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De Living is the first work by Ersan Mondtag to be shown at the festival. One of the most celebrated German directors of the young generation, the rising all-round artist Mondtag was voted director and set and costume designer of the year in the German Sprachraum. His latest creation, De Living, begins when a woman comes home to her living room and ends with her suicide. Or is it the other way around? Can the last hour of her life be narrated backwards? What does she do so close to her end? Can we understand her act, accept her decision? Is there any way to prevent her killing herself, or is this an inevitable act, a release even? The history of drama is full of characters who die or kill themselves. Anthony and Cleopatra, Romeo and Juliet – even before the performance starts, the audience knows that they are ultimately going to die, and yet we still watch these shows with fascination. As though we enjoy this feeling of inevitability and fatalism. Or are we rather looking for a key that can shatter the feeling of impotence and bring us once more to our senses?
Direction: Ersan Mondtag
By and with: Doris and Nathalie Bokongo Nkumu (Les Mybalés)
Presentation: Kunstenfestivaldesarts, Théâtre National Wallonie-Bruxelles
Coproduction: Kunstenfestivaldesarts, La Villette (Paris), HAU (Berlin), Boulevardfestival (Den Bosch)
With the support of: German Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Goethe Institut and Tax Shelter of the Belgian Federal Government
The last hour in the life of a human being. The show starts with a woman coming home and ends with her committing suicide. Or is it the other way around? Can this final hour also be told backwards – bringing her back to life again?
Antigone, Ophelia, Hedda Gabler – in theatre history female characters who commit suicide are always rebellious and afflicted at the same time. But the beauty of this attitude can only find expression in their dead bodies. The audien-ce knows from the beginning that the protago-nist will die in the last act, but still we go to see the show. Accustomed to the feeling of inescap-ability we watch entranced as death closes in. By witnessing these scenes over and over again, we experience all facets of political and existen-tial dedication and powerlessness. But is there a way out? Can we escape the fatal sequence of events?
De Living depicts the last scene before a woman takes her own life. We see her final gestures, the attempt to maintain normality, a moment of decisiveness, then hesitation, a will to live that must be silenced, and the sudden panic in the face of an uncontrolled death. As opposed to the classical tragedies, the audience witnessing the final scene does not know what drives the woman into suicide. They can only speculate about her past. An unhappy love affair one might expect. Can she perhaps not withstand the enduring pressure of society? Or does the last scene in a woman’s life tell less about individual fate than about the tragic experience of humanity in a dystopian yet near future?
Her death would then be a manifestation of a general fatigue, a mass disease, as diagnosed at the beginning of the new millennium by the French sociologist Alain Ehrenberg. But perhaps the causes of her depression lie much further back – in a history that is as painful as it is ignored, as described by the Cameroonian political scientist Achille Mbembe: At the beginning of the transnational slave trade, when people began treating other people as a commodity and proceeded to build walls to keep a part of humankind from having a share in the wealth of the world. In the near future, the majority of humans will no longer even be needed as slaves. In the final scene before death, we still struggle with an impulsive fear of an external threat yet at the same time we know that with everything we do, we are preparing for a col-lective suicide by bringing about the climate collapse.
But what we learn in the theatre about today’s world, while watching this final scene over and over again, is much more ambiguous. Perhaps the various nightmarish diagnoses of our time are only based on the delusions of a few prophets who spread a media-effective apocalyptic atmosphere. And even if we could turn back time, we probably wouldn’t know what we could have done differently. Or was there that one moment in time when we could have averted the suicide? How can we regain the strength to overcome this feeling of power-lessness and paralysis that is increasingly dominating our society?
The master of gloom
There is no one left in German theatre who has not yet seen something by this enfant terrible or who has not heard of him at least. The work of director and designer Ersan Mondtag is a mixture of theatre, visual art and performance. Drawing on his deep-rooted fascination with horror, he masterfully plays on the audience’s fears with his extremely visual style. This season, Mondtag will appear before the Belgian audience for the first time with two shows.
Ersan Mondtag was born Ersan Aygün, but having undergone an identity crisis as a teenager, he simply translated his Turkish surname into German, syllable by syllable: aygün = day of the month = ‘month day’ (Mondtag). This is the charming artist’s name of someone who sees himself as an artist in the broadest sense of the word, not just as a theatre-maker. His breakthrough happened at the Berliner Theatertreffen in 2016, to which he was invited with his work Tyrannis (2015), first produced at the Staatstheater Kassel. The show was then invited to the Radikal jung festival in Munich.
Like much of Mondtag’s work, Tyrannis eagerly sounds out the grey zone between theatre and the visual arts. Onstage, a family goes through its everyday life as though it were assembly-line work. Five people come together at a dining table, withdraw to their rooms, clear up, watch TV, do all sorts of things without saying a single word. It is a silent theatre evening, one that owes some of its fascination to its handling of gloomy matters. A black woman suddenly turns up at the door, disrupting the family’s routine. Tyrannis offers a two-hour reflection on our fear of the other. Mondtag not only wrote the story, but also created the spectacular design: garish colours, crazy hair-styles and extravagant decors. A psychedelic trip through which the characters move rather strangely, slowly, tentatively, like robots instead of humans. It is only when the audience applauds at the end that it becomes clear that the actors performed the play blindly: their eyes were closed, large fake eyes were painted on their faces.
