The Blind Poet

2h 35min (1h 10min > entracte > 50min)
NL / FR / NO / EN / Tunisien / Arabe > FR / NL / EN

12/05 – 20:30
13/05 – 20:30
14/05 – 20:30
15/05 – 20:30

A Needcompany world premiere in Brussels! Jan Lauwers starts with the family trees of his performers and writes a new history of the world based on their many different nationalities, cultures and languages. He goes back a thousand years to ponder the notion of identity in today’s multicultural Europe. The Blind Poet is a show about women who throw stones and end up being burnt on the stake. About a crusader in armour that is too small. Lauwers quotes the work of Abul ‘Ala al-Ma’arri, a blind Arab poet who spanned the 10th and 11th centuries, and Wallada bint al-Mustakfi, an Andalusian poet from the 11th century. Their work describes a time in which women held positions of power and atheism was commonplace, when Paris was just a small provincial town and Charlemagne was a famous illiterate. History is written by the victors. By men. How much has the history we know actually been determined by lies, chance encounters and events along the way? How does an ever surviving body move through time?

Text, direction & set
Jan Lauwers

Maarten Seghers

Grace Ellen Barkey, Jules Beckman, Anna Sophie Bonnema, Hans Petter Melø Dahl, Benoît Gob, Mohamed Toukabri, Maarten Seghers

Lot Lemm

Direction & dramaturgy assistant
Elke Janssens

Marjolein Demey, Jan Lauwers

Ditten Lerooij

Intern direction assistance
Lisaboa Houbrechts

Production & technique
Marjolein Demey, Chris Vanneste

Kunstenfestivaldesarts, Kaaitheater

Needcompany (Brussels)

Kunstenfestivaldesarts in collaboration with Kaaitheater, KunstFestSpiele Herrenhausen (Hannover), FIBA Festival Internacional de Buenos Aires, Künstlerhaus Mousonturm (Frankfurt)

Supported by
Vlaamse Overheid

Performance in Brussels supported by
SABAM for Culture

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Visions of a blind poet

The world is not to blame
Therefore why blame the world?
Abu al’ala al Ma’arri (973-1057)

Since Isabella’s Room (2004), Needcompany’s productions have focused on the group: that fragile network of conscious and unconscious, visible and secret relationships between relatives, friends and strangers. Jan Lauwers’ recent theatre parables all have the same underlying plot: a group or a community is knocked off balance by an outsider or an unexpected occurrence and is forced to redefine itself. The question of the possibility or impossibility of coexistence is the main issue in Lauwers’ plays. This is most explicit in Marketplace 76, in which a small community is struck by a great calamity, and is left traumatised and disrupted. It then goes in search of a new source of life.

The blind poet appears to deviate from this pattern. Whereas Marketplace 76 is set in public space and raises questions of collective identity,The blind poet focuses on individuals. Lauwers has abandoned theparable for the portrait, swapped the story of a group for the story of individuals.For seven of the actors in the company – Grace Ellen Barkey,Jules Beckman, Anna Sophia Bonnema, Hans Petter Melø Dahl, BenoîtGob, Mohamed Toukabri and Maarten Seghers – Lauwers wrote sevenportraits, seven identity cards, each beginning with the same phrase: ‘Iam…’. They are affectionate tributes to his actors. He literally hands over the stage to each one in turn, and thus also gives them the audience’s fullattention. But just as his parables unfold as social narratives, these individualportraits open a window on the broader context of history. Lauwerstook the seven actors’ family trees as the basis for his ‘identitycards’. In some of the portraits he delves deep into the troubled historyof the world through the stories of the actor’s ancestors, while in othershe sticks to the disjointed human, all too human, family histories. Itdoes not really matter exactly where fact becomes fiction and where the fiction then again tells the truth, where the writer’s imagination playstricks with the biographies of his actors. Nor that the actors identifywith their forefathers and seem to have led their lives. Identity is alwaysalso a question of longing, construction and fantasy. Lauwers breakstime and space down into surreal, grotesque, kitsch, tragi-comic images:‘We are sailors and world travellers who live in an anti-time’, says one ofthe actors. An anti-time full of unbearable lightness, humour, banality,clichés, profound seriousness and deep love.

