Is it because I’ve been to too many theatre and dