Freek Mariën (°1988) is currently one of the few theatre authors in Flanders who has developed his own approach to writing for a young audience. However, it would not be correct to see him only in this light. At thirty, Mariën is the embodiment of what a contemporary theatre author in Flanders can be. Mariën sometimes writes in other genres such as prose, but in the first place he chooses theatre. As a theatre maker and writer, he creates productions from within his own company, Het Kwartier, based in Mechelen, for which he is general and artistic leader; in addition, he sees himself as the author of autonomous pieces that can also be read and re-enacted independently of their first staging. His pieces show an enormous awareness of language and form; at the same time, there is a strong commitment to people and the world, and an ever-increasing engagement. For Mariën, form and content are inextricably linked.
Freek Mariën was born in Ghent and grew up in Mechelen in a family with broad artistic and cultural interests. In 2012 he graduated as a Master in Drama from the Royal Academy of Fine Arts (KASK) in Ghent. He already stood out during his studies with De Nietjesfabriek, a youth theatre company that he founded in 2008 together with Sarah Van Overwaelle. In 2015, they each went their own way. Together with his sister Ruth, Freek Mariën founded Het Kwartier and decided to focus not only on young audiences but also on adults.
Thorny subjects for a young audience
Since his debut with the Othello adaptation Iago (Repetitie van het niets) [Iago (Rehearsal of nothingness)] in 2009, Mariën’s writing has undergone continuous development, which demonstrates great flexibility. At the same time, a number of facets keep returning, such as his language sensitivity and his commitment.
Broadly speaking, Mariën’s writing can be placed in three phases. The first period more or less coincides with the existence of De Nietjesfabriek as a company. Derwazeens [There once was] (2009) Vergiet [Colander] (2011) and Altijd tijd voor taart [Always time for pie] (2013) are clearly written for a young audience. The power of the imagination is central here, with the realistic setting being elevated to a fairy-tale and magical-realistic atmosphere. In an honest, poetic and often tragicomic way, these three texts sometimes deal with thorny topics that children can recognise: illness and death, friendship, family, and the fact that parents sometimes find it difficult to find a good balance between their work situation and their private life.
It is striking that at this stage of his development, Mariën takes into account that his pieces must not only be good play texts, but that the text itself must be autonomous. This is evident, among other things, from his use of stage directions, which are an essential part of the play. In Vergiet for instance, the stage directions give extra insight into the main character, a demented grandfather, in the piece called “IK” [I]. Thus the man appears to have a clearer mind and a greater awareness than he is able to express.
Me: Have you put some music on?
Her: Do you remember it?
Her: The music.
Me: Yes, there’s music on.
Her: Do you remember it? You always told me this was your wedding song.
Her: Your first dance.
Me: When did you get married?
Her: I’m not married, grandpa.
(She thinks that’s a shame. I can tell.)
Me: Me neither.
Her: Oh, yes, that was your first dance.
Me: Right! That was our first dance.
(There’s music playing…)
That was a long time ago.
(I try to sing along. She helps me up.)
Her: Can you still dance?
(I nod convinced.)
With Wachten en andere heldendaden [Waiting and other Heroic Acts] (2014), the latest production by De Nietjesfabriek, and De schaar van de tsaar [The scissors of the tsar] (2016), Mariën takes an important step in his maturation as an author. They too in the first place have a young audience in mind, but appeal to many ages due to their greater abstraction. The atmosphere is no longer fantastic, but absurd. The Irish author Samuel Beckett seems to be a source of inspiration for both texts. Mariën is also undergoing an evolution in terms of content. He left behind the private traumas that a (young) person can be confronted with, and embarked on a more existential and socio-political plan. Both pieces sketch a miniature society where there are strict agreements and customs. When a sudden change occurs, the mutual relationships become tense.
As self-assured for example as the guards are in Wachten en andere heldendaden when the play starts, they are disrupted when one of them disappears. Their thoughts run wild when they imagine his return.