The portrait of Grace Ellen Barkey and her forefathers takes us to Indonesia, China, Germany, the Netherlands and Belgium: ‘I am a multicultural wonder. Grace Ellen Barkey. Multiculturality.’ Mohamed Toukabri keeps it simple: ‘Hey Grace, you may be a multicultural wonder, but I am the purest monoculture. Pure blood flows through my veins. Through the Muslim veins of Mohamed Toukabri. Just feel it. Perfect monocultural Muslim skin, a perfect monocultural Muslim body.’ The family tree of Maarten Seghers, the heir to forty generations of armourers, takes us to the First Crusade (1096-1099) led by Godfrey of Bouillon. The Norwegian actor Hans Petter Melø Dahl cannot be anything but a Viking, and his wife Anna Sophia Bonnema is a Mennonite from Friesland. Cultural clichés make their appearance too: ‘Frisians can drink better than Vikings’. Benoît Gob’s family tree takes us no further than the Delhaize supermarket and the brothels of Liège: ‘My father drank more than all those Vikings and Crusaders put together. My father didn’t need a boat to conquer the world. He floated out onto the River Maas in an empty beer barrel.’ Anna Sophia Bonnema also appears to have links with China through her ancestor Ferdinand Hamer. No one knows why he went to China, but his boat was in the Sunda Strait between Java and Sumatra in August 1883 when the volcano Krakatoa erupted with unprecedented violence. The shockwaves in the atmosphere were so powerful that they went round the globe seven times. Natural disasters always have been globalised: ‘The dust from Krakatoa is sucked up into the stratosphere and flutters down onto countless bodies and links everyone together. That’s why I am everyone and the world is me. And that’s why it’s good to talk only about ourselves. Because that is the true history. That is the true love. Everything else is a forgery.’

It is a nice thought: I am everyone and the world is me. But it is not that thought that dominates these present times. On the contrary, the spectre of the ‘beast of identity’ haunts Europe, and not only Europe. The dictionary defines ‘identity’ as ‘unity of being, total correspondence, uniformity of the person’. This makes identity sound like a haven of peace and harmony. Yet the French-Lebanese writer Amin Maalouf talks of ‘murderous identities’: ‘Initially it looks as if it stands for a legitimate aim, but suddenly it becomes an instrument of war. The shift from one meaning to another is imperceptible, happening almost of its own accord, and sometimes we fall for it.’ Maalouf knows what he is talking about: from 1975 to 1990, his native country, the Lebanon, was torn by a bloody civil war in which numerous ethnic groups and religious factions fought each other.

Cultural identity is claimed as a ‘heim’, a ‘house’, a ‘home’. But as Freud remarked, our house is also the setting of the ‘unheimliche’. There is something fundamentally ‘unheimlich’ in culture, something that cannot be domesticated. That is why a culture is never a place where we can feel completely at home, a ‘domus’ in which we live as members of the same family, the same tribe, the same blood. Far right, racist and fundamentalist ideologies try to redomesticate culture – which is always inhabited by the different and the other – to form a pure ‘family’ space, a space that has never existed and as an ideal is only possible by means of violence and exclusion: ‘Homo redomesticus, having gained a position of power, sows death in the streets, screaming: ‘You don’t belong in my house! He takes the guest hostage. He pursues everyone who migrates. He puts them in his cellars, reduces them to ashes deep in his lowland plains.’ (Jean-François Lyotard). The beast of identity bears many monstrous names: from the destruction of Jews at Auschwitz to the ethnic cleansing of Sarajevo, from the Rwandan genocide to the horror of Islamic State. But the beast of identity also manifests itself in smaller guises, in banal clichés and prejudices, in forms of everyday racism and exclusion. When cultural differences are raised, the jokes follow soon after: a Dutchman, a Belgian and a Moroccan are sitting in a café. The Dutchman says: ‘…!’ Are these outlets for unease, anxiety and inner turmoil? How much foreignness can we cope with? Or the reverse: how foreign are we to ourselves? The true foreigner is inside us. How could we drive it out without destroying ourselves?

