LONGREAD Wanna play, drarrie?

Theatre-makers Junior Mthombeni and Sylvie Landuyt talk about their stage plans

Junior Mthombeni and Sylvie Landuyt meet each other on one of the first sunny spring days in Brussels. Early in 2018, their performances - Drarrie in de nacht and Do You Wanna Play With Me? – will premiere in the KVS. Switching between Dutch and French, they list their plans. Initially slightly hesitant, they soon become enthusiastic as they discover the parallels in each other’s work. When Sylvie says that the experience of meaninglessness will play a central role in her performance, as will the question of how you fill that void, Junior nods in agreement: ‘That’s also a thread that runs through Drarrie in de nacht.’

However, from a distance you may not think there are many similarities between the two productions. Junior translates the successful novel Drarrie in de nacht by his friend Fikry El Azzouzi, into a play. Junior: ‘It’s the story of four lost young people who don’t know what to do with their lives. They feel alienated from society. Ayoub – one of four boys – tells us from a meta-perspective how things are constantly worsening and they are going astray. A tragedy is gradually unfolding.’

Sylvie was inspired by Chekhov’s The Seagull to tell a family story in which social media and internet porn highlight the relationships. Whereas in Junior’s play the youngsters hang out on the streets at night, in Sylvie’s production they, like their parents, hide away in a virtual world full of explicit language and images. ‘I sketch a picture of a mother, a daughter and a son. The mother is addicted to the internet and skims dating sites. Her introvert teenage daughter emulates her and online becomes an almost lustful sexual being full of self-confidence. The boy in turn starts to hate his mother’s men and loses himself in violent games in which he enacts the murder of her lovers. You could say he becomes a Jihadist who wants to purify his mother from what she is doing.’

On the basis of this, you might think that your performance is a fairly classic story about a single parent. However, you give shape to your characters in a much more abstract way, don’t you?

Sylvie: ‘That’s right. The third generation in the piece is an AI, an artificial intelligence. The fourth role is a mixture of the desires of the three. This abstract element stems from the fact that I prefer not to work with characters, but with images and archetypes. When I write, it's more about sounds than characters who are linear and complete. I create ‘post-drama’ in which words and sentences can be exchanged between the actors. This also means that the beliefs and actions of the characters are interchangeable. If the son wants to kill his mother’s lovers, that’s something that can also be taken over by the daughter.

During the performance, I want the social media to be present on stage through projections. The audience must be able to respond and ‘like’ it. It may even take on a documentary character in which we show search histories in combination with the testimonies of young people I have collected. In addition, I want to evoke a Japanese manga atmosphere, with bad electronic music, though that’s definitely not the only musical inspiration. I like telling a story in different layers and levels. The text, sounds, images and archetypes intersect and refer to each other.’

Junior: ‘As for me, not everything is completely fixed yet, but I already know the music. Hip hop and slam dominate and Cesar Janssens will construct the beats live. The nightly experiences of the youngsters become separate scenes that Ayoub will introduce. This summer we are going to ‘theatricalise’ the text, as I call it. In any case it will be a multilingual performance. That was what I liked about Malcolm X (the production with Junior Mthombeni, Fikry el Azzouzi and Cesar Janssens, which premiered in KVS in 2016, ed.). After a while, the team began to speak to each other in a language of their own: wonderful.’

A similarity between your productions is that you give a voice to young people. Sylvie, you even do that literally. Your research consists in part of conversations you initiate with young people about the internet and how they deal with sexuality. 

Sylvie: ‘The archetype of the son is not finished yet and I want to develop him further based on what adolescents have to tell me. I also want to check my work with them to make sure my analysis is correct. That is why we will shortly launch week-long workshops in which, by way of artistic exercises with young people, we will deal with themes such as virtual encounters, internet pornography and the perception of sexuality. I think it’s important to know what the relationship of these ‘digital natives’ with the internet is like.’

‘I came across the subject through the conversations I had with youngsters following my production Don Juan Addiction. I noticed then how much they are involved with online pornography. They sometimes have a highly distorted image of sexuality. I met boys who said they loved a girl, but didn’t want to have sex with her because sex was dirty. They are used to images of the most explicit sexual acts. They know things I’ve never heard of (laughs). On the one hand, they talk about sex in a way that is coarse and indifferent, while on the other hand they are very prudish or looking for true love. You notice that they may chat about it very openly, but when it becomes ‘live’ they are barely able to communicate. I think it is important that we talk about it. You cannot ignore something like this.’

Junior, in Drarrie in de nacht you also deal with a sensitive subject. Although Fikry El Azzouzi’s language is not as explicit as that in Sylvie’s performance, some people found the book Drarrie in de nacht pretty shocking.

Junior: ‘That may be so, but I don’t really understand why. In the end, it is sometimes quite violent, but no more than in the average film. It’s like writing about hooligans. But maybe I myself do not find it shocking because it’s such a recognisable story. I also hung out on the streets when I was young. In retrospect, I came very close to going astray. In a sense, I managed to tear myself away from it because of my creativity. I saw everything as a story and the distance this created opened up new perspectives. In that respect, I recognize myself in Ayoub.’

‘Like Sylvie, I think it’s necessary for this story to be told on stage and that these things are expressed. Also because it is important that people from Molenbeek or Borgerhout recognize themselves in what is happening onstage. That remains one of my pet subjects. Imagination in the arts is so important. We need other stories and other colours in the industry. We have left things much too late in the arts, even though we should have been the forerunners of that evolution! I don’t see myself as a role model, but I know how important it was for me when I was young to see that people with a colour could make a career for themselves in the arts. Just as youngsters today know this can be done, through Malcolm X. So I think we should continue to kick shins. Just because there’s a coloured director at the KVS doesn’t make everything right. (Laughs) Oh well, I will always be both an artist and an activist. I get that from my father and my mother. That will never change.’

Sylvie, a certain degree of social commitment is very much a part of you. Even though this expresses itself in a different way from Junior.

Sylvie: ‘At the beginning of my career, I made a point of working with both professionals and amateurs. I wanted to get out of my comfort zone and so moved into the city or worked in community centres. On each occasion I compared different social environments on stage. In these participative projects I was more often moved by the amateurs and their stories than by the professionals. But at that time I was angry with everything and everyone, and used a method on stage in which I looked for contradictions and allowed them to clash with one another. Since then I have increasingly been trying to find a certain harmony in my productions. But the utopia of the meeting remains central to me. I still want my productions to bring people closer together.’

‘I'm fascinated by psychoanalysis and I believe that the best way to get to know myself better is to look at others. Through my productions, I secretly hope that people will recognise themselves in what is happening on stage, so that they learn to understand themselves better and so become more understanding towards others. That’s my wish: that people talk to one another and learn how to accept each other’s differences. In Do You Wanna Play With Me?, I deliberately do not pass moral judgment. However, I want to understand our society better through this theme. But I also know that it’s an illusion to think you can bring about a major social revolution through the performing arts.’

Junior: ‘Of course that’s an illusion. But at the same time, theatre can help to make things debatable, make them more open and normal. That’s exactly what you’re going to do with Do You Wanna Play With Me? As a creator, I love the feeling that you are contributing to change. I know you cannot change the world on your own, but, like you, I believe in movements and waves in which you can play a small part.’