son, to shake her faith in the Church and its prelates.  Against all evidence, she continues implacably to blame the victim who must accept these assaults as a chastisement for sin. The music is predominated by Bach’s intensely Christian The Saint John Passion, an oratorio in French about the life of Jesus. Even so, other types of music are woven through, such as rap and patriotic anthems to Nazi-dominated Flanders during the war. 

Lisaboa Houbrechts’s Vake Poes at De Toneelhuis: The front of the cube crashes down. Photo: Kurt Van der Elst

Just as Vake Poes is founded on thematic material from the past, so it revives theatrical theoretical approaches from modern history, notably from Wagner’s theories but even more so Antonin Artaud’s; Vake Poes is a superb paradigm of Theatre of Cruelty. This show is a spiritual purgation that operates by dragging us through a filthy morass and out the other end. The danced character of black angel (played by Boule Mpanya, an artist of overwhelming power and talent) signals through the flames, condemning, prophesying and exulting in the sulfurous trail which runs through all of modern history’s evils. He works himself into a trance-state as he channels his alerts. His and other characters’ suggestive hand semaphores are meant to be “read” as signals of imminent danger and wreckage. 

Actors Elsie De Brauw and Stefaan Degand access voices of trauma and roiling rage such as are rarely heard in the theatre, and they are far more calculated to unsettle than charm. These characters are the zombies and side-show grotesques who haunt modern life, the grumbling and chewed up refuse from the failed family life and corrupted social life of our times. A promise of a glorious land of high-flown ideals was held out to them, and their credulous faith in that chimera was stamped on. Now, twisted remnants, they are menaces to their intimates, even as they lucidly denounce the world that made them so. 

Houbrechts’s previous show was a meditation on Breughel, the Flemish heroine of whose painting was Dulle Griet, distracted madwoman who wails and lords it over the dismal landscape of a thousand grotesque cameos; what drove Dulle Griet to distractedness? The Renaissance Spanish domination and despoliation of the Lowlands, the great historical calamity of her time. 

The spirit of Dulle Griet underlies this work as well, recalling the grotesque, baroque mid-twentieth-century theatre of Flemish playwright Michel De Ghelderode. Houbrechts brings to the stage a love/hate relationship with the Catholic Church, its rites, its perversity, and like Ghelderode, she doesn’t balk at confronting the unwholesome stench of hell seeping from under the doors of far-flung villages where unspeakable things have happened between family members. For Houbrechts, this track of evil also leads to a shared bad conscience for Flanders’ enthusiastic, headlong collaboration with the German occupant in the now remote war, the prevalence and depth of which has taken so long to come to light in a surprising trove of recent revelations by journalists and historians who’ve looked back to that time: In short, poorly buried dirty secrets of all sorts which burble to the surface and haunt victims, perpetrators and passive witnesses alike.

Vake Poes: Stefaan Degand and Elsie DeBrauw as Vake and Moeke Poes. Photo: Kurt Van der Elst

Characters have names like Grandpa Puss (Vake Poes in local dialect), prefiguring an inoffensive fairy tale world. Just as the audience will be undeceived of this false genre, so have the characters been disillusioned of their preconceptions of Country, Church and Family. The show begins wrapped in fog—the fog of memory as well as the fog of the ideal which conceals its harsh realities—with Vake Poes, played as a lumbering, surly ogre by Stefaan Degand, slouching off to the side, gruffly complaining and denouncing the panoply which unfolds center stage. It is as though he is watching his own Methuselan life pass by. A woman, back to the audience in silhouette, is beside him but not necessarily with him. She stretches upward in a prayer-like gesture. She later becomes familiar to us as the pious mother figure, Moeke Poes (Grandma Puss) played by distinguished actress Elsie DeBrauw. 

Robed figures stalk by. So do groups of children skip by; eventually, a little boy and little girl stand out from the others. It is clear they are main characters but less clear as to whether they are Vake Poes’s children, his grandchildren or himself in an earlier incarnation. I suspect this blurring of time and identity is intentional. Others who appear are a priest and the shamanistic dancer. One of the heavily miked, muttered commentaries Vake Poes chews out is: “Child-rapists.” Once the woman leaves the step unit and establishes herself in the center-stage area, he says quite clearly, “my wife.” But as things play out, it becomes ambiguous as to whether she is exclusively his wife but also, perhaps, his mother emerging from the past.

It becomes a normative dramatic law that various time periods interpenetrate, and characters’ identities are fungible as well. Vake Poes in his very ordinary blue parka (but with a deformed cross lightly etched onto its back, perhaps invoking the cross “he has to bear” or holding the play’s theme of a corrupted Catholic Church), a uniform that marks him as lumpen proletariat, runs in place as the shamanistic black angel takes over the center stage area with a masterful dance that doesn’t just border on trance but is one, as he gets carried off in erratic transports redolent of Artaudian cruelty. Moeke Poes gets down on her knees to pray, and the first text of the Saint John Passion fills the air, vaunting the greatness of “our” land. The children rush around the great cube, go down on their knees in prayer and fly back up again. This cross-section multiplicity of juxtaposed energies and messages exemplifies the way the show uses density to lay down a braiding, coiling forward moving structure.