‘You shall not suppress a foreigner, nor oppress him, because you yourself were a foreigner in the land of Egypt.’ This unmistakable message in Exodus, the second book of the Bible, was intended for the Jews, and reminds them of their history as exiles in the land of the pharaohs. These words refer to the possibility that in certain circumstances everyone can become a foreigner and thereby be entirely dependent on others’ hospitality. Grace casually remarks that ‘I too am a boat refugee,’ thereby referring to one of the great European tragedies of the present time. In Hans Petter’s story of watching a young boy drown because he was too drunk and stoned to jump into the water and save him, we once again encounter the image of the boat refugees who in the last few months have been trying to reach Europe from North Africa in inhuman conditions and have thereby lost their lives. Paul Valéry once called the Mediterranean Sea a ‘civilising machine’ because of the great civilisations that have developed on its coasts over the centuries. But this same sea is now in danger of becoming a gigantic cemetery in which even Europe, as a political and moral project, may soon bury itself. The Mediterranean Sea has become a wall by which Europe closes itself off from a part of its history. The future identity of Europe is being played out on its southern borders. In the dead eyes of the asylum-seekers who are washed ashore we see the reflection of the utopian Europe, the Europe of the ideals of the Enlightenment, of tolerance and human rights. But we refuse to look into those dead eyes. The boat refugees are the last Europeans who still believe in the task and the promise of Europe. They could put us, the now cynical citizens of Fort Europe, in touch with the great ideals of European history once again, but we no longer want to hear. We have become too old. Too tired. After all, we can’t take them all in, can we? We can’t save the whole world. And as a result of this reasoning, countless men, women and children now lie on the bottom of the Mediterranean Sea without anyone ever knowing their name. But the ‘extras of history’ are returning: ‘They always come back to the surface again one day or another’, as Anna Sophia Bonnema says. What is excluded or pushed away always returns. The Other cannot simply be denied. The dead are never completely dead. As we can already hear in Marketplace 76, ‘The time has come when the dead will have some fun’. One day we shall have to give an explanation.

According to Amin Maalouf, everyone has just one identity, but it consists of many facets and backgrounds. He therefore suggests that in addition to ‘examining our consciences’ we also ‘examine our identities’. It looks like the genealogical method that Nietzsche propagated: the further you go back into the past, the more layers you will find from which your identity is composed and the more ‘impure’ you become: ‘Everyone, without exception, has a heterogeneous identity; you only have to ask yourself a few questions and you come across forgotten fault lines and unexpected byways, and you discover that you are complex, unique and irreplaceable.’ Maalouf also uses this excellent image: ‘A person’s identity is not a patchwork, but a drawing on a tightly stretched skin; only one part need be touched for the whole person to vibrate with it.’

Why not view The blind poet as a theatrical form of Maalouf’s ‘examination of identity’? Not as an attempt to find the singular source that explains everything, but, on the contrary, to continue discovering new branches and unexpected connections. More and more ancestors. More and more sides of the identity. Jan Lauwers himself says that he got the actual idea for the production from viewing the Mezquita in the Spanish city of Cordoba. The Mezquita is a unique building on the site where the Visigoth church of Vincent of Saragossa once stood, which in its turn was built on the foundations of a Roman temple. In 711 the Moors captured Cordoba and a mosque was built on this site. Since the Christians recaptured the city in 1236, the building has become the cathedral of the diocese of Cordoba. Work has been done on the building over the centuries, and nowadays both the Moorish and the Christian influences are clear to see. When one touches one of the cultural identities of this building, one makes all the others vibrate in parallel.

