Mezcal, love and death: a spellbinding ‘Onder de vulkaan’

'Onder de vulkaan' (Toneelhuis)

A man on a chair. A big wall. An empty stage. And then he starts talking. Sometimes you know from those first sentences uttered that everything will be alright. That you’re going to spend a special evening in a theatre. I was really impressed by Onder de vulkaan, the adaptation for the stage of Malcolm Lowry’s classic Under the vulcano, by Flemish director Guy Cassiers and actor Josse De Pauw, for Antwerp’s Toneelhuis.

Guy Cassiers has made his mark as a director, on the international scene, in the few last years. He has become a regular guest of the French festival in Avignon. He will be bringing his version of Der Ring des Nibelungen at La Scala in Milan (with Daniel Barenboim), in 2010. There’s even a Spanish version of his Bezonken rood, premiering in Madrid, these days (and Onder de vulkaan/Sous le volcan is travelling to Paris right after its premiere in Antwerp). But to be honest: I’ve not always been an avid fan of his work. He uses a lot of video and technology, and it often makes his plays too clinical for me. It creates a feeling of distance, whereas it’s supposed to draw me in.

So I was surprised, that this time around, he managed to put me under a spell. The video-images (shot in Mexico) on the huge back wall and the noise effects helped in creating a dreamlike, timeless atmosphere, that proved to be just right for this classic, hallucinatory story of love, booze and death set in Mexico. I was really in awe of Josse De Pauw, who plays the perpetually drunken consul Geoffrey Firmin. To play a drunk without overacting? Respect. I liked the idea of him not having to pour a drink each and every time, but showing an image of a bottle or a glass on the wall instead.

Katelijne Damen’s performance (his wife Yvonne Constable) was impressive too. But not everybody will be in favour of the really subdued style of acting. The  four actors are moving and speaking almost too quiet and un-emotional to be true (their voices are transmitted by little microphones), being caught up in this vortex of feelings. But strangely enough: it works, put together with the images. You get drawn into a trancelike atmosphere, that makes you sense: there’s much more going on than what you hear or see. You get why Cassiers prefers to adapt books, as they tend to give him more ‘space’ and they trigger his imagination and that of his audiences too.

Sure, the play has some flaws. But in the end, that didn’t matter to me. I left the theatre thinking: I want to read that book again. I want to see that John Huston-movie. I love it when art makes you hungry for more.

Calendar of performances here.

(photo credit: Koen Broos)

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