The show unhurriedly weaves movement and dance-like segments in between scenes of—if not realistic then—recognizable dramatic exposition and conflict.  Connecting it all is Bach’s oratorio, with recorded instrumental music and live operatic singing. Its theme of Jesus’ stations of the cross are both a saturation of Catholic liturgy and the thematic repetition of the agony of the various characters, some of whom are figuratively crucified by the Church itself.  The other commanding image is drawn from cats, who in part are also Christ figures.

Vake Poes. Boule Mpanya in the foreground brandishing Christ effigy. Photo: Kurt Van der Elst

Among the successive dramatic vignettes are an unsettling seduction scene by a priest of a little boy which culminates offstage in the boy’s cries and protests. As Vake Poes watches it from the side, one has the sense that he was that abused boy. The step unit is reconfigured into an arrangement suggesting church pews.  Vake Poes kneels within it and confides to an androgenous little girl about how he had to move all the furniture around since the carpet was saturated with cat-piss. He carps on, invoking all the various wars of the twentieth century which have wreaked havoc, taking the little girl deep into this historical past, even as the Saint John Passion laments Jesus of Nazareth’s tribulations; the black angel appears high above on top of the cube bearing a frail white, porous grotesque cadaver of Jesus. This poppet, reminiscent of typical depictions of human figures rendered by abused children, recurs here and there, ultimately being torn to pathetic strips of cloth in a lynching by the group of children. It gets pegged to a wall, which then falls upon it, crushing it further.

The scaffold gets rearranged as a playground through which the children romp.  An accordionist appears, playing a patriotic tune which turns out to be one from the VNV, the Flemish Nazi party, in honor of “Dietsland” (a mythic Greater Deutschland which came to coopt and swallow up a somewhat willing Flemish population during the Occupation). The boys enthusiastically enter the “patriotic” spirit of the song, as the group leader chants, “A big, strong man,” a phrase which they monotonously repeat over and over as they go marching off, eager to fuse with a cause larger than themselves. Vake Poes slips a Nazi armband on as the Bach oratorio invokes the Jews who seized upon Jesus.  Excelsior of torn newspaper is liberally spread over the stage space as Vake Poes throws a cat (a fake one) into the air, expounding at length on the hierarchies of cats, from those with highest pedigree to “inferior” ones. It seems that he is a cat breeder and an expert on the subject. Cats, thus, come to refract the racialist tropes that infected Flanders before, during and after the war. 

Humans, too, come in gradations and may be of an inferior class and certainly scapegoated. Such a one seems to be the character Paul, who may be Moeke Poes’s brother or other son. He appears from upstage, spastically “coming home.” We construe that he had been sent away to some German work or concentration camp. As Moeke Poes attempts to put him back together and care for him, she discovers surgical scars that suggest he has been sterilized in the camp. Whether or not he was mentally disabled—as he clearly now is—before he got taken away (which was, therefore, the cause of his internment), or if his brains were surgically altered in the camp is never clarified. Suffice to say, he comes back a psychological and physical wreck. 

The tragic highs and lows are blended with the banal. The children pick lice and nits out of their hair, filling out details of wartime, less than glorious, existence.  Paul and Moeke Poes spend a great deal of time disputing the comparative costs of competing brands of laundry detergent; in the middle of civilization’s greatest disruptions, the trivial and commercial can dominate the discourse; this may be signifying a leap forward in time to the materialistic 1950s and 1960s. A teenage boy (played by rocker Jules Dorné) appears, doing a break dance accompanied by rap. He denounces the entire world he inhabits (“Fuck this, fuck that.”)  Are we now in the 1990s? Perhaps he is Vake Poes’s son. Vake Poes duly gives him a working over when he discovers he is gay; the abused later become abusers. 

At the same time, Moeke Poes is losing her hair and breasts to cancer, coupled with a graphic fit of chemo-induced nausea. This tribulation is part and parcel of modern life—the poisoning of the earth—and brings God’s existence into question. Her revolting vomiting transpires in counterpoint to the black Angel’s chanting in an unknown language, both accompanied by the live accordion-player. Rather than evincing sympathy, Vake Poes viciously berates Moeke Poes for getting cancer and for having to wear a wig, the donning of which takes on a ceremonial aspect; her religious faith, while thus challenged from within and without, is not shaken.

Suddenly, the front wall of the huge cube comes crashing to the ground, sending the excelsior flying in a great cloud into the audience (and literally covering spectators close to the stage) and revealing a white inner room with a diagonal staircase. This interior space becomes a sacred chapel where the mentally challenged Paul and the young man (uncle and nephew?) re-learn how to pray.  They persist in praying as they do a heavenward ascent up the staircase. Once they reemerge on the roof of the cube through a trapdoor, they engage in tactile interplay—tickling and wrestling. This affectionate exchange morphs into something more sinister as the formerly victimized Paul, now aroused, seems to rape the boy. Down below, simultaneously, the father gives every evidence of murdering one of the cats.