The Mezquita in Cordoba takes us into the midst of a period that was crucial in European history but which is little known and is often misunderstood: the confrontation with Islam between 711 and 1492, the period of the Moorish domination of Spain (Al-Andalus), the Crusades and the Reconquista. When, as from the seventh century, Islam built up its extensive empire at lightning speed, scholars in such cities as Baghdad and Isfahan started preserving, translating and commenting on Greek and Roman scientific writings and continued doing so for almost six centuries. This translation work and the scientific research it stimulated had a huge impact on European cultural and intellectual life, which at that time was far behind the Islamic world. Al-Andalus assumed an almost mythical aura as a period characterised by religious tolerance, multicultural coexistence and intellectual exchanges between Jews, Muslims and Christians. The truth is subtler than this, but it is a fact that the scientific, intellectual and literary life of Islamic culture was at an exceptionally high level. Unlike Christianity, Islam stimulated the search for knowledge. There are the well-known words of the prophet Mohammed: ‘Gather knowledge, even if you have to go to China to do so’. When Europe was in its ‘dark’ Middle Ages, Islamic culture was enjoying its heyday. But the influence of Arabic and other scholars from the Middle East and Andalusia was controversial. Petrarch outspokenly referred to ‘Arabic lies’. And the role of Islamic culture as a bridge between classical antiquity and the European Renaissance is still not fully recognised. To give just one example, some still jump too easily from Ptolemy (2nd century), who saw the Earth as the fixed centre of the universe, to Copernicus (16th century), who developed a heliocentric system. The theories and insights of the Arab scholars that lie between the two are often minimized, whereas recent research has shown that Copernicus extended the theories of such Arabic scholars as Ibn al-Shatir and al-Tusi. The medical manual by Ibn Sina (Avicenna) was also a standard work at European universities until 1600. The same applies to books in the fields of optics, chemistry, architecture and algebra. At a certain moment, Arabic, together with Latin, was the most important means of communication between European scholars and scientists.

Lauwers takes this Islamic vibration in European identity seriously and makes it resound clearly in the performance. Among others, he quotes the blind Syrian poet Abu al’ala al Ma’arri (973-1057) and the poetess Wallada bint al Mustakfi (1001-1091) of Cordoba and makes references to philosophers and scientists: ‘I know the great thinker Ibn Rushd, who is known here as Averroes, whose books Thomas Aquinas buried because they were too dangerous for the people. Or Ibn Firnas, who made the first aeroplane six hundred years before Leonardo Da Vinci… Or is it one truth, indivisible and unrelated to time? But then what is this truth? Because that’s what it’s all about: truth. History is a lie that fills us with shame.’ says Mohamed Toukabri. One of these lies of history is the matter of the Crusades. The military undertakings of the Western Christians in Palestine between 1095 and 1271 can best be described as an early example of the European expansion that was set in motion when, in the tenth century, an end had come to the invasions of Europe by the Vikings, Moors and Huns. The warlords who subsequently lined up against each other and the inhabitants were now united by the conviction that the holy sites in the Holy Land, which Christendom considered to be its rightful property, had to be liberated from their Islamic rulers, who had held them since 638. This is not the place to deal with the political and economic causes of the Crusades, but of course they were not such an idealistic ‘liberation of the Holy Land’. In his bookThe Crusades through Arab Eyes (1986), Amin Maalouf describes the Crusades from the Arab perspective: and it was not a pretty sight.

