Barbara Claes (°1983) is one of the most remarkable and quirky theatre authors of her generation. She writes texts that swing between razor-sharp social analysis and absurd, grotesque imagination. She followed an Audiovisual Assistant programme at film and theatre school RITCS Brussels and obtained her master’s degree in theatre with great distinction in 2010, also at RITCS.
Societal blind spot
The first pieces by her hand are Oesliesie Hospody (2007) and Avonturen op en rond de vensterbank [Adventures on and around the windowsill] (2010). The special idiom of this writer/maker is immediately apparent in these early texts. They are stories with a strong social-societal anchor point, where the story functions as a complaint against our societal blind spot for social situations and dramas that are pushed and kept to the margins. She always sets up a language of her own. In the early texts, this language remains fairly mimetic-realistic, though with a strong folk character, so that the reader is sucked into a specific social context from the first word. Avonturen op en rond de vensterbank depicts a family drama, in three parts. In part one, the daughter tells her story, in which a form of abuse is almost casually discussed, but that clearly marks the further life of this girl.
‘I’m not a good little girl. I’m not a little girl at all. I’m the child of a bored household on the brink of a golden centenary.
In part two, the father has his say:
‘When I take my leave of the coffee-cups presence of my mother-in-law, I find myself to be suffering from pathological lying. […] I am not a good man. I am not a man at all. I am the slave of a world on its hind legs.’
In part three, the stories come together in a different perspective. The facts seem to turn things around, everything becomes uncertain. More important than indicating who is guilty in this story, Barbara Claes wants to point out that something is happening, that victims are often not heard and that their situation is seldom fundamentally changed. In part three, the text takes the form of a Mass that we experience together. So we too, the audience or the reader, the society that surrounds the story, are part of that story. The text is now a concatenation of group singing, individual stories and sermons.
‘Daughter does history, father does history, both of them do a summary of a silent history […] father is released, mother goes to church choir, church choir closes case, lawyer is bribed […] book is published, film is subsidised, daughter goes on forgetting […] father does wrong, daughter draws parallels, all in all, I made mincemeat of him.’
In addition to her own work, Barbara wrote several pieces with her twin sister Stefanie Claes, who also studied theatre at RITCS: Maar de wolven die leven nog [But the wolves are still alive] (2010) Bottekes [Boots] (2011), Triomff [Triumph] (2011), and De Bultenklacht [The Humpback’s Complaint] (2012). In these pieces, both makers experimented with the way they want to create a production. They worked together among others with students from different schools and with psychiatric patients. The first steps in participatory work were taken here.
Together with Stefanie Claes and Simon Allemeersch, in 2012 she made Het fantastische Leven van de heilige Sint Christoffel [The fantastic life of Saint Christopher], selected for Het Theaterfestival and Circuit X, and honoured with the Roel Verniers Prize. A larger collective emerges from this collaboration: Lucinda Ra, consisting of Barbara and Stefanie Claes, jazz drummer Giovanni Barcella and jazz saxophonist Jeroen Van Herzeele, director-author Simon Allemeersch, photographer Maarten De Vrieze and dramaturge Bart Cappelle. Together they make Het Fioretti Project [The Fioretti Project] (2015), for which they will reside for a year in the child psychiatry ‘Fioretti’ department of the Ghuislain psychiatric hospital in Ghent. Important for this project is that the group does not want to simply make a production about or with these children. They do not want to intrude in the therapy of these children or present their stories. They just want to be present so that something can emerge over time. In the combination of raw texts, absurd images, cutting and pasting, illustrations, models, projections, masks and improvised jazz music, Lucinda Ra creates a poetic portrait of life in Fioretti.
Nothing has been made up, at the very least, a bit exaggerated
In 2016 Barbara also wrote Akaaremoertoe Bahikoeroe (In het bos van Bahikoeroe) [Akaaremoertoe Bahikoeroe (In the forest of Bahi Kuroo)] for Lucinda Ra, a tragicomic family drama, for which she was nominated for the Flemish-Dutch Language Union playwright award. The piece was written in West Flemish dialect: “The inexplicable glossary” is attached at the end. From the beginning the writer of this piece is also present as a character in the text:
‘I am the Writer of this piece/if you have any complaints or if there’s anything you don’t understand you can always write to me afterwards nothing from this publication may be copied or made in public but can be reproduced in living-rooms with reservations/all persons here represented are real and nothing has been made up at most a bit exaggerated/this story has happened in real life repeatedly and I should know because I’m the Writer of this piece’
The first part contains a clear, sharp but poetic explanation of the facts. We are at the address Kerkstraat number fifteen, with the Vandenbroeck family. The five children of the family and the father have been found dead in a forest behind the house. The children in garbage bags, all with their throats cut open. The father dangling from a rope in a tree. Then the text tumbles into a series of absurd scenes, in which a number of dynamics gradually emerge in the family and in the village, which may have played a role in this sad drama. We meet strange, allegorical characters: the mother is ‘the Hiroshima bomb’, there are also ‘the Uber-Maderka’ [Maderka, meaning independence or freedom in Indonesian, Indonesia being part of the former Dutch colonies], ‘the Neutral Pedestal’, ‘Bahikoeroe’ and ‘the Boss’s Boss’s Boss’. Also in this text it feels like we are involved as readers/spectators: we walk through the village, in search of the truth. But at the same time we become part of the village, and with that we can again become part of a social situation in which a drama can take place.