The little one with the moustache Little one with the tits. If he comes here, your speck on the horizon. And if he proves to be your speck. Will he still be a guard?
The tall guy with the eyes Is he still in service then?
The little one with the moustache Him fulfil his service?
The tall guy with the eyes So, he isn’t in service?
The little one with the tits No.
The little one with the moustache No.
The tall guy with the eyes Then he’s someone else.
The little one with the tits Then he can’t come here.
The little one with the moustache He’s just like anyone else.
The tall guy with the eyes He’s the enemy.
The little one with the tits We’ll have to say to him:
The little one with the moustache Stay still.
The tall guy with the eyes Stay.
The little one with the tits This is a prohibited area.
The little one with the moustache And him: But it’s me. Me. The tall thin one.
The tall guy with the eyes And us: this is a warning.
The little one with the moustache But you do remember me?
The little one with the tits No one may enter the area behind the Wall.
The little one with the moustache …enter the Wall, yes!
The little one with the tits Just one more step and we’ll be obliged to use violence or some means to restrict your freedom.
The little one with the moustache You, little one with the tits? You remember right? About the spoon?
The little one with the tits Hands above your head, turn around and step away.
The little one with the moustache You told us too: that we needed to experience it! That’s what you said, and I said: yes!
The tall guy with the eyes This is your last warning.
The little one with the moustache You, tall guy with the eyes? You remember who I am, don’t you? I’m coming back here to work! I’m so pleased to see you.
The tall guy with the eyes Hands above your head. Yes, that’s good.
The little one with the moustache I’m thirsty. Am I at least going to get some water? I haven’t been able to drink for days.
The tall guy with the eyes Turn around.
The little one with the tits Keep away from the hat.
The little one with the moustache I really can’t go all the way back, I wouldn’t survive that. I haven’t rested, so that I could find you as fast as I could.
The little one with the tits If you touch that hat once more, I’m going to ram it down your throat so you’ll be shitting fur for weeks!
The tall guy with the eyes Turn around. Yes.
The little one with the moustache I haven’t done anything wrong. Let me stay. I’ll take over your shift. You can give me orders. You can use me. But don’t send me back.
The tall guy with the eyes And walk away.
The little one with the moustache Don’t send me back. I can’t take it any more.
The tall guy with the eyes Walk away.
The little one with the moustache I…
The tall guy with the eyes Yes. That’s the way.
(They’ve stayed silent.)
The little one with the tits If he comes, we’ll have to catch him.
The tall guy with the eyes Or run him off.
The little one with the moustache Or knock him off.
Mariën subtly and sophisticatedly introduces into these texts major themes such as individuality and solidarity; power, control and hierarchy; identity and migration. And that almost playfully: after all, the pieces are related formally to a children’s and party game. In De schaar van de tsaar [The Scissors of the Tsar] for example, the characters assign each other a role, that of the Papa, the Mama and the Child. They pretend to be a family like children sometimes do – but who knows, maybe they are a family?
Since then, Mariën’s palette has become even more diverse. He wrote Het puin van Eden [The garden/rubble of Eden] (2018) together with Carl von Winckelmann (°1982). Co-authorship is a completely new way of working for both. In terms of content, however, the dialogue reverts to familiar territory for Mariën. Het puin van Eden is about the turning point at the age of ten, when imagination as expressed in child’s play, for example, is endangered by growing up and the social pressure that comes with it. Identity too returns as a theme: to what extent are we as human beings partly determined by the gaze from outside? For the first time in his career, Mariën wrote texts commissioned by others, and does not direct them: this is the case for Wat ze zeggen van de olifant [What they are saying about the elephant] (2017) and the short monologue De strop [The noose] (2018), which is listed as part of JUST =, a co-production of the Mechelen companies ARSENAAL/LAZARUS and Zefiro Torna. Together with the large-scale but not yet performed ensemble piece Limonov (2016), De strop is a breath of fresh air in Mariën’s oeuvre. In both texts he focuses on a mature audience, and he bases himself on true facts.