Coincidence or not, almost all the family trees of the actors in The blind poet crossed each other’s paths at the time of the Crusades! What theactors discover in their family trees is not exactly something to be proudof: just about all their forefathers were cannibals: ‘We had had somethingelse in mind. We could neither read nor write and we ate children.During the siege of Antioch in 1097, the Christians ate the children ofthe Jews and Muslims. It was the only meat we could find. Our horseswere too precious’, according to Maarten Seghers. Hans Petter Melø Dahlputs it like this: ‘We look for the bigger picture. The hysterical history of the man-eaters and the forgotten wars. My ancestors were cannibals.That’s all that needs saying.’ Lauwers’ broad image of history is reminiscentof Walter Benjamin’s interpretation of Paul Klee’s painting Angelus Novus, showing an angel with its eyes wide open, mouth agapeand wings spread: ‘The angel of history must look like this. He keeps hisface turned to the past. Where we see a chain of events, he sees one greatcatastrophe, which ceaselessly piles rubble upon rubble and throws itat his feet. He would like to take a rest, raise the dead and put the debrisback together again. But a storm is blowing up out of paradise that catchesin his wings and is so strong that the angel can no longer closethem. This storm drives him unstoppably towards the future, to whichhe turns his back, while the rubble in front of him rises towards theheavens. This storm is what we call progress.’ This is the history of mankind:catastrophe, cannibalism and hysteria.

Can we still meet each other as humans in these ruins of history? Our cities have become the world’s ‘contact zones’, zones where cultures and individuals which until now have been separated by geography, history, race, ethnicity, etc. are forced to live together. The philosopher Rudi Visker distinguishes three positions that can be adopted towards the other, but then rejects them and goes in search of a new angle. He successively distinguishes the multicultural, the transcultural and the ironic position. While the multiculturalist locates the truth in cultural ‘rooting’, and in the equality of all cultures, for the transculturalist it is to be found precisely in cultural ‘uprooting’ and the possibility of freeing oneself from one’s own tradition (for example in a cosmopolitan attitude to life). In Visker’s view, both these positions are ultimately linked to a form of fear. The multiculturalist is afraid of losing his individuality in the confrontation with the other, and therefore makes cultures equal, but at the same time entities that are mostly enclosed within themselves and isolated from each other. The transculturalist is afraid of this solitude and for the purposes of dialogue and interaction is prepared to give up his cultural individuality. Visker reproaches both for trying to raise every issue except that of themselves. That is precisely what the ironist does. The ironist casts doubts on his own truth because he sees that the other has a different truth and takes it seriously. Because of this self-doubt, the ironist always remains interested in others’ truths. What Visker appreciates in the ironist is that he sees the lack of truth as a quality of every truth, not only of his own or only that of the other. But Visker reproaches him for still conceiving of this shortcoming against the background of something that is not there, but actually could have been there. This is the reason why the ironist continues zapping from one truth to another, as if he were convinced that it must after all be somewhere. The lack of truth is the starting point for Visker’s own definition of his position: I only respect the other’s humanity when I accept that he, like me, bears a deficiency. It is a deficiency that I cannot replenish and which my deficiency cannot replenish, nor is it a deficiency that caused my own. The encounter between ‘I’ and the ‘other’ is ultimately an encounter between two deficiencies. It is only this ‘common’ deficiency that makes the encounter possible. From here we also arrive at a different definition of what culture is: not an impressive construction to be proud of, but a ‘construction of embarrassment’ that enables us to handle our deficiency. Not proof of superiority, but a modest and failed attempt to solve the riddle of existence.