Lisaboa Houbrechts’s Vake Poes

Moeke Poes, having learned of her own brother Paul’s assault on her progeny (son or grandson?), climbs to the roof herself and gives vent to a fury of screaming and wild beating. She leaves the crushed Paul up there, slamming the trapdoor shut on him. She comes back downstairs and screams, telling him to jump from the roof. Thus, scenes of religious exaltation alternate and blend with others of the deepest bathos and degradation, culminating in Vake Poes’s seduction of the “granddaughter of all granddaughters,” a little girl who appears to be his own daughter (or granddaughter? The lineage remains murky). The imagery of Christ’s debacle and bloody stigmata, which appear on various characters, interweaving with cat imagery and the lofty Saint John Passion, fuse into an unbearable but unforgettable image of the recent past and a contaminated present we all contend with. God persists for Moeke Poes, but the others bewail his abandonment and trashing of humankind. 

When one considers the source material for this show, it is as though Houbrechts has taken the entire national (if one considers Flanders a nation, rather a community within the larger nation of Belgium, which is part of its local mythology.) past from the 1930s until today, and from this communal memory skimmed the flotsam and jetsam which has of late floated to the top of peoples’ preoccupations, flooding their mediatic life. One understands how unrelated subjects such as the collaboration, the priests’ pedophilia and the dramatic fall of the Catholic Church from its national ascendancy, and ambient child abuse may be linked and related after all. The play dramatizes and gives visual and auditory life to a fundamental process of disenchantment with Flanders, embodied in the twisted, bitter tirades of the ogre-like Vake Poes.

There was an enchantment in the glorious national idea that was being pushed from the late nineteenth century onwards, inextricably tied up in Flanders’s Germanic linguistic (and purportedly genetic/sanguineous) roots and tangled up also in Christian imagery and power. All of it has come crashing down in a slow-motion but thorough debunking, much like the front wall that falls off the cube, creating an utter mess of flying excelsior. But today’s Far Right, which rises up on the basis of the very same imagery—xenophobia, glorification of order and purity—is yet again having a very perilous moment, in which it attempts to tamp down the disenchantment (promulgating a communal amnesia), turn the persistent bitterness against new enemies and restore the national dream of greatness (partially by pushing for a complete divorce from French-speaking Wallonie). And so: God has disappeared.

The combined skills of the entire ensemble, children included, detach the pretty mask of civilization from the horrifying nest of maggots that squirm beneath it, at the same time as providing an evening replete with entertainment.

Maeterlinck House

The theatre company Immobiel appeared in a guest stint at De Toneelhuis, in Antwerp, with their production Maeterlinck House. Maurice Maeterlinck has long been a problematic figure in Flanders. Although the only Belgian recipient to date of the Nobel Prize in Literature and a figure of world renown at the turn of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, his work falls through the cracks in his native land. He was an exemplar of a long since dismantled social system, whereby the bourgeois inhabitants of Flanders wrote and spoke amongst themselves in French and reserved Flemish dialect for addressing their servants. While born and raised in Ghent, his initial success—monumental and sudden when it arrived—issued from Paris in 1890, where a spate of productions of his early plays enjoyed a stunning popularity and notoriety. His celebrity and that of Symbolism marked the kicking-off point of all subsequent twentieth-century theatrical avant-gardes that emerged in successive waves until Richard Schechner, in an arguable polemic, pronounced them dead in 1981.  

In Flanders, where the Flemish Movement sought to legitimize Dutch as the ascendant lingua franca, the body of distinguished literary Flemings who once expressed themselves in French is somewhat of an embarrassment and a vestige of a repudiated past, one redolent of social injustice. And yet, there has been a renewal of interest in this distinguished native son, as evidenced by a 1985 production by the Estonian Jonas Jurasas at the state theatre in Ghent, the NTG, of Princess Maleine. A Swiss director, Christof Marthaler, had produced a Maeterlinck-inspired production at NTG (and later at the Toneelgroep Amsterdam), with the eponymous title Maeterlinck, a presentation that was essentially visual and eschewed verbal text altogether.  Later, distinguished Flemish director Guy Cassiers (the only Fleming) had mounted a production of Maeterlinck’s The Blind at De Toneelhuis, in Antwerp, in 2014, using a roster of distinguished Flemish actors. 

On the current occasion, Theater Immobiel, led by yet another Swiss director, reexamines The Blind along with other of Maeterlinck’s little chamber plays (which were among his most original and striking contribution to modern drama), The Intruder, Interior, along with his poem series, Hothouses, his scientific/mystical tract The Life of the Bees, which was a best-seller on its publication, his brief manifestos of dramatic theory, as well as letters in which he expounds his dramatic ideas. One might think that texts written in so many disparate keys might clash when joined in an evening of theatre, but the resultant verbal collage actually has a remarkable unity of rhetorical style. 

Thom Luz’s Maison Maeterlinck

The audience is greeted by a large open space on the proscenium stage, enveloped in mist. There are overturned chairs and seeming garbage strewn about. Off to the left side is an abandoned-looking skeletal booth, the type which might be found for selling food or housing games at a country fair or in a park.  Stage right are identical bizarre shapes all lined up in a row, cylinders capped with miniature housetops with sloping roofs. Over time, it is clear that these structures are apiaries, abodes for raising bees; they flicker with light from within.  Upstage of the apiaries, catty-corner, is a raised entrance way filled with what initially looks like a large smoked mirror. 

