Freek Vielen (°1985) has been writing theatre texts for ten years. This has given him time to develop a specific oeuvre, but at the same time he remains very open to new exercises. In any case, this much is certain: few know how to so grandly portray humanity with such small sketches of recognisable people. Vielen’s key? The poetry of the mosaic.
The face toward society
There is always something problematic about distinguishing generations, but Freek Vielen passes for a standard-bearer of his. Not that he would advertise this himself; he is much too quiet for that. But born in the mid-1980s, he is one of those talented creators who graduated from drama school in the years that the Dutch cultural sector was forced to engage in a ‘March of Civilisation’ against cost cutting in the arts in The Hague, while the first austerity measures in Flanders were also accompanied by whiny public debates about the support of the arts in society. The artistic world stood with its back to society, it was said. Art, left-wing hobby. The time of absolute autonomy, when each strictly individual inspiration was still considered legitimate, seemed – if that time ever existed – to be gone forever.
Vielen’s generation never found this a big loss. For them, inspiration from the rest of society, often with the camera or through interviews with experts, was almost second nature. That Vielen as a Dutchman was trained in the diction department of the conservatory in Antwerp, is no surprise. Documentary was part of his basic package, his primary interest at and after school was radio. Perhaps not coincidentally, world news is never far away in his pieces.
Somewhere in his first theatre text, the monologue Begin –verder in het noordoosten lichte bewolking [Beginning – further in the northeast light cloudiness] (2010), Vielen writes the biography of his generation against the backdrop of the global highlights:
‘Four when the Wall fell, five when Nelson Mandela was freed and Iraq attacked Kuwait with American poison-gas, six when Berlin became the capital of Germany, the Soviet Union fell apart, race riots set America on fire, seven when Europe opened its borders […] fifteen when a millenium ended without a millenium bug, sixteen when two planes slammed into the Twin Towers, seventeen when Pim Fortuyn existed, drove the Netherlands mad and was killed by a madman, the Euro arrived, eighteen when the Second Gulf War began and the new disease SARS appeared, nineteen when Bush was re-elected, Theo van Gogh murdered, a tsunami killed 300,000 people in South-East Asia.’
What can theatre do with so much world news, while public opinion seems to be increasingly polarising? An impossible question, of course. You would receive a sigh as answer from many theatre makers. But Vielen – and with him many contemporaries – sees it as his responsibility to take on this question. At least according to the open start of Begin, addressed directly to the audience:
you must have read at some point
in the paper or maybe on the internet
that the aim of theatre is to make you forget everything
make the whole outside world just
completely disappear for a while
we the audience have never been able to manage that, we can’t do it
we’re always too busy thinking about what we’ve been doing that day
what we’re doing tomorrow
what we’re going to say in the foyer afterwards and to whom
‘it had some nice bits in it’
‘we didn’t think it was all good’
‘it took a while for it to get going’
‘but then it really got going’
but then worded in such way that not only our taste
our exclusive taste, but also the justification of that taste
is on display with a serious wink of irony
in short, we can’t shut out the outside world in the theatre
that’s why we want to reassure you
perhaps you find it nice to know
that while you’re trying to forget the world
we will stay in constant contact with the outside world
for your own safety
via satellite, radio, earpieces, tv, internet, ipad, iphones
we will continually know what is going on
in Baghdad, New York, Brussels, Nairobi
and will, if necessary, respond to it live
point out backgrounds, deliver commentary
invite experts, phone correspondents
do stuff with graphics
all live of course
and afterwards we’ll
ridiculise, bagatellise, relativise
maybe something with funny characters or jingles
and finally, just before you leave the auditorium, we’ll warn you
but in such a way that you can still go home with peace of mind
in short, we’re offering you the piece of basic entertainment you’d expect in a disaster
we’re going that extra little mile for you
you’ve got to have a go, as an emerging and competitive theatre-maker
It is a rare moment of irony in Vielen’s oeuvre, especially when he further assures the audience ‘that no one will blame you, when seeing a car burning in the immigrant suburbs, from thinking of your car insurance and not of the class struggle’. Flamboyantly and with delightful ambiguity, in one and the same movement Vielen puts on the agenda the individual and collective urge to deny on the part of both the theatre world and its bourgeois audience, but in such a way that – despite everything – understanding shines through. Offending the audience is not Vielen’s thing, on the contrary. His texts will always be warmly welcomed in the theatre hall. Not the back, but the open face is toward society.
From mirror to window
What the writer then shares are in the first place his own doubts in the difficult balancing act between the scream of the world and the sweet soothing of the theatre. What he writes is theatre that seeks its political effect by, starting from himself, making the big questions of people and the world manageable and authentic by first applying them to himself, preferably on a daily basis.
