Interview with the theatre makers of “MUUR” (The Wall) Pieter de Buysser and Inne Goris

The story of “Muur” begins in 2064, when four children arrive at the place where in 2010 four other children erected a wall on a wasteland. The four children have spent the past fifty years on the outside, in the shadow of their circular wall. They are old now, and a growing network of stories continues to ripple out from the wall. The particular drawing power of a gigantic zero in the middle of the city attracted hundreds of visitors, who came to unearth their personal archaeology of the future. But it is not these four new children’s intention merely to pay a visit.

On the occasion of “Muur”, the following interview was held by Ruth Mariën with Inne Goris and Pieter De Buysser on 8 March 2010.

This wall is not a settlement, it is a lasting liberation.

Pieter de Buysser (P): It might be best to start by saying that we are not going to explain what the wall means. The wall is immune to all explanation. It’s there, and that’s it.

Where did you get the idea for Muur?

P: The concrete spur was an invitation from the Goethe Institute. They were organising the European theatre project After the Fall, for which they had invited playwrights from every country in Europe to write a play on the fall of the Berlin Wall. I didn’t want to take part in a commemoration. As long as thinking (“denken”) doesn’t involve thinking about the future, imagining and creating, commemorating (“herdenken”) will merely remain a useful aspect of consumption. The wall in Berlin did not fall, it was moved. It is now to be found in Lampedusa, Gibraltar and Cadiz, on the borders of Fortress Europe. So I wasn’t seduced by such a festive atmosphere. I wrote a first version of the story of “Muur”.

And you took it to Inne?

Inne Goris (I): We met on 1 September 2008, and in fact I intended to say that I wasn’t going to do it. But Pieter said he was giving me the story and that I could do with it what I wished. So I thought, that’s just to my liking. I don’t like receiving ready-to-use theatre texts. I often feel as though my imagination is stifled by language. Pieter keeps telling me that there is more to language than that. I think: why would one say it if one can put it into a picture? Pieter thinks: why would one create a picture if one can say it in a couple of sentences? We complement one another, urge one another to discover new things. I believe that as a theatre-maker, I made great progress with “Nachtevening” by taking in that, as it were, alien literary text. And now we are both being forced to take another path, because of what that wall implies and the eight people we’re working with.

It took us a lot of time to find a form in which to tell Pieter’s story. It would have been possible to create a beautiful narrative performance with his story. But that isn’t what I wanted as a theatre-maker. Pieter suggested that it be performed outdoors, and I thought that we ourselves should create such a place in the city. So we decided to build a gigantic wall, a wall with a 20 metre diameter on a wasteland, around which the audience and performers could move. Spectators are fitted with a headphone and are free to walk around. Everyone constantly hears everything. The audience thus knows everything before the characters, who never know everything that is happening around the wall. But it can happen that as a spectator, one might hear but not see someone. I find that tremendously exciting. It creates a great sense of intimacy in relation to that imposing structure. The characters are in one’s ear.

P: Such a formal choice has huge implications. How is one to create a script out of that type of theatrical installation, what is almost a piece of sculpture? How does one create a linguistic form which will be in an adequate relation with that gigantic construction? It forced me to think about writing for the theatre today. Language is not just the conveying of meaning, but also rhythm and form, aspects which are just as materially present as that gigantic wall.

I: Pieter, Dominique and I sometimes literally banged our heads against the wall. Dominique initially wanted to have music come from the wall, but from a dramaturgic perspective that wasn’t possible. It’s quite contradictory: the wall is enormous, but at the same time it’s nothing. It’s a big zero, which cannot be endowed in advance with a sense of mystery or significance. I myself also feel that the abstraction of, say, “Naar Medeia” doesn’t work around that wall. I was forced to look for other materials and ways of making theatre.

P: And so the story does to us what we hope it will do to the audience: it forces us to explore new paths.

I: The decision to work with eight amateur actors, children and elderly people, also had consequences. One is forced to turn their weak points into absolute strengths, and to ensure that these characters are alive and have something to say. Pieter was also faced with a challenge: his language is very rich, replete with adjectives and imagery, but some actors admitted that they did not understand it or that they did not want so much text. We then had to take that into account and ask ourselves whether or not it would be possible for us to use different intonations and linguistic registers. It’s a quest: I try out things by improvising on stage, and I draw on that to create characters, images, the dramaturgy. And Pieter uses this to write his text.

But since the performance originated in a novel, a lot was already determined in advance?

P: Not quite, since the performance is not a stage adaptation of a novel. I was literally a part of the performance from square one, and it is that which is important, not the form of my story, which is a totally different genre. I gave Inne two texts with which to start: an unfinished first version of a novel, and a more hybrid philosophical/political/grotesque text entitled “Bricklaying variations for beginners,” in which I sought a utopian impulse.

A utopian impulse?