There is the sound of plainsong offstage as living entities appear in the aperture of the mirror. They gradually come into focus as the mist dispels and the lights shift. They are weirdly dressed gigantic figures, gigantic because they loom from above and fill the doorway. They are wearing heavily padded, metallically glowing outfits with meshes where their faces would be and heavily padded feet. Are they spacemen? As they move out onto the stage, giving the impression of passing through from the other side of the “looking glass into this world,” presumably our world, it slowly becomes clear that they are beekeepers, although the initial suggestion that they are quasi-human, space invaders or androids continues to cling to them. Indeed, Maeterlinck wrote essays in which he argued for the replacement of human actors onstage by puppets or androids. Luz clearly read that article and took him up on it.

Maeterlinck House: Beekeepers explore the stage. Photo: Michiel Devijver

They spend perhaps too much time simply taking in and ambulating about the stage space before the stage action gets cranked up. One of the android/beekeepers discovers a scythe, which they pick up. Then they all pick up microphones into which they drone nonsense syllables that gradually cohere into lines from the poem series Hothouses (1889). It is as though they, having emerged from a numinous world of the unknown, are newly discovering the laws and ways of this world of imminence, including death (the scythe, which in the text of the play The Intruder, 1890, but not in this rendition, is heard being sharpened offstage) and language itself. 

From a primordial gibberish set to Gregorian chant emerges Maeterlinck’s Symbolist poetry. While they are speaking it in Dutch, it is projected overhead in English. The original French version makes occasional appearances in this production, but most often the dialogue is Dutch (Flemish), which frankly suits the words better than the lyrical French to capture its ineffable, visceral quality; it may be that Maeterlinck would have preferred to have written in Dutch, but, in contrast to his close friend Cyriel Buysse, he was too tempted by reception into a wider audience of his time. Here, as Flemish artists reclaim one of the greatest national (Belgian) writers as their own, they bring him closer to his spiritual roots linguistically by translating the texts from the original French to Dutch.

From Hothouses, the four performers on mics elide seamlessly to The Blind (1890) and then The Intruder, as though it were all one continuous flow of consciousness rather than individualized characters or separate texts. In the original plays, there are nameless archetypal figures without much individuation (such as Blind Woman 2, Grandfather, Daughter 1, 2 and 3).  Further, each play is set in a metaphorical locale (for example, near the seaside on an island; outside a home looking in; inside a home, hearing out). Here, that minimal definition of who and where has split off, in fact blurring out entirely into voices echoing from and through the cosmos. The focus is entirely on the voices, and the voice work is very creative and atmospheric, reminiscent of some of Beckett’s plays, such as the one titled Play that features three figures set in giant urns. 

Following this “tone poem,” mashing up all those texts into one, one of the performers removes her helmet and reveals her face. She is Marijke Pinoy, known for her longstanding connection with theatre-maker Arne Sierens and his Compagnie Cecilia. Pinoy speaks the words of a letter Maeterlinck wrote in 1892 on the resemblance between humans and bees.

 In this oneiric, seemingly drug-induced text, we are reminded that it is a late nineteenth-century letter by the periodic interjections of “chèr ami,” addressing the unnamed letter reader, to which French, Pinoy gives archaicized emphasis, and which politesse belies the outpouring of echolalic free association from a consciousness channeling other worlds. They, next, remove the lids in the shape of little houses sitting atop the apiaries. Revealed inside the standing cylinders are old fashioned tape machines with giant spools turning and producing sound effects of birds chirping mixed with mechanical sounds. Could this be a visual reference to Krapp’s Last Tape?

The remaining three androids remove their beekeeper costumes entirely and are seen to be in late Victorian evening dress. They take up positions in the open booth like late nineteenth-century operagoers in box seats, that is until they pick up musical instruments and tune them as Pinoy speaks text from The Life of the Bees (1891). This morphs into a letter from Maeterlinck describing the sense of anticipation that arises as a play is just about to begin, strangely inserted well into the theatrical experience but redefining all that has gone before as a prologue. It turns out that these former beekeepers are primarily musicians, whereas Pinoy is an accomplished actress. The two male musicians, with their trimmed beards and waxed moustaches reminiscent of Georges Rodenbach, contemporary of Maeterlinck, look and sound like those who might have accompanied a concert of contemporaneous music back in Maeterlinck’s youth, a radical transformation from the space-age images they first radiated.

As the show has settled into its resolved form—with one principal actor/speaker of text backed up by three musicians—Pinoy recites text from the play Interior (1894) (playing both speaking characters who stand outside the house). These characters have all the lines in the play, as they know the truth— that the daughter of the house has died, a death they will have to report, knowing it will inalterably change the lives of those characters, rambling silently within the falsely secure home whose interior we see exposed on the other side of the stage (in the original text). 

Simultaneously, one of the housetops displaced from the apiaries is plunked down directly on the stage floor and lights up from inside, casting a nod at the transparent house image from the original source play without fully depicting the play. The musicians alternate between playing music and performing the gestures of playing music with no sound. They also come out with a pattern of laughing gibberish, which they repeat periodically; one of the tape reels in the apiaries shakes into life to repeat a recording of this same gibberish pattern. Are we in an advanced world of artificial intelligence?

