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Nero is in love with Julia whom he has abducted to defy Agrippina. He wants to hold sway over both Britannicus, his legitimate rival, and his mother. The logic of passion and politics leads him to kill Britannicus, both to possess Julia and punish his mother. This he achieves. It is the most politically bloody play Racine wrote. Led by Koen De Sutter, Theater Zuidpool’s Flemish theatre turns it into the French classical repertoire’s most contemporary play. In other words, if the French-speaker puts on a play by a classical author like Racine to practise his rendition of the Alexandrine verse, then in Flanders they do not hesitate in rubbing a language’s purity against the sweat from the bodies of passionate and political schemers.

Text : Jean Racine

Direction : Koen De Sutter

With : Griet Debacker, Johan Heldenbergh, Marijke Pinoy, Jobst Schnibbe, Eva Schram, Bob Snijers, Jan Steen

Music : Pieter Jan De Smet, Geoffrey Burton

Set design: Frans De Meyer

Costume design : Sabina Kumeling

Lighting design : Jan Van Hove

Directeur de production/Production manager : Jan Van Hove

Production : Theater Zuidpool (Antwerpen)

Avec le soutien de/Supported by : Ministerie van de Vlaamse Gemeenschap, Provinciebestuur Antwerpen, Nationale Loterij

Presentation : KunstenFESTIVALdesArts

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I was so filled then with reading this excellent historian that there is almost no striking feature in my tragedy for which he did not give me the idea. (…) I copied my characters in the style of the greatest painter of Antiquity, that is in the style of Tacitus – a historian from the first century AD.

Racine, Britannicus, Second preface, Petits Classiques Larousse, Larousse-Bordas, Paris, 1998

In his preface accompanying the publication of Britannicus, Racine recognises it without hesitating: with the exception of Julia, who is a figure of pure imagination, all the other characters in his tragedy lived during the reign of the Roman dictator. What is more, the play could have been given his name ‘Nero’, or that of his mother ‘Agrippina’, because this work of passion, power and intrigue is so marked by the mother-son relationship. Racine’s preference was Britannicus (1669) from the name of the youngest character (aged 14 or 17 according to analysis), the legitimate heir removed from the throne because of his murderous stepmother’s intrigues. At the beginning of the play, Nero takes the first step towards freeing himself from his mother’s control. Against her wishes, he kidnaps Julia who loves Britannicus (his half-brother) whom he will kill by poisoning all the same. In this work, Nero is not yet the monster that history will remember, but he already bears all the hallmarks of one.

“I decided to stage Britannicus because of all these swarming passions”, says Flemish director Koen De Sutter. “The play has everything required: fury, psychological games, strong emotions, political malice, and in counterpoint, a language delivered in alexandrine verse, pure, almost impersonal, intelligible and clear. It’s impossible to retain the rhyme in Dutch without falling into the trap of creating artificial sounds. In the production, the emphasis will not be on how the language is delivered, but rather on the contrasting aspect of the passions and stiffness found in the text.”

Racine wrote Britannicus during the reign of Louis XIV, an era of ‘solar’ power and rules of all kinds. Writers and theorists made the most of it to decree strict laws on the use of language. It is the period of Descartes’ Cogito ergo sum (I think, therefore I am): a period of moderation, clarity, everything dominated by reason. To be precise, it is the time of the classics.

Koen De Sutter: “My first production, Dylan Thomas’ Under Milk Wood (Onder het melkwoud, February 1997) was full of microphones and light effects. My second (August 1997) came down to two actors, a projector and a chair. A new creation bears no resemblance to any other. Today I want to confront myself with Racinian stiffness: something I’ve not done before. I’m curious to see how Flemish actors are going to cope with a traditional French text. They’re organic actors who aren’t really concerned with the cerebral. It could be a fascinating confrontation.”

