Peter Verhelst (°1962) is a poet, novelist and theatre maker. He came to the theatre relatively late in his career. His first play Maria Salomé (Baconstudie/Kahloterreur) [Maria Salomé (Bacon study/Kahlo terror] appeared in 1997, and in 2002 he directed for the first time with Het Sprookjesbordeel [The Fairy Tale Brothel]. From then on, theatre and writing for theatre played an increasingly important role in his work. He has been a director at NTGent since 2006, where he staged a number of his texts himself (Lex, 2009, Julius Caesar, 2010, Nero 2011, Africa, 2013, Hotel Malaria, 2015, Liefde [Love], 2016). He collaborated with choreographer Wim Vandekeybus (Scratching the inner fields, 2001, Blush, 2002, Sonic Boom, 2002, Nieuwzwart [New black], 2009), with theatre maker and musician Paul Koek (Medea, 2011, Moby Dick, 2013, Arthur, 2014), and with multimedia artist Eric Joris (Philoctetes Fortify My Arms, 2003, CRASH, 2004, Terra Nova, 2011). He also writes texts for repertoire directors such as Ivo van Hove (Romeo en Julia (studie van een verdrinkend lichaam) [Romeo and Julia (study of a drowning body)], 1998), Luk Perceval (AARS! (anatomische studie van de Oresteia) [AARS! (anatomical study of the Oresteia)], 2000) and Johan Simons (Edward II, Ed is dead forever yours, 2007).
Verhelst’s extensive oeuvre, which in the meantime consists of dozens of bundles, novels and theatre pieces, shows a high level of internal coherence. It fans further out with each text, while at the same time producing variations on the same archetypal tensions: stillness and movement, word and image, reason and feeling, self and other, male and female … All these tensions register in the body. It is no coincidence that his fascination for theatre has only increased in recent decades. For Verhelst, ‘theatre’ becomes synonymous with physical communication: “Theatre takes place not only in the theatre hall, but also on squares, on the street, in the bedroom. Wherever one person bumps into another and that one body reacts to that other body, communication, possibilities, misunderstandings, a dance, happiness and sorrow are created”, he noted in 2018.
Verhelst introduced a very unique poetic and physical language to the Flemish playwriting art. In his debut Maria Salomé, traditional drama, with its plot, characters and dialogue is dismantled in a sensory, metaphorical and ambiguous writing style. About the texts he writes, Verhelst says: “They are not pure theatre texts because I believe that the content of a piece can also originate from language itself.” Dramatic action is replaced by a chain of associations, possibly recognisable quotes or clichés, and fragments from Western myths and cultural history. The characters are rather ‘voices’ than recognisable characters, and the dialogues often become disguised monologues. The universe that Verhelst invokes in Maria Salomé is bleak, full of violence, lust and torment. He blends the Greek myth of the labyrinth, the Minotaur and Ariadne with the myth of Prometheus and the story of Maria Salomé, a female matador who turns out to be a man. The masculine and feminine, gender as game, and sexual identity as construction are important themes in Verhelst’s work. What binds the different stories and characters in Maria Salomé together is blood, which stands for violence and destruction as well as passion and lust. The intriguing subtitle (Bacon study/Kahlo terror) refers to the painters Francis Bacon and Frida Kahlo. The flowing, often tightly framed and tormented bodies of Bacon have haunted Verhelst’s work since his poetry debut Obsidian (1987), while Kahlo provides a magical-religious and kitschy inspiration, two other qualifications that apply to Verhelst’s work.
Verhelst is fascinated as much by systems and their coherence as he is by their decay and destruction. Many of the characters who exist in his texts are pre-eminent system builders who just as often fail. Thus ultimate meaning and meaninglessmerge. In his novel Het spierenalfabet [The muscle alphabet](1995), Verhelst expresses it as follows:
‘I want so many images that the meaning disappears, as if in a centrifuge. A spinning fireball that generates a spatter of meanings. Possibilities. I want to be a possibilities-machine.’
Fluidity, metamorphosis and transformation form the heart of Verhelst’s writing. They are not only important themes in his oeuvre, they also determine his thinking about forms and structures. Verhelst explores the boundaries between genres and between the media, and goes beyond them in all directions. His collaborations with plastic artists, choreographers, photographers and musicians stem organically from this poetics. Verhelst also keeps the borders open and fluid within his own oeuvre. Poems appear in his theatre productions, and conversely, theatre texts are included in his poetry collections, usually under a different name. In the bundle Alaska (2003), the theatre text Philoctetes appears: Fortify my arms in the series ‘… OBSTAT’, and the theatre text Utopia GmbH (2007) becomes part of the bundle Nieuwe sterrenbeelden [New constellations] (2008) in the series ‘Let’s get lost – ontwerp van een berg [Let’s get lost – design of a mountain].’ In the opposite direction Koor [Choir] (2017), the anthology of his poetry compiled by himself forms the raw material for his production of the same name. This increases the coherence of his work, but due to the mirror effect of these references, also their labyrinthine effect. For Verhelst, cohesion and dissolution go together at all levels: what at first sight seems to yield more meaning, eventually reduces that meaning to the meaningless.
According to Verhelst, theatre comes “from a kind of inner monologue: the inner that seeks a way out.” The outer world and inner world mirror and merge with one another. One of the starting points of Terra nova, inspired by the story of tragic South Pole explorer Robert Falcon Scott, is the similarity between the map of the South Pole and the morphology of the brain. The new terrain to be discovered lies both in our head and in the outside world. It is no coincidence that many of Verhelst’s texts consist of monologues. In his Medea adaptation, Verhelst juxtaposes Creon, Glauce, Medea and Jason. He also adapted Moby Dick to five monologues in a similar way. Verhelst wrote the monologue Africa for and with actor Oscar Van Rompay. Not about the real Africa, but about the dreamed continent, object of desire, longing and fantasy.