Maeterlinck House: Musicians assemble in the booth. Photo: Michiel Devijver

As the performance progresses, the stage structures are reformed, featuring a little shed or house with a window in it, windows and doors being such governing images in Maeterlinck plays. Once they have been introduced, all texts are reprised in series and loops, large segments of each interrupted with brief incursions from others, including the relatively lengthy monologue belonging to the blind Grandfather from The Intruder, complaining that all sorts of mysterious things are going on around him which no one is bothering to explain to him, accompanied by a strobe light effect. To an ever-greater extent, using the microphones, the performers (and/or the sound technician) distort their voices; at the same time, the already repetitive lines segments are fragmented and repeated even more than in the source plays. Again, the effect is to bring the Maeterlinck texts closer to Beckett. Segments from The Blind are accompanied and punctuated by accordion music.

Eventually, Pinoy places one of the apiary house-lids on her own head as she utters Maeterlinck’s proposal for using non-human actors in place of living ones; eventually, all the performers—semi-human beings—are wearing these little houses over their heads, producing an effect like a surreal Magritte painting.  The play crescendos as text from The Intruder is blasted, set to distorting sounds from the tape reels that blare and pulse. The performers’ recorded voices dominate and engulf the live ones.

Maeterlinck House. Beekeepers with house-heads. Photo: Michiel Devijver

This show—which one is hard-pressed to call a “play”—strives to innovate and redefine the nature of theatre. Maeterlinck, in both his plays and theories, startled the cultural world with his experiments. Using those works, whose novelties still have the ability to shock and unnerve a modern public 130 years later, Theater Immobiel carries what these works hint at even further out into unexplored and dangerous theatrical territory. This group has picked up the gauntlet that COVID threw down: The challenge not to create theatre in the same way it has always been practiced. Three quarters of the cast are musicians; the one actress, Marijke Pinoy, brings a career’s worth of honed skills to bear on an enduring commitment to break through established boundaries. Yet, the four of them cohere into a convincing ensemble of actors “with benefits.”

The treatment of the textual material, while unorthodox and subversive, is yet true to the Symbolist’s theatre’s impulse to tear down the Scribean well-made play model and redefine what can legitimately be considered a theatrical experience, as well as to evoke unseen and unknown spheres of reality. Necessarily, these forays create friction and dissonance. Ultimately, they are highly courageous and satisfying. It is also significant that Theater Immobiel has turned to the formerly rejected father of the international avant-garde for inspiration, bending and re-blending his words at will, simultaneously reinvesting his concept of a “Static Theatre” with vitality and viability.

Bovary

The third show I saw was the KVS production of Bovary, adapted from Flaubert’s novel by Michael De Cock and directed by Carme Portaceli, with two Flemish actors, Maaike Neuville as Emma Bovary and Koen De Sutter as Dr. Charles Bovary. They are minimally supplemented in one segment by the opera singer Ana Nage, and that is the entire cast. Neuville is primarily a film and television actress, although she is a member of a fresh new theatre, Compagnie Marius.  De Sutter is a veteran who has acted for pretty much every important theatre in Flanders in a long, distinguished career.

The story plays out on an essentially bare, wide-open space with some textured, translucent material backing up the entire upstage. Emanating through it are subtly shifting tinted lights, according to whatever mood is prevalent. A sturdy rope hangs from the flies, stage right. Early on, Dr. Bovary dumps a pile of dark earth on the stage floor beneath this rope. What could it denote? The rural world that surrounds the Bovarys? The elemental underpinnings of their relationship—or a burial plot beneath which the remains of their marriage lies? 

The rope is mostly an evocative visual element, as Emma only once makes use of it, leaning on it and swinging from it. Perhaps it appears from the very beginning as an omnipresent desperate alternative to the life which the characters undergo—an ultimate potential escape route (up into the flies, a trip they never take) from a cul-de-sac existence. Apart from a large white couch and a decrepit upright piano that get moved about to define the space, the rope and the dirt are the only fixed scenic elements. The couch and piano are citations from such Ivo Van Hove shows as his Hedda Gabler (2004), which is, after all, another nineteenth-century unhappy marriage, once the trappings of traditional stagecraft have been stripped away. These two surviving furniture icons washed up from all the Victorian “tasteless parlors,” the sofa a last vestige of the over-padded domestic comfort the parlor falsely promised and the piano the site of frustrated and stanched creativity, are what’s left to wink down at us from that bygone time.

On her first appearance, Emma—tall, young, blonde and brimming with life—is in a non-descript black outfit—a pantsuit—from today’s urban outfitters. Speaking non-stop into a microphone, getting all the exposition out of the way in one shot, she peremptorily fills the audience in on who she is—relating not just the bare facts of her origins and marriage but also the character’s main dilemma: being stuck in a town she despises with a husband she has a hard time liking, devoid of purpose apart from her marriage. 

She speaks not as someone with great self-knowledge would but as some omniscient being describing a third party would, commentating from outside, though speaking in the first person. 

