Cool Dood actors revel in surprises


The performers of Dutch theatre company Dood Paard, who will perform inDublin next month, have no fear of the unknown - they don't bother with directors and they change their productions every night according to how they feel

Live performance is inherently unpredictable; that is what makes it special. You never know whether you'll be there on the night that the play, or the concert, or the opera comes together more perfectly than it ever has before. Or it all might fall apart, an eventuality most performance companies try very hard to gird themselves against: hence understudies, extra violin strings, and stage managers with prompt scripts standing just offstage.

The Dutch theatre company, Dood Paard, however, has no such fear of the unknown: the liveness of performance seems to be what the group thrives on. Its productions, two of which will be performed in Dublin on January 7th to 9th as part of the Pan Pan International Theatre Symposium, change every night. Although the company usually works with scripts, the performers maintain the freedom to alter the text and change the staging as it suits them. As part of their rehearsal process, they talk, they do research, they sometimes take field trips - but the one thing they never do is "block"; that is, decide how the actors are going to move and interact on stage. That's up to how they feel on the night.

If this sounds terrifying to mortals like you and me, it's clearly what has kept the small company together for more than a decade; they would find anything else, in the words of co-founder Oscar von Woensel, "boring". Von Woensel, Manja Topper and Kunno Bakker first met in the late 1980s at a four-year actors' training programme in Arnhem, and decided to create a company when they left school and moved to Amsterdam. Their training programme, unlike others around the Netherlands, focused on the actor's individuality, an emphasis the trio took to heart: at the core of Dood Paard's work, says von Woensel, is the notion of "the actor as theatre-maker, not as a toy or instrument of someone else".

While the company has swelled to include another full-time performer, Gillis Bieshevel, and a general manager, Marten Ooesthoek, as well as part-time performers, administrators, technicians and the odd DJ, it never works with directors.

"Except for the technicians, the people who create the show are onstage every night," says von Woensel emphatically.

The result is wild to watch. I caught up with the company in Eindhoven last November when it was performing its latest production, Chinindrest Take-Away (the title refers to a distinctively Dutch version of fast food). When the audience entered, the four performers - actors von Woensel, Topper, and Bieshevel, and DJ Steve Green - were already on stage, surrounded by dozens of battery-powered toy dogs which were stripped of their fake fur so that we could see through the transparent plastic bodies to their internal mechanisms. The company performed with the house lights up: the show seemed spontaneous, beginning when the performers started talking, their quiet voices amplified by radio microphones.

Most of the show's lines started with the phrase (in Dutch): "I can't imagine that . . ." - which was here meant to communicate both a sense of things being inconceivable, and of the speakers being hard to convince. The phrase was followed with - well - whatever the actors felt like saying.

Though the company has assembled hours of potential material that may or may not be called on in its performances, the productions are improvised nightly, responding to the day's news, and extending conversations and themes that may have come up the last time a show was performed.

One riff the night I attended had to do with the expansion of the European Union. "I can't imagine that Romania isn't part of the EU," said one performer. "I can't imagine that Finland isn't either," said another. "I can't imagine Europe," was the response, and so on.

Green's DJ-ing adds another layer of interest and unpredictability: the actors don't know what he's going to play, and the music underscores and sometimes overpowers the words.

In Chinindrest Take-Away, there are, I am told, a few signpost moments that always happen in each performance, such as the monologues about their childhoods that each company member performs, spoken against the backdrop of a single photograph of a branch of the best-known Dutch retail store. The cast always end by winding up all the toy dogs and standing amid the chaotic barking.

Even for someone who doesn't speak Dutch, the show is compelling because it feels so alive. The actors seem completely relaxed and don't look like they're "performing" at all, but their quality of attention to each other and their environment is quite extraordinary.

While it's hard to nail down exactly what Dood Paard's work means, it certainly feels like an engagement with the texture and complexity of contemporary life, in its contrast between the baffling barrage of information we receive every day and the depressing homogeneity of consumer culture (the chain store).

This engagement extends to topical political commentary. The dialogue in Chinindrest Take-Away, for example, often references the highly fraught state of current Dutch politics (a three-party coalition government fell in late 2002 having only just come into power, and new elections are scheduled for January).

"There used to be a kind of taboo to making political theatre, at least in Holland," says von Woensel. "It was like it belonged to the 1960s and was always moralistic. But our point of view is that it's important to use politics and what happens around the world and in our country. Theatre and art can be things that help your thinking."

Chinindrest Take-Away is in one crucial aspect quite different from most of the rest of the company's work, in that it is not based on an existing text. The company speaks with great respect about the authors whose work it has performed: Shakespeare, Aeschylus, Euripides, Albee, and Beckett, among others. What may be disconcerting for people unfamiliar with Dutch and Flemish theatre, though, is how easily and freely these texts are altered and edited in performance.

"There is no tradition in Flanders and the Netherlands of text-based theatre," says Luk van den Dries, professor of theatre at the University of Antwerp. "That is what makes us very different from German, French, British, and Irish theatre. We think text is important, but you can play with it and interpret anew. Dood Paard's freedom with texts is evidence of this kind of thinking."

Such freedom is apparent in 40,000 Sublime and Beautiful Thoughts, one of the productions the company is bringing to Dublin. It is based on German writer Peter Handke's 1967 play, Selbsbezichtigung (Self-Accusation), which consists solely of statements speakers make about themselves: "I have lived", "I have moved", "I called peace lazy". Dood Paard combines parts of this script with quotes from current news stories that they assemble before each performance.

While the company tours extensively around Europe, it has only once performed in England and never before in Ireland. It is translating 40,000 Sublime and Beautiful Thoughts from Dutch to English specifically for its Dublin performances. The other production it is bringing over, MedEia, written by von Woensel, is unique in its repertoire in that it was written in English - or a particular, invented form of the language, what von Woensel calls "pop song English". Many of the lines in the show are quotations from songs, everything from the Beatles to rap.

"In the end, every line in the show sounds like it could have been a lyric, even if it's not," he says. "Lyrics let us talk about love and political things in an easy way."

The show retells the mythic story of Medea, using material from previous versions, including those written by the ancient Greek playwrights and from the Pasolini film. The four performers play members of thechorus.

"We wanted to make the myth human," says von Woensel. "Something about people, not the gods. So we decided to tell it from the point of view of the chorus looking on."

According to van den Dries, one of Dood Paard's defining characteristics is the youthful profile of its audience; young people love what he calls their "rock energy". Most of the Eindhoven audience were indeed twenty-somethings who ate the show up; but the work seemed equally interesting to an elderly woman who sat alone in the front row and was completely absorbed throughout.

Dood Paard's liveness clearly compels across age boundaries, and its Dublin sojourn will be an interesting barometer of its ability to cross cultural boundaries as well.