Wednesday, January 8, 2020

That's Entertainment!

“GHENT, Belgium — The NTGent theater here was out of step with its surroundings last weekend. As the bustling, family-friendly Christmas market of this handsome port city was still going strong, with craft and jewelry stalls half framing the theater’s doors, inside a somber audience gathered for a new stage production about a family’s collective suicide.

Under the circumstances, the bleak subject matter could easily have felt gratuitous. Yet that sense of detachment from the world is at the heart of the play, Milo Rau’s “Familie,” which links suicide to a sense of contemporary hopelessness.

Different family response to sick, broken world
The production was inspired by the story of a family of four, the Demesteers, who killed themselves in Calais, France, in 2007. Rau, a Swiss-born theater director who has been at the helm of NTGent since 2018, enlisted another real family to imagine what might have happened on their last night: the married couple An Miller and Filip Peeters, who are stage and TV actors, and their daughters, Leonce and Louisa.

Most directors would probably draw the line at asking amateur teenage actors to simulate their own suicide, but Rau loves an ethical minefield. Last year, he made work in a former war zone in Iraq and cast former migrant workers in a cinematic retelling of the life of Jesus in Italy.

 “Familie” completes a trilogy about violent episodes in modern Europe, starting in 2016 with “Five Easy Pieces,” about a child abuser in Belgium, and followed by “La Reprise — Histoire(s) du Théâtre (I),” a stunning exploration of the murder of a gay man.

All of these productions have invited controversy, and not always with a clear payoff. I found Rau’s recent “Orestes in Mosul,” which asked Iraqi war victims to re-enact traumatic events for the benefit of European audiences, exploitative in practice, for instance.

And while “Familie” is a smaller-scale project, its explicit staging of the protagonists’ suicide led the Flemish Center of Expertise in Suicide Prevention to express concern before the premiere in the Belgian newspaper De Morgen that the play might inspire copycat attempts.

On opening night, for the first half-hour or so, “Familie” left me cold. The Miller-Peeters are shown performing everyday tasks — pinning photos to a wall, cooking — inside a glass-walled house. In voice-over, they list their favorite things: Peeters, the father, likes to walk naked on the beach, we learn, and one of his daughters enjoys Harry Potter and dogs.

Soon enough, 15-year-old Louisa sits down in front of a video camera outside the house to tell us about the genesis of the production, using one of Rau’s favorite directorial tricks. She looks reticent as she shares that a friend killed himself; suggests that she, too, has contemplated suicide; and tells how she discovered the Demesteers’ story.

As often with Rau, it’s impossible to tell whether all of this is true or whether it’s part of the director’s intentional blurring of the lines between reality and fiction. [Maybe he should run for President – Ed.]

We learn from Louisa that there was no suspicion of foul play after the Demeester family’s deaths, and that there was no history of illness or trauma. The note they left behind simply read, “We messed up, sorry.” Their story doesn’t fit neatly into any patterns, as specialists noted after the event, which makes it initially hard to reconcile on an intellectual level with the ordinary lives that “Familie” depicts.

As “Familie” progresses, however, that ambiguity allows Rau’s superb cast to imagine how their own final night might unfold.

They have dinner and watch home movies in near silence. Afterward, they clean up and dress up in fancy clothes in preparation for the end. On a screen above the stage, we see their faces up close, filmed by a discrete [Did our deep-thinking critic mean 'discreet', as anyone not in a family filming them would be discrete by definition? – Ed.] crew, with minuscule cracks occasionally appearing in their composure.

Before she was the Times Belgian theater critic,
she was an art student
The family’s decision is never discussed directly. Internal monologues are the only clue to each person’s thinking. “I don’t know what’s good or bad anymore,” the mother, Miller, says wistfully. [Maybe she could become a theater critic for the Times – Ed.]

Near the end, though, Louisa breaks the fourth wall again. “While rehearsing this play, we discussed the meaning of life, but no one had an answer that convinced me,” she says, before briefly alluding to global leaders’ inaction on climate change: “The world is broken, sick.”

On opening night, her speech rang true. Suddenly, I recognized a kind of despair that I’ve seen in many people around me recently.

Émile Durkheim, the 19th-century French sociologist, coined the term “anomic suicide” to describe the phenomenon of people ending their lives because they feel disconnected from a rapidly changing, chaotic society. That may or may not have applied to the Demesteers, but in 2020, the Miller-Peeters’ subdued anomie is all too recognizable.

“Familie” is hardly for everyone. Some may find it dangerously triggering — especially the unnecessarily realistic final scene — and the play’s publicity material is peppered with warnings and help-line numbers.

But the chill it casts isn’t mysterious or extraordinary, if you can bear it. In the end, Rau hits presciently close to home.”

The New York Times, January 6, 2020.

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