Emma’s confiding in the audience, as though referring to herself in the third person, is a leitmotif which returns several times. Inasmuch as we never see any of the secondary characters from the novel, we only know of her lovers not by name but as nebulous “he’s” who move in and out of her life with more or less impact. This approach emphasizes the subjective nature of these relationships and winds up depriving the object of desire of any humanity. What in the book are fevered obsessions over precise men with their own personalities and sets of complications, here turns those coveted lovers into barely extant and quite arbitrary sounding destinations or extensions—not even objects—for Emma’s needs. It converts her realistically novelized drama into a purely internal one.

Portaceli’s and De Cock’s Bovary

As she speaks, an unidentified man, who turns out to be her balding, middle-aged husband Charles, stands or rather inhabits the upstage space, facing profile (and so, not at her), clad in a shirt, underwear and socks, but no pants.  As such, he looks ludicrous, devoid of will and helpless, not the image of a competent physician or appealing husband. The image taken as a whole—she: prepossessing, vital and connecting with us; he: uncomely, wan and looking to the side—establishes their marriage, depicting them as incommensurate and focused elsewhere. That lack of communion, with brief and therefore noteworthy exceptions where they interact directly and actually look at each other, continues throughout the presentation.

The first action of the play is him getting dressed in a nondescript jacket and mismatched badly tied tie . . . and pants. He now wears the socially acceptable suit of the provincial intellectual. She, assisted by the stagehands, is squeezed into a period bustle skirt, over the armature of unyielding whalebone, and a constrictive corset, the official uniform of the nineteenth-century bourgeoise. This dressing up has a ceremonial aspect and, perhaps, represents their legal binding to each other, as well as a formal commitment to a social role. In either case, when the dressing up is complete, it is not a faithful period rendition, as his suit is rather more timeless than historically accurate, and hers is only the bottom half, her upper half remaining encased in a modern top. Their costumes are overlays.

While Emma’s quest is for connection and fulfillment through culture and love, Charles is seeking professional success. The play, therefore, lingers on his quest for medical greatness: A patient in the backwater town where they live has a clubfoot that torments him. Charles conceives of an innovative surgical procedure for refashioning the foot so it would function normally. As he describes this innovation to the audience, also in direct address, he catches inner fire. It is at this juncture that Emma joins Charles center-stage in a paroxysm of shared cheeriness, both grinning to beat the band and hopping up and down. Unfortunately, the narrative of short-lived surgical success, is followed by infection, raging sepsis, gangrene and amputation of the unfortunate peasant’s leg. What began as a risk-taking procedure that held a promise of fame and new-found assurance winds up in failure. It is noteworthy that in the realistic source novel we hear many details about the patient, including his name, Hypollite Rouault, and much about his life as a stableman at a nearby inn. None of these or other details are part of this performance. Even Emma’s lovers, which in the book are colorful characters, are nameless. Suffice it to say that both Emma and Charles’s projects—which glance off each other but are essentially unshared—end in squalor and defeat.

Another moment, early on, of shared space and focus comes when Charles and Emma dance. This clumsily comic, non-verbal interlude epitomizes their attempt to get their marriage to work on the sensual level and is virtually the only point at which they touch. Dance is one element, music another. Charles, in an attempt to overcome his own predilections and concede to at least one of Emma’s wishes, offers her an outing to the city of Rouen, where they will attend a performance of the opera Lucia di Lammermoor. Following the scintillating evening on the town (for Emma), which is represented by the singing of a single aria live by Ana Nage, Charles recounts for the audience’s benefit the story of the opera they had seen in intricate detail. With each new wrinkle from the tale of frustrated longing, arranged marriage and unrequited liaison with a lover for Lucia, which climaxes in her insanity and lingering death, Charles hammers home his derision; he invites the audience to dismiss such supposed artistry as fantastical and absurd; he singularly fails to notice that the events in the opera he finds so unrealistic and artificial mirror what is going on in his own domestic realm, under his very nose.

Bovary, directed by Carme Portaceli and adapted by Michael De Cock. In the picture: Maaike Neuville and Koen DeSutter as Emma and Dr. Charles Bovary. Photo: Kurt Van der Elst

It is noteworthy that De Cock’s and Portaceli’s version of the Flaubert novel, comprised only of a sparce lot of quirky excerpted set pieces, with the rest left on the cutting room floor, is not called Madame Bovary but Bovary. This may be because it has isolated only that which directly concerns the marriage of the two partners. In the book, the amount of printed matter devoted to and interest in the husband is secondary to his wife in importance. Here, he is given both equal stage time and parity of emphasis, which curiously doesn’t lessen the work’s feminist tug. Indeed, Charles is given the last word in a lengthy soliloquy addressed to an assemblage of imaginary guests, in which he confides that contrary to appearances, he has in no wise been oblivious to his wife’s infidelities. He’s known about them all along and has been well aware that his wife doesn’t care for him or sympathize with his preoccupations. The poignance of his sense of being undervalued and unloved is no less than hers.

Finally, the adaptor, Michael De Cock, chooses not to depict Emma’s suicide by arsenic; nor does he have her hang herself from the rope which has been front and center before us from the start. The show simply ends, leaving us and the characters with an unresolved and open dénouement to a theatricalization which has opted to offer us an essential and primal core of this relationship, rather than an elaborated illustration of Flaubert’s full narrative text and the fulsome world it depicts. 

With the scenic space and the text reduced to such bare bones, what is principally before us in this evening of hilarious and heart-rending theatre are two tour de force performances by Maaike Neuville and Koen De Sutter—actors in full command of their instruments . . . which they indeed play like instruments. In this play about art (although neither character is an artist), one is confronted by artistry itself, as though the actors are summoning the words, movements, actions, segments from their own beings in the moment. They use the space and themselves like paint or sculpture, and their voices like strings on a violin or piano keys, sculpting the surface and digging deep within at moments of vulnerable passion. Indeed, the often-witty text, minimal as it is, seems to be a mere excuse for their highly satisfying outpourings. In radical spontaneity, they sculpt the moments of the couple’s life. The relationship they depict is far from glorious, but the depiction of it is; their acting redeems the lost characters, hurtling to their painful unremitting fate.

Moby Dick

Another show that foregrounds music is De Toneelhuis’s production of Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, here subtitled At Last Queequeg Speaks, directed by Gorges Ocloo, co-adapted by him and the Nigerian writer Ben Okri, who is experiencing a moment of international celebration. It is a co-production with LOD Muziektheater. Ocloo, as mentioned above, is one of the five equal partners providing artistic directorship to Antwerp’s Toneelhuis. The stage is once again cavernous and filled by a skeletal construction of a whale’s belly, the curving rib bones encompassing the stomach chamber rising and stretching toward each other overhead, but not meeting; this armature can also be seen as the wreck of a ship (The Pequod?) stripped of its covering, overturned and left with only its ribbing partially intact. Downstage right is a small staircase leading to a raised platform, which can be construed as a sea-captain’s perch or pulpit and is ultimately used as both. In the distant upstage is a weird light that reveals the human presence of an accompanying musician. Among the synthesized sound samples emanating from this mysterious locale are the human voices of a chorus. At one point, the orchestral music from the opera Nabuko plays, standing as Western civilization’s beautiful, but last, dying gasp. Since the instrumental sounds are so varied and include multiplied human voice, one is never sure until the curtain call how many live performers are hovering back there; it turns out there is only one, Toon Callier. The characters depicted from Melville’s swarming epic novel are only two:  Ahab, acted by Flemish theatre and cinema veteran Josse De Pauw, and Nobulumko Mngxekeza-Nziramasanga, South African opera performer, essentially singing the entire role of Queequeg. So, one performer speaks their dialogue and the other sings theirs.

Ocloo and Okri’s Moby Dick

Nobulumko Mngxekeza-Nziramasanga is an imposing African woman, dressed in what seem like blankets, who has Maori tattoo designs on her face and bare arms. By putting the essentially minor character of Queequeg front and center and giving them the entire floor, so to speak, Ocloo and Okri re-center and skew the emphasis radically. It will be remembered that in Melville’s novel, Queequeg (about whom none of Melville’s details are provided in this presentation) is described as a Polynesian cannibal but also a “Fedallah” and a Muslim “Parsee.” In other words, he’s a composite of “the Other.”

Queequeg, here, is female instead and says she’s in line to rise to queenship in her far-off unnamed African birthplace. Ocloo and Okri are creating an extended confrontation between an incarnation of a Global South of color and the epitome of imperial whiteness in the person of the fanatical sea captain. Melville’s source novel is an intricate web of themes and relationships of which this post-modern binary was only one of many. In this rendition, the colloquy between an insane white patriarch, whose mania has dragged the world to and beyond its destruction, and a clear-sighted black-skinned figure, who has been impotent to avoid being dragged along with him to this desperate point, are all that remains in the hull of post-time/space.

Moby Dick: Josse DePauw as Ahab. Photo: Kurt Van der Elst

Although there is no exposition to speak of, the setting and the sense of two characters remaining to the detriment of all the others gives an unconfirmed sense that this dialogue occurs following the culminating cataclysm in the book, in which the great whale pulls the ship down under the waves—that Ahab and Queequeg have survived the shipwreck and subsist in the belly of the whale or in the remains of the washed-up ship. 

In any case, we are provided no clarity on those circumstances and are left with this platonic dialogue in a timeless void. So, just as Maeterlinck House dragged us closer to and out the other side of Beckettian time, this work is reminiscent of Beckett’s Endgame in its post-modern, post-dramatic setup. Ahab reminisces about his life as a young man. His job was to dip his hands in barrels of seething whale blubber and press the solid lumps so they became liquid; this rough chore, he says, put him into a state of beatitude. 

Reenforcing this pairing of Ahab and Queequeg with Hamm and Clov, Ahab requires that Queequeg carry his false teeth to him and insert them in his mouth so he can eat his daily slice of bread. Once he has consumed it, he takes them out once more. Following his consumption of the bread, Queequeg drops the false teeth in the red sand which covers the stage space and covers them over, presumably dooming her purported master. This is reminiscent of Clov’s removing all remaining props and crutches from Hamm’s vicinity as he prepares for his inevitable demise in Endgame.