History as a catastrophe, culture as a construction of embarrassment, man as a deficiency: ‘We are all refugees or cannibals. Eat or be eaten. History teaches us that’, says Jules Beckman. Yet this is not Lauwers’ final word. That word, strange as it may sound in this context, is ‘love’. The love that Lauwers talks about in all his plays is the vigorous ‘yes’ spoken by Molly Bloom in the final chapter of James Joyce’s novelUlysses (1922). This chapter is one long, uninterrupted monologue that ends like this: ‘… I was a Flower of the mountain yes when I put the rose in my hair like the Andalusian girls used or shall I wear a red yes and how he kissed me under the Moorish Wall and I thought well as well him as another and then I asked him with my eyes to ask again yes and then he asked me would I yes to say yes my mountain flower and first I put my arms around him yes and drew him down to me so he could feel my breasts all perfume yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes.’ It’s a nice coincidence that she here compares herself to Andalusian girls and is kissed beneath the Moorish Wall. This ‘yes’, says Joyce, is a feminine ‘yes’. This is also very clearly the case in Lauwers’ work. Since Isabella’s Room, the archetype of the mother goddess or holy whore has been a thread running through his productions. She is the icon of an unconditional hospitality who enjoins us to give our house and ourselves to the stranger, without asking his name, without any compensation, unconditionally. It is the attitude of an absolute ‘yes’, an absolute openness to anyone or anything that presents itself, prior to any determination, anticipation or identification, regardless of whether it is a matter of a stranger, an immigrant, a guest, or an unexpected visitor, regardless of whether it is a man or a woman, even regardless of whether it is a human, animal or divine being, and ultimately regardless of whether it is a life or a dead thing.

There is also a notable number of mentions of women, mothers, love and lust in The blind poet: ‘I offer my lover my cheek and my lips I give to whom I wish’, says Wallada of Cordoba, as spoken by Anna Sophia Bonnema. ‘My mother offered her cheek to her lover and she gave her lips to those who paid.’, is what Benoît makes of it in his story. ‘I am Anna Sophia Bonnema. I am all women. I am the loving mother without a child. I am Lucrezia but I will not commit suicide, I am the amazon Penthesilea who loves Achilles, I am Sappho, the tenth muse, I am Madame Curie, seeing her arm wither. I am Corday, who cries that she has saved a hundred thousand people. I am Zarçamodonia, who cuts off the head of a man who wants to take off her headscarf.’ Beside the dust from the eruption of the volcano Krakatoa – the catastrophe – it is this vigorous, hospitable ‘yes’ that flutters down over countless bodies and thus connects everything to everything else and makes the world one single indivisible world.

P.S. This is what Wikipedia has to say about the Mezquita in Cordoba: ‘Because the construction of the cathedral took a very long time, it incorporates several different building styles. In addition, the cathedral also has a positive effect on the construction: this makes the Mezquita more resistant to earthquakes.’ As a result of several interlocking building forms, in other words of its stylistic ‘impurity’, the construction was made stronger. This is perhaps a fine metaphor for the coexistence of several cultures as a reinforcement of the whole of mankind against upheavals to come.

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Jan Lauwers (b. 1957) is an artist who works in just about every medium. Over the last thirty years he has become best known for his pioneering work for the stage with Needcompany, which was founded in Brussels in 1986. Over the years he has also built up a substantial body of art work. From 2009 until 2014 Needcompany has been artist-in-residence at the Burgtheater in Vienna. Jan Lauwers is awarded with the ‘Decoration of Honour in Gold for Services to the Republic Austria’ (2012). In 2014, he has been rewarded with the Golden Lion Lifetime Achievement Award at the Venice Biennale. He is the first Belgian to receive this prize in the theatre category. He studied painting at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Ghent, and in 1979 gathered a number of people around him, forming the Epigonenensemble. In 1981 this group was transformed into the collective Epigonentheater zlv (under the direction of no one) that surprised the theatre world with six productions. With this, Lauwers wrote himself into the movement for radical change in Flanders in the early 1980s and also broke through internationally. Jan Lauwers disbanded this collective in 1985, and founded Needcompany in Brussels the following year.

Jan Lauwers needs company. He founded Needcompany together with Grace Ellen Barkey. The group of performers they have assembled over the years is unique in its versatility, with the ‘associated performing artists’. Since the founding of Needcompany in 1986, both the work and the performers have been markedly international, and every production has since been performed in several languages. The first Needcompany works were already highly visual, but in subsequent productions the storyline and main theme gained in importance; however, the fragmentary composition has always remained. Lauwers’ training as an artist is decisive in his handling of the theatre as a medium, leading to a highly individual and – in many ways – pioneering theatrical language that examines the theatre and its meaning.

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