Laying around and drinking beer: welcome to Stan’s Thomas Mann book club

It beats me. Why would you want to spend two hours on stage talking about a book, when in the end your conclusion is: this book is too old, it holds no relevance for us anymore, these days. I’d say: well, take another book then, instead of Thomas Mann’s De Toverberg (Magic mountain). We hebben een/het boek (niet) gelezen feels like looking at someone trying to get a car started for two hours, who then gives up and walks away. A rather unsatisfying experience. And surprisingly so, because the play brings together actors from four fine theatre companies from Belgium and the Netherlands: tg Stan, De Koe, Maatschappij Discordia and Dood Paard. It premiered at Kaaitheater, Brussels.

At the beginning Peter Van den Eede climbs on a ladder and ‘wipes out’ the big clock on the back wall. Yes: Hans Castorp had planned on staying for seven days in that sanatorium in Davos, but he ends up living there for seven years. That’s what happens in Thomas Mann’s legendary novel De toverberg (The magic mountain) from 1924. Can we bring this book to the stage or not? For two long hours the six actors are debating about it. They sit and lie around, smoke, drink beer and champagne, all of them having that big book close at hand. One of them is reading 1001 books you must have read. Somebody else starts a conversation about another book: How to talk about books you haven’t read.

They get lost in seemingly irrelevant discussions. Once in a while they perform fragments from the book. Doors fall down, pencils are passed on. You wonder why, but during the play you realize that it all makes sense. Indeed, a couple of important elements from De toverberg are nicely incorporated into the performance: the snow, a gun, pencils, music. And of course, this being a sanatorium, some of them drink from a medicine bottle once in a while, and they talk about fever, blankets and their temperature. Somewhere along the way Van den Eede explains his take on irony and sarcasm. And you learn that one of those six actors has actually never even finished the book.

After a fairly static play, they throw a few great theatrical scenes in, at the end. But by then, it’s too late. Their book club meeting has proven to be a gruelling long session. You don’t want to put De toverberg to the stage? Fine with me. But then try to offer something vital and valuable instead. And that’s where they fall short. Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker recently showed her audience why it’s so difficult to dance to Mahler’s Der abschied. Watching her, I felt her struggle and learned something about it. Here, with these guys? Yes, they’ve been toying around with De toverberg and in the end they throw it away. Along the way, their jokes could have been funnier and their discussions could have been much more to the point. You’re not going to tell me that the fact that they think De toverberg is a boring book really is the only thing they want to put across?

More info on other dates here. You’ll find a short video from the performance here.

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