Mondtag is known as a director who demands a lot from all those he works with. He likes to break the routine of actors, for instance by sticking them in shapeless fat suits or by having them walk backwards, forcing them to give up their trusted ideas about acting. He has often been misquoted as saying that actors are for him merely props, having once said that actors are as important to him as props. There are certain actors with whom he keeps collaborating, such as the dancer Kate Strong and the Belgian actor Benny Claessens. The assumption that he does not like actors may also have to do with the fact that he does not often let them shine individually. At times it is hardly possible to distinguish the individual figures from each other. Mondtag likes to put his actors in original costumes that cover the entire body, costumes that illustrate the blood circulation system (Der alte Affe Angst, 2016) or feature sewn-on textile genitalia (Die Vernichtung, 2016 and Das Internat, 2018).
Ersan Mondtag was born in Berlin in 1987 and grew up in the Kreuzberg district. After an internship with the directors Frank Castorf and Claus Peymann, he assisted the Norwegian theatre-making duo Vegard Vinge and Ida Müller, causing quite a stir with a twelve-hour performance of John Gabriel Borkman (2011) at the Berliner Volksbühne. After a year and a half he put an end to his studies at the Otto-Falckenberg-Schule in Munich, and during the 2013–14 season he became a member of the Schauspiel Frankfurt directing studio, where, as in Munich, he caught the attention with unique work that was systematically shown at the Radikal jung festival.
Mondtag wants to challenge himself and the theatre over and over again. He stages premieres, works on the development of certain plays, adapts film themes and is not afraid of classics – next season, for example, he will direct Schiller’s Die Raüber in Cologne, where he recently also staged the premiere of Sibylle Berg’s new play, Wonderland Avenue (2017).
It is that [creative] urge that distinguishes Mondtag from his colleagues. He generally acts not only as the director, but also as his own designer. In 2016, the year of his breakthrough, the magazine Theater Heute elected him as both young talent of the year and young set designer of the year. A double talent, or even a threefold talent, since he also likes to write his own stories. This was the case for De Living (The Living Room), the work for NTGent with which he will appear before the Belgian public for the first time in 2019. Stefan Bläske remembers Mondtag from his student days in Munich, and Eva-Maria Bertschy, who is also a dramaturge for Milo Rau, was in charge of the dramaturgy of Die Vernichtung in Berne – a collaboration in Ghent was therefore an obvious next step. That Milo Rau and Mondtag are both represented by the Schaefersphilippen agency also played a role.
Mondtag had the time and also had an idea that adhered to the strict guidelines of the Ghent Manifesto. Article 8 is surprising: ‘The total volume of the set pieces must not exceed 20 cubic metres, i.e. must be transportable in a van that can be driven with an ordinary driver’s licence.’ This was in fact inconceivable for Mondtag, who regularly drives the theatre guild mad with his grandiose productions. Now and then he is told that his services will no longer be necessary. Aware of his reputation as the enfant terrible of the theatre, his response is always extremely relaxed, and he speaks very quietly about his productions. ‘It’s quite simply dange-rous to give me a stage’, he adds with the neces-sary self-mockery or, if you prefer, arrogance during a phone conversation. In Belgium he is limiting himself to a small production, easy to transport.
‘It will probably be another play in which no words are spoken, like Tyrannis’, Mondtag says over the phone. The play centres on the last hour of a woman’s life. Onstage are two identical living rooms in which sit two identical women, performed by the Belgian twins Doris and Nathalie Bokongo Nkumu (also known as the dancing duo Les Mybalés). The woman’s life is shown both forward and backwards – two timelines that run in parallel. It will indeed be a relatively small production, but with an overwhelming aesthetic power, Mondtag promises, who is also known for his big mouth. That doesn’t come across well everywhere.
There is no agreement in the theatre about his work. This was the case already when he was first invited to the Theatertreffen with Tyrannis. While some people welcomed the play with thunderous applause, others yawned blatantly. To date, some find him a hip thing that deters season-ticket holders, and an arrogant bloke, while others see him as a courageous theatrical visionary and an innovator of the art of theatre.
‘To me, theatre is also about offending’, he said at the Theatertreffen in May, during a discussion on ‘Unlearning Theatre’. The remark referred to his relationship with the public, but you can also consider it more broadly and relate it to the critics and the theatre itself. Bombast and a big mouth are as much a part of Mondtag’s aura as his openness and spontaneity. He is someone who treads on people’s toes; in that respect, he remains true to himself. And he does so with astonishing self-confidence. He sees compromises in art as a threat to art. ‘I don’t want to convince people of anything.’
This text originally appeared in the September 2018 issue of the performing arts journal
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Ersan Mondtag was born in Berlin in 1987 and works between the fields of theatre and music, performance and installation. In 2012 he founded the KAPITÆL ZWEI KOLEKTIF in Munich. He conceived long-term performances, experimental party forms and interdisciplinary theatre works in the collective, most recently Party #4 - NSU in Mixed Munich Arts (MMA). For the exhibition space of the Pinakothek der Moderne he realized KONKORDIA with Olga Bach, a nine-day permanent performance. In the 2013-2014 season, Ersan Mondtag was a member of the REGIEstudio of Schauspiel Frankfurt, where he directed 2nd Symphony, Das Schloss and Orpheus#. In 2015, his play TYRANNIS was created at the Staatstheater Kassel, with which Ersan Mondtag was invited to the Berliner Theatertreffen 2016. Further guest performances followed, among others again at the festival "radikal jung". The specialist magazine "Theater Heute" named Mondtag "Young Director of the Year 2016" and he was also honoured in the categories "Stage Designer and Costume Designer of the Year". Ersan Mondtag lives in Berlin. He has staged productions at the Thalia Theater Hamburg, the Berliner Ensemble, the Maxim Gorki Theater, the Theater Bern, the Schauspiel Köln and the Münchner Kammerspiele. For NTGent and the Kunstenfestivaldesarts Ersan Mondtag creates De Living, in 2019.Back to top