In De strop he stages Joseph Pholien, a Walloon-Belgian politician who resigned as Minister of Justice in 1952 because public opinion resented the fact that he had converted the death penalty of war criminal Richard De Bodt into lifelong forced labour. Mariën’s text reads as one man’s apology and asks whether the will of the people, as well as that of the politician who responds to this, is always justified. Despite the historical setting, the link with current populist tendencies is obvious.
For The Wetsuitman (2019), his most recent piece for Het Kwartier, Freek Mariën also starts from documentary material. The starting point was the discovery in 2014 on a Norwegian and a Dutch beach of two corpses in a diving suit. Through the lens of a journalist, Mariën increasingly zooms in on the facts, until he ends up in the Jarmuk refugee camp near the Syrian capital Damascus. It is a kaleidoscopic piece that approaches the subject of ‘migration’ from various perspectives. Above all, it is a plea, for an audience of fourteen years and older, for empathy in a hardened society. Stylistically, Mariën again approaches The Wetsuitman in a surprising manner: what starts as Scandinavian crime fiction becomes increasingly film like and more documentary. The linguistic style in The Wetsuitman stands out much less than in all of Mariën’s earlier pieces. It is present, but due to the apparently journalistic approach, it has become fully interiorised, it has become part of the story.
Allow me to dwell briefly on this: the importance of language in Mariën’s oeuvre. Over the years, as seen above, the engagement in Mariën’s work has increased. From an author focusing on charged personal themes, he developed (also) into a political writer. Mariën has always seen language as a driving force, both on and off stage. Language is the carrier of fantasy, but it also creates worlds and realities, it has a performative aspect. This gives writers a responsibility. During a so-called State of the Youth, pronounced at the Villanova Festival in Antwerp in 2015, Mariën said the following about this: “Let’s (…) question each word. Let’s wonder again what words intend to say. And if we are unable to explain this exactly, alarm bells should go off. Let’s protect our profession and keep the lies in theatre. (…) Soviet writers renamed things to disguise them. Let us use our lies to reveal our everyday lives. And then let us show alternatives. Fiction after fiction, lie after lie, possibility after possibility. On guard.”
Freek Mariën has received multiple awards for his texts. Vergiet won the international Kaas&Kappes prize in 2012, which honours the best new youth theatre text in the Dutch-German language area, and in 2014, the East Flanders Provincial Prize for Literature. In 2015, with Wachten en andere heldendaden, he became one of the youngest laureates ever of the Dutch Language Union’s (Taalunie) Toneelschrijfprijs, the most important award for a theatre text in the Dutch language area – extra meaningful because this recognition as a writer also came from outside the youth theatre field. Mariën was nominated for the same prize in 2017 for De schaar van de tsaar.
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Written by Peter Anthonissen
Translated by Dan Frett and Paul Evans
Peter Anthonissen has been associated with fABULEUS (Leuven) as dramaturge since 2006. In the Netherlands he works as freelance dramaturge for Theater Artemis and Hoge Fronten. He also teaches drama and the jazz/light music specialisation at LUCA School of Arts in Leuven (Lemmens Campus).
- Iago [repetitie van het niets] (2009)
- Derwazeens (2009) – published by Bebuquin in ‘Klein Magazijn 6’
- Vergiet* (2011) (German translation available at Verlag der Autoren)
- Altijd tijd voor taart (2012) – published by Bebuquin in ‘Klein Magazijn 7’
- Wachten en andere heldendaden* (2014) (German translation available at Verlag der Autoren)
- De schaar van de tsaar* (2017)
- Wat ze zeggen van de olifant (2017)
- Het puin van Eden* (2018) – in collaboration with Carl von Winckelmann
- The Wetsuitman* (2019)
*published by De Nieuwe Toneelbibliotheek