P: I’m a fan of the “élan vitaliste”, and I advocate it, too, but at the same time I abhor any form of utopianism. In literature and art, a utopia is often represented as an island surrounded by a wall. The wall is a constitutive element of utopian communities. It is within the wall that utopias emerge and also grow into totalitarian regimes. Just look at the work of Thomas More, Fourier and many other literary utopians. That image of the wall also emerges in all its horrible concreteness when a society wishes to create a utopian model. The Berlin Wall was the realisation of communism as a totalitarian utopia. Likewise, the wall that is now being built around Fortress Europe makes clear that liberal capitalism is headed for a totalitarian utopia.

And what is your attitude towards such utopias?

P: We’re building a round wall, and life and the stories take place on the outside, outside the utopia. That which we walled in, or the utopian space that emerges in there, is an empty space which belongs to no one, which cannot be appropriated, an ongoing transit space. I’m interested in how one lives outside the wall and what the impact is of that power void. Utopian idylls are no more than wet dreams about the bourgeoisie’s future comfort. They have little to do with a utopian impulse or the “élan vital”.

We are using a very old theatrical concept: theichoscopy, or “Mauerschau” in German, the view from the walls. It is the moment when a spectator looks at a bare wall, and yet his gaze is diverted outside, to an exterior which, for practical reasons, is not represented on stage. For instance, when a messenger speaks, when a report is given on what is taking place outside the theatre. We hope our “Mauerschau” will allow the audience to imagine a more drastic exterior, an exterior which flows over the edges of our economy, which goes over the shores of our timid, political household and its tame imagination. It seems obvious to me that such an operation is urgently needed. If you just look at the flow of immigrants, the rise in the number of one-euro jobs and one-billion euro jobs, the environmental catastrophe one can already smell, and the like, then an everyday policy whose only inspiring ideal is “good governance” is perversely cynical. That is why I want to start already by imagining a wall that will develop into a breeding group for tomorrow’s practices, a growing network of stories in which one can start over again.

Do you share this utopian frame of mind, Inne? What appeals to you in this wall?

I: In Pieter’s novel, there is a character who moves into the city. He walks through the city and starts asking himself questions about the people he met at the wall, broken people, people who are trying to keep themselves together. I was drawn by their beauty. They all went to the wall in the hope that it would solve something, that they would find something they had lost. Rest? Desire?

P: The expression “tegen de lamp lopen” (literally, to walk into a lamp) means getting caught, that the hidden truth will be exposed. It wouldn’t be a bad thing if from now on the expression “tegen de muur lopen” (literally, to walk into a wall) were to mean that stories will emerge, the vulnerable, fragile fictions in which one finds oneself, in which one tries to lick one’s wounds, in which one tries to find oneself anew. The wall becomes a sort of “plaster place,” but not one where plasters are handed out.

I: I think it is a place which I would get something out of as a person. I’ve often asked myself whether I knew of a building with the same impact? There are religious places, of course: Mecca, the Wailing Wall, etc. People need a place where they can rest, where they can rid themselves of a story. In that respect I think that such a wall can have immense drawing power. What I would find beautiful is if, after the performance, viewers stayed for a while, sat down on a bench next to the wall to rest, or even to tell a story. It’s not necessary for them to understand.

P: No, and in that I see a certain parallel with “Nachtevening”. Medea is the story of someone who commits an incomprehensible, absurd act. “Nachtevening” would fail if one understood why Medea did such a thing, but also if one failed utterly to understand. The same holds for “Muur”. It will have failed if after the performance, one thinks one has understood what the wall stands for. But if one hasn’t the faintest idea what the wall means or why the people are there, then there’s also something wrong. The drawing power is precisely in the question as to why they are there. I can give 101 reasons why, but it will be the 102nd reason, if that.

I: What is easy and what everyone can recognise in the story is the idea of a new generation taking over from an older generation. That older generation, the living story archive, thought that with their death, the wall would disappear. And then young recruits arrive, who know everything about the wall and decide to pursue their work. But the elders believe the wall should not become a monument. They believe the wall belongs to no one. They have always considered themselves those who would make sure that the wall would not belong to anyone. And so, of course, a generational conflict emerges.

P: If the wall becomes a monument, if it becomes religious or political, it will at once lose its power. If the wall belongs to no one, it will be nice to live wildly and dangerously around it, and in that too, there is little difference with how we live, even though we think we’re covered by insurances and Kris Peeters [minister-president of Flanders]. This wall is not a prison, but precisely something which sentences us to be free. It is not a wall which takes up space, but a wall which creates space, so that something else can emerge other than the laws we are familiar with: the possibility of a beginning.

The performance was written with the support of the Goethe Institute and is part of their European project “After the Fall”. A lecture series entitled “Studium Generale #8: ‘Muren… en andere vrijheden” is being organised by Hogeschool Gent around “Muur”.