Thus the opening speech of Begin, a kaleidoscopic sketch of a love affair against the backdrop of a world on fire ends with the confession of ‘a boy who will tell for an hour that he also doesn’t know, and maybe something about love’. Not a cheap form of self-relativisation, but an attempt to get the theatre hall into a similar state of receptivity, beyond all ideological entrenchments. In the world that Vielen wishes to expose, we are – prior to our political citizenship – first and foremost just people. With he himself in front. As the other half, as a theatre maker, as someone who likes to converse: he is always a protagonist in his writings, without ever being selfish.
At the same time, his work always goes in the other direction: from the private individual to our shared community. This happens in among others in Heimat 3 – How to Build A Home (2018), which Vielen wrote together with De Nwe Tijd (of which he is the artistic director together with Rebekka de Wit and Suzanne Grotenhuis). This production treats the theme of ‘loneliness’ not only as an individual or existential issue, but also as a societal issue. The piece searches for the roots of this at the first World Exhibition at the Crystal Palace in London in 1851: ‘If you listened very hard, you could hear for the first time the buzz, like a soft siren-song, of two new questions: who am I, what do I want?’ Loneliness is explained based on the illusion of the self-made man, who can buy everything he needs to distinguish himself. The ‘I’ has become number one in the showcase of our global store advertising spot.
This analysis is of course not new, but what Vielen and co. tend to do with it is different from many stage authors who preceded them. They belong to a generation that is not merely satisfied with the dark detection of what is going humanly or socially wrong, but that also wishes to offer a perspective – no matter how little pretension Vielen himself has about it.
In both Begin and Heimat 3 this is done in the form of a closing letter – in Heimat 3 addressed to James Wood, a British gamer who shouted his loneliness online in a scribbled text under the song ‘How to build a home’ on YouTube. People born long before 1985 might find the answer in the piece – not the why of existence counts, but the how – moralistic, or a misplaced life lesson on the free stage. In reality, it is comfort that is intended. Vielen and De Nwe Tijd seem to want to offer our broken, analysed society a roof again, a house. Or just a window, depending. Because if the theatre can only leave its audience in the dark, why engage in it?
Human love in multi-perspective
The way in which Vielen manages to avoid any dullness in this attempt at reconciliation is above all a matter of form, structure and composition. His pieces consist more of individual chapters than of scenes, and those chapters are often also composed of short individual sketches, observations, and side thoughts. There is never a single tight narrative line, rather a composite of recognisable dialogues, sometimes a cultural-historical elaboration, a short poetic description, a newspaper article, a banal enumeration, or even a start to a story. The person: an existence in multi-perspective. What Vielen wants to say, flourishes from between the gaps of these text blocks, to then more and more tangibly float above them.
At the edge of pure abstraction, this process is perfected in Dracula, a piece written for De Tijd in 2014, and awarded the Dutch Language Union (Taalunie) Playwright Award for best text of that year in the Low Countries. The title is misleading: the piece is more about feeling sucked dry than about the world’s most famous vampire. Between an opening joke, a few monological dialogues between a father (with a burnout?) and his daughter (with anorexia?), three biblical fragments, a cooking recipe, a piece of Romeo and Julia by night, something encyclopedic about the blackbird, two dreams at the doctor, a bit of biology about the origin of the world, a series of intercessions for sad people, … cheers up the catharsis of an imperfect existence. What is it about? ‘It’s about…’: so ends Dracula. In complete uncertainty. In the weak certainty that there are few guarantees.
these are the people I saw:
a woman of 70, who, because it’s Tuesday,
goes to yet another funeral of a person she doesn’t know
she is wearing a fur coat and a lot of make-up
a girl of 25 who is covered in invisible bruises
who says ‘ow’ when you accidently touch her
for whom everything is the straw that breaks the camel’s back
because it’s been broken since she was nine and had no friends
let us cry for her
a woman of 30 who continually hears her own name in her head
as swear word, as accusation
when for example she drops something and accidentally becomes visible
which wasn’t the intention, which was never the intention
which causes her to be continually visible and to continually hear her own name
as swear word as accusation
let us cry for her
a woman only watches tv when she’s in the fitness room on the hometrainer
so she knows why and where she is cycling to
cry for her
a man in a suit stands at the bus-stop and yells
cry for him
a bus driver says: act normally or you’re not getting on
cry for him
a man asks the doctor: how are you
because he’d like to be asked that question himself
cry for him
these are the things I heard:
the silence of the child’s room without life
the silence of a durum business full of strip lights without customers
bought with money loaned from Morocco
by a man of forty with a pot-belly
as last chance, as straw to grasp at
the silence of a mountain valley without crickets without people without light
where a man sleeps with five books and a rucksack
because he thought he wanted to go away
cry for them
these are the people I read about:
a woman in the paper who says: the question ‘am I actually happy’
is perpetual motion, the eternal drive wheel
cry for her
a man in the paper who says:
my favourite holiday was a week in lapland
it was 38 below and it got dark at four o’clock
I didn’t go snow-mobiling, didn’t do anything
but I enjoyed the different sorts of white and the emptiness
cry for him
a man in the paper who says: I’d like to be good-looking again through physical labour
so that my body is more tired than my head again
cry for him
Vielen does not write complicated sentences. Nor Baroque images or thoughts. On the contrary, he makes it a point of honour to make his human portraits as stylistically impressionable as possible, almost naïve. ‘A man’, ‘a mother’, ‘a boy and a girl’: his characters are at the same time completely unique in their concrete anecdotalism, and templates for each person due to their anonymity. They crystallise an image of man in which evil does not exist, and only good is sought with all one’s power – often in vain. There is no us and them, never even an antagonist, which is so essential to drama. Vielen’s concept of humanity builds on understanding. It is human love materialised in words. There is still so much possible in the world, in history, in the future – that is what his theatre texts seem to whisper between the lines.
Not the bottom, but the horizon
Even the two less cheerful novels that Vielen converted to theatre, Slaughterhouse 5 by Kurt Vonnegut and Nothing by Janne Teller, receive something hopeful in his hands. In the monologue So it goes (2015), he interweaves his retelling of the terrible bombing of Dresden – an attempt to understand the phenomenon of war – with his own conversations with his dramaturge (and former lover), to arrive at a reflection on time and acceptance. From Nothing, he rewrites the dark quest for meaning into a plea for the minor wonders of human existence. Again: writing theatre like opening a window in the wall that continually encounters the totality of human history.
Although these adaptations of novels, due to their identifiable characters and their greater narrative power, read very differently from Vielen’s own theatre texts, in the end he bends these original works his way rather than vice versa. What attracted him to them was their dark existential side, as well as their grand philosophical questions. He finally passes them on with a slight hint of the break of dawn. Because even though things are the way they are, they do not needto be so. Vielen likes to make an ellipsis of the period that is often put behind things: three dots as a series of stepping stones to a different outcome. Or at least to a better understanding of what makes us look alike – instead of different.
The storytelling theatre of Freek Vielen testifies in its deepest foundations to a silent dream: that the Titanic does arrive. You could also read his newest piece, De Aankomst van de Titanic [The Arrival of the Titanic] (2018), as a short summary of his entire oeuvre to date: an attempt to refloat the sinking ship – here the cruise ship Costa Concordia that ran into the rocks off the Italian coast in 2012, with 32 dead – or at least to keep it afloat. His oeuvre is also still underway: like an ark full of stories and lonely desires on the waves of a surging society, the poetic details of which all reflect one great faith in the sense of travelling together, because we simply all are in the same boat. Destination: not the bottom, but the horizon.
Written by Wouter Hillaert
Translated by Dan Frett and Rina Vergano
Wouter Hillaert is a Belgian cultural journalist. For 15 years he has been working as a freelance theatre critic for the Flemish daily newspapers De Morgen and De Standaard. In 2003 he co-founded the free cultural magazine rekto:verso on arts and society of which he is still one of the coordinators. His main topics are theatre, cultural policy and community arts. In 2014 he initiated the Flemish civil movement Hart boven Hard, and is still its spokesperson.
- Held met sjaal (2007)
- Begin – verder in het noordoosten lichte bewolking (2008) – published by Theaterboek
- Stel je voor ik zoek een staat (2011) – in collaboration with Rebekka de Wit and Maarten Ketels
- Liever niet (2012)
- Heimat 1 (2013) – in collaboration with Rebekka de Wit, Tom Struf, Harald Austbo and Suzanne Grotenhuis (translated to English)
- Dracula (2014) – published by De Nieuwe Toneelbibliotheek Pindakaasprins (2015)
- So it goes (2015) – free adaptation of ‘Slaughterhouse 5’ by Kurt Vonnegut
- Heimat 2 (2016) – in collaboration with Rebekka de Wit, Tim David, Harald Austbo and Suzanne Grotenhuis
- Niets (2017) – free adaptation of ‘Niets’ by Janne Teller
- De aankomst van de Titanic (2017) – published by Wintertuin
- Heimat 3 (2018) – in samenwerking met Rebekka de Wit, Tim David, Harald Austbo, Suzanne Grotenhuis and Matthias Van den brul
- Doe de groeten aan de ganzen (2019)