Moby Dick: Josse DePauw and Nobulumko Mngxekeza-Nziramasanga as Ahab and Queequeg. Photo: Kurt Van der Elst

But however much we seem to be living in a post-shipwreck world, we paradoxically also seem to be still on the boat at sea in pursuit of Moby Dick.  Queequeg early on makes it clear they’d like to escape from the boat, just as First Mate Starbuck does in the novel, but no means of egress seems possible.  Her immediate objective notches ever downward the more Ahab digs in his heels. There have already been sacrifices: Ahab wistfully asks the audience if they have come across a little black boy, referencing the little cabin boy Pip from the novel. This is the only point at which we see a glimpse of remorse or self-doubt. The child has been overboard for some time. 

Queequeg’s next gambit is to urge Ahab to give up his quest, arguing that Moby Dick is a puny prey; he could, after all, go after a whale five times his size. This suggestion lands on stony ground since it is only Moby Dick that interests Ahab; after all, he lost his leg to that particular whale. One of Ahab’s pants-legs, distended, trails on the ground at all times, housing air instead of a leg. And at one point, Ahab convokes his mates to give them their marching orders in pursuit of the great whale. They, naturally, are invisible. Among the changes which occur through the show is that Queequeg starts speaking/singing ever more in her native Xosa tongue, conversing more with her gods, perhaps, than with her human interlocutor, since concourse with him seems to be so pointless and her situation so dire. Queequeg observes toward the end of the evening that the boat is leaking. Ahab’s response is: “Let it leak,” which becomes a croaky ditty sung to the tune of the Beatles’ “Let it Be.” Queequeg grasps the situation, and angles for some escape hatch, to no avail; Ahab embraces the end-days and hunkers down to be sucked into the abyss. The show ends with Ahab lashing himself to the mast in preparation for the final debacle. The set’s commanding image contradicts this action, as they are already either in the belly of the whale or in a sunken vessel. So, are they already in the abyss, or is there another stage of entropy yet to be endured? Both appear to be true.

Again, a veteran actor, this time with an international profile, Josse De Pauw is given free rein in a demanding role, worthy of his seasoning and accomplishments, to let loose the panoply of his impulses and skills. His worthy partner in the endeavor is again not an actor at all but a highly impressive singer, thus boldly mixing modes and media without explanation or apology. The text is again a narrative classic whose flesh has been picked off, leaving a highly idiosyncratic skeleton, akin to the bony stage-set. The set-up, as in all four works I viewed, is a narrative of universal appeal and interest, tuned to today’s concerns and performed with brio. Of all four works, Moby Dick is the only one seemingly intent on delivering a message, as it happens, a woke message, although all of them have much to offer that feels contemporary and reflective of “the way we live now.”

Moby Dick: Josse DePauw as Ahab. Photo: Kurt Van der Elst
Common Elements of the New Flemish Wave

There seems to be a decided shift away from video, a rededication to trust in the living presence of the performer, in all these plays without mediatic intercession to delight the eye. Through expressive movement and some fascinating staging and scenic ideas, there was plenty to engage the audience visually as well as revived interest in what the human voice can do. And by foregrounding such strong, risk-taking, veteran actors as Elsie De Brauw, Marijke Pinoy, Josse De Pauw, Koen De Sutter and Stefaan Degand, performers who by every right should be considered National Treasures, the reliance on human presence and vocal mastery is richly rewarded.  

These works reach into the past for their stories but use those stories to then catapult the work into formalist groundbreaking. There is a blurring of categories—singer, dancer, actor; all do everything together in varying proportions and ways. And the Flemish theatre has become more heterogeneous too—in Lisaboa Houbrechts, we have a new major woman director; in Gorges Ocloo, a new major director of color. 

We see lead performers of color featured as well: Boule Mpanya and Nobulumko Mngxekeza-Nziramasanga. And Catalan and Swiss directors are in the mix along with Flemish ones. Indeed, the Swiss Thom Luz is the catalyst for bringing Maeterlinck, the marginalized genius of French-speaking Flanders, back to a Flemish audience for a fresh approach and look and daring to do so in Flemish.

Concluding remark

Thus, this Second Flemish Wave, if wave it is, is characterized by generosity, virtuosity and high sophistication. It brings us back to theatrical roots even as it breaks fresh ground. Even as I was leaving, a longstanding Flemish company, tgStan, was preparing to offer a new production. Who knows how that may figure in the heady mix?  All the theatrical work being done today in Flanders may or may not be at the same level as those I saw. Only time will tell, but it is worthy of close monitoring. 


*David Willinger is the author of Ivo Van Hove Onstage, published by Routledge, and eight other books on Belgian drama, including Four Millenial Plays from Belgium. His many articles have been published in Plays International, The Drama Review, The Theatre Journal, Modern Drama, Western European Stages, Symposium, etc. He is Professor Emeritus of Theatre at City College and the Graduate Center, CUNY and has been awarded the Prix de Rayonnement by the Belgian government. He is also a playwright, lyricist, translator and director with more than 60 productions to his credit. His latest play was Existence and played at Theater for the New City in NYC’s East Village.

Copyright © 2023 David Willinger
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