Barbara Claes composed an imaginative universe in which she gives voice to pure human misery, the great difference between rich and poor, and the injustice that comes with it.
‘the Boss’s Boss’s Boss: we are all human/but a couple who have got to know each other in a secluded workshop/I have my reservations about them/like attracts like/that’s our nature/but don’t tempt fate/they’re both illiterate/so why the hell would you need a laptop?’
Musical aspects also appear in this text: pieces of text that sound like a song with verses and choruses. The recurring chorus in the first part of the text immediately puts a finger on the wound and points to a responsibility on the part of those who look on in this story.
‘a train has been derailed in Brussels-North/an accident on the E40/Cossack villagers are speaking out/the missing child of a florist in Diest/I’ll be a disaster tourist till my dying day’
In 2016, together with sister Stefanie, Barbara Claes created the production Euthanasie met Barbara en Stefanie [Euthanasia with Barbara and Stefanie]. The sisters touch on a subject they have personally encountered, but in many cases remains a taboo. It is important for them to approach the subject with humour and lightness. “The law and practice are so rational. You soon become entangled in a web of literality. We found that lightness was an important tool to tell our story. At lectures on the latest in palliative care, specialists don’t hide anything. But that they also jokingly speak of death, feels like a liberation. A lot of humour is also involved in the role- playing that end-of-life doctors engage in during their training.” In the text, they tell the story of an old man and a young girl.
‘I’m Mimi Schmidt I’ve applied for euthanasia because I’m bothered by birds/but Mimi Schmidt you’re still so young so young/shame I say they’re not going away those birds that dwarf bunting that lapland owl that grey eagle the crow never stands still those storks such barbarians/how long have you been trading those pigeons?/they’ve been clandestine under my ribs since I was ten/what do you want what do you want then Mimi Schmidt?/I’d like to make a swallow’s journey with views of the red sea not in the nude but in a small boat I’m Mimi Schmidt’.
The text can be read almost entirely as a musical score. However, some parts are wordless and briefly described, after which an animation or a dance takes place.
‘15: second dervish whirl/Osman whirls/Barbara and Stefanie whirl/Philippe whirls/Mimi whirls/everything whirls/everyone whirls/light/lighter/very light/dark’.
The entire text is bathed in mystery, slowness, and ritual. “We evoke the stagnation that is death as a slow and long process. It’s as if time is abolished.” This text is essentially about euthanasia, but it is not written to express a point of view. Both makers approach the theme in an open way and look for images for different forms of fantasy and feeling around the topic. While at the same time the scene where the ‘cardinal birds’ speak does not beat about the bush:
‘ooothanasia ish death tabooo whoo hooo/Goebels Mengele Mostefai the French Revolution Andrash Pandy Breifkip all Euthanaseurs/abort yourself a wasp but not yourself abortus provocatus ish death tabooo whoo hooo’.
In 2017, Lucinda Ra organised Grondwerk [Groundwork], a three-day ‘festival’ or ‘studio’ in which they as collective presented individual productions and research. With this concept they set up shop in different theatre houses. Within Grondwerk, Barbara presents the singing production Jordy: a tragic, true story about a 19-year-old boy who is found dead in a tent at the Blaarmeersen recreation park in Ghent. Jordy was placed in a foster home as a child because his divorced parents did not take care of him. He later ended up in an assisted living home, but from the age of 18, he, too soon, was on this own. He died alone and in hardship. The song is primarily the processing of an article by journalist Eline Bergmans in De Standaard on 6/4/2017. In a next step, Barbara Claes worked on a script in which she would develop Jordy’s story into a film. The switch to a different medium is in line with Claes’ reflex to always push the boundaries of a discipline and combine them: theatre, visual arts, poetry, but also the border between reality and imagination, between documentary and fiction. With these ingredients, the further career of this talented artist promises to remain very relevant and exciting.
Written by Esther Severi
Translated by Dan Frett and Rina Vergano
Esther Severi is dramaturge at Kaaitheater in Brussels since 2015, and teaches at the drama department of the Royal Conservatory in Antwerp. She works with artists such as Els Dietvorst, Thomas Bellinck, Radouan Mriziga, Katja Dreyer and Michiel Vandevelde.
- Oesliesie Hospody (2007)
- Avonturen op en rond de vensterbank* (2010)
- Maar de wolven die leven nog (2010)
- Bottekes (2011)
- Triomff (2011)
- Het fantastische leven van de Heilige Sint-Christoffel zoals samengevat in twaalf taferelen en drie liederen (2011)
- De Bultenklacht, een concert voor rusteloze zielen (2012)
- Kamelen en muzieken, een concert door de Bourgeoisie (2013)
- De Bultenklacht (2014)
- Het Fioretti Project (2015)
- Euthanasie met Barbara en Stefanie* (2016)
- Akaaremoertoe Bahikoeroe* (2016)
- Grondwerk (2017)
- Jordy (2017-2018)
*published by De Nieuwe Toneelbibliotheek