To delve into Racine’s career – his squabbles with Molière, his preferences, opinions, ideas, the positions he took – and to ensure that the history of the seventeenth century French court does not hold any mysteries, there will be two guides. A classicist and a Romanist specialising in seventeenth century literature have followed the team during the initial stages of rehearsals which, unusually for them, lasted eleven weeks. The aim is not to reproduce the politico-cultural context of the time, however: “I find that it’s important to be familiar with the world and context of the work we want to stage. Without being a cultural pessimist, if you ask a 14-year-old teenager who Nero is, his answer of course will be that he’s a comic-strip character. For me, history is just as fascinating as it is full of teaching. Roman culture never left us. Look at our parliamentary democracy: it still has the apparatus and mechanics of the Augustan age. And when you seek the architecture of the Palais de Justice in Brussels, you can clearly see that it has drawn from the grandeur of the Roman Empire.”

By the time this interview was conducted, in December 2001, Koen De Sutter already had a number of images in his head. “But,” he adds, laughing, “that might change completely. I’d like to know the extent to which Racine’s writing will support fanaticism and violence. How does Racine manage with sweat? What are the links between Nero, Louis XIV and the leaders of today?”

Britannicus is a pure political masterpiece: the scheming of Burrhus and Narcissus, the private secretaries as I call them, really make me think of Belgian politics. Elements of the Clinton affair with Lewinsky can also be found in Britannicus: how can the head of the most powerful nation in the world let passion get the upper hand? When Clinton is led by his hormones, he can’t think straight. In the same way, Nero is so jealous of Julia’s love for Britannicus that he’s going to commit the irreparable. I see Agrippina a bit like a Queen Mother, frustrated at having lost the power she used to have. The dialogues resemble the debates that can be heard in the Dutch Upper Chamber. It makes you think of operatic arias. Nero comes and goes, tossed about between the opinion of his mother and the counsel of Narcissus. Should he let Britannicus live or kill him? It contains a major element of suspense that I might increase by changing the ending

”They all read new plays and comment on them, but evidently a group reading is more powerful than a discussion. When spoken aloud, affinities are drawn imperceptibly and, at the same time, the programme for Theater Zuidpool’s season takes shape.

Koen De Sutter has been Theater Zuidpool’s artistic director since July 2001. Around him he has gathered a few collaborators with whom he is evolving, project by project. They take it in turns to be the actor, director, set designer, dramaturge and sometimes even costume designer. For him, the function of each one is part of a global process of creation. “I see myself as an amplifier reinforcing and channelling energies so that actors become a kind of ‘2000 Watt orator’”.

Theater Zuidpool is an Antwerp-based company that is very responsive to new dramatic arts. This has not always been the case. Under its old name of RVT (Reizend Volkstheater/Travelling Popular Theatre), the company travelled the post-war roads, reciting texts from the classical repertoire in the purest tradition. Ten years ago, Peter Benoy took over a tired company. Ten years later, it is considered by all in the profession to offer theatre of the highest quality. Renamed ‘Theater Zuidpool’, the company was selected for the Océ prize in 2000. The time of the great travelling popular repertoire is well and truly over. Since then, a number of contemporary artists have made the company what it is, including Jeroen Olyslaegers – writer of De Invreter (The Rodent), based on Jules Renard’s L'Ecornifleur – or, better known in French-speaking circles, Arne Sierens, writer of Colette (Mouchette), De Soldaat-facteur en Rachel…

“Involving the people you work with is crucial for me.” There are nearly twenty people in the Theater Zuidpool team who are all involved in the creative process, regardless of their position.

“I’ve already said that we read a lot. In that way, we are all dramaturges to some extent. For every creation, we collect what we have read and our own texts to make a journal out of them that also serves as a programme during the performances. The production obviously doesn’t need the programme to exist.”.

What matters for Koen De Sutter is working with good material. “Something which, at the end of the hundredth performance, still leaves glimpses of something unknown to it, a different aspect, or raises a question which we’d never considered. Something that makes you say, three days after the première: ‘I should never have done it like that!’”

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