Words as injection needles
For Verhelst, theatre is eminently a sensory and interdisciplinary medium. The plastic arts and music are important sources of inspiration and models, both when writing and when staging: “Music has a direct chemical effect on your body and mind. It is absolutely my dream to be able to achieve the same with language, which is much more difficult because it requires a detour. You understand language through a detour through your brain, while music seems to enter all your pores at once.” The word ‘study’ that pops up in no fewer than four subtitles from his early plays – Maria Salomé (Baconstudie/Kahloterreur) [Maria Salomé (Bacon study/Kahlo terror)], Romeo en Julia (studie van een verdrinkend lichaam) [Romeo and Julia (study of a drowning body)], Red Rubber Balls (studie van een hangend lichaam) [Red Rubber Balls (study of a hanging body)] (1999), AARS! (anatomische studie van de Oresteia) [AARS! (anatomical study of the Oresteia)] – refers explicitly to painting. This direct and immediate sensory contact is the utopia of Verhelst’s theatre.
In 1998 he wrote Minuscule tongvormige droom over goddelijk theatre [Tiny tongue-shaped dream about divine theatre], a plea for a different kind of theatre. For a different relationship between spectator and actor, for more imagination and less truth, more nakedness and fewer tricks. For words ‘that do not have their origin in the mind, but in the body itself. Sensory words.’ And for bodies that ‘can put those words on a stage so that they can be inhaled, tasted, smelled, felt, heard, seen by the audience. Words that act chemically on the audience.’ Verhelst shifts the attention from actor to audience: actors are ‘the injection needle that the audience inserts into themselves’. He strives for theatre as an ecstasy of reality, but not the ecstasy of the body of the actor but that of the audience. He realised this dream in his successful and much-discussed production Sprookjesbordeel in which blindfolded spectators are individually whispered (erotic) stories and physically touched.
Love and power
Manipulation and power are the dark side of seduction. In a number of his texts, Verhelst explicitly deals with the figure of the ruler: Richard III (2005), Edward II and in the triptych Lex (2009) Julius Caesar (2010), Nero (2011). In Verhelst’s staging of Julius Caesar, only Caesar and Brutus have speaking roles. There is hardly any action or plot development. A woman sits on stage sketching the bodies of Caesar and Brutus during the performance. Just as their bodies appear in these sketches as entangled and suffering anonymous bodies, the text of Verhelst entangles very different statements (by Adolf Hitler, Herman Van Rompuy, Heinrich Himmler and Barack Obama) into an awkward and uncomfortable whole of utopian political ideal and monstrous aberration, of humanism and totalitarianism.
Gradually, the explicit nihilistic nature of the early work, in his poetry, prose as well as theatre, changes into a deeper awareness of the temporary, the finite and the vulnerable. The aggression and sharpness of the manipulative desire that injures one’s own and the other body shift to a melancholic and groping desire that seeks a ‘we’, a collective body. About his texts Medea and Nero, Verhelst writes: “We always associate power with badness. But suppose power is fed by love. That Medea kills out of love, that the Emperor Nero is a gifted and gentle ruler. Then a completely different perspective on power emerges.” Recent texts such as Hotel Malaria (2015) and Liefde [Love] (2016) are intimate dialogues between respectively a man and a young girl, and a mother and a daughter. The first text concerns the desire to be seen by the other, while in the second text a mother and a daughter are confronted by the return of their husband and father who has committed war crimes. The mannerist explosion of language and images from the earlier texts has been replaced by hushed but no less intense poetry.
Written by Erwin Jans
Translated by Dan Frett and Rina Vergano
Erwin Jans is currently working as a dramaturg at Toneelhuis in Antwerpen. He teaches theater and drama at Artesis Hogeschool Antwerpen where he also does research on the history of the dramatic text. He writes extensively on literature, theater and culture. He published Interculturele intoxicaties. Over kunst, cultuur en verschil (Intercultural intoxications. On art, culture and diversity) (2006). He was co-editor of an anthology of Flemish postwar poetry Hotel New Flandres (2008). Together with the philosopher Eric Clemens he wrote an essay on democracy that was also translated in French (2010). Last year he published an anthology of the dramatic work of the Flemish playwright and director Tone Brulin (2017).
- Maria Salomé (1997) – published by Bebuquin
- Minuscule tongvormige droom over goddelijk theater (1998)
- Romeo en Julia (studie van een verdrinkend lichaam) (1998)
- Red Rubber Balls (1999)
- Coupe Royal (2000)
- Herr Perceval (2000)
- S*ckmyp (2000)
- AARS! (2000) (translated to English by Barbara Fasting)
- Zeven (2001)
- Universal Irritant (2001)
- Scratching the inner fields (2001)
- Het sprookjesbordeel (2002)
- Blush (2002)
- Sonic Boom (2002)
- Monologen (2002)
- Philoctetes Fortify My Arms (2003)
- CRASH (2004)
- Richard III (2005)
- If (2006)
- Onder den toren (2006)
- Edward II, Ed is dead forever yours (2007)
- Lex (2009)
- Julius Caesar (2010)
- Terra Nova (2011)
- Medea (2011) – published by Bebuquin
- Nero (2011)
- Africa (2013)
- Moby Dick (2013) –published by Bebuquin
- Parsifal (2014)
- Arthur (2014) – published by Bebuquin
- Hotel Malaria (2015)
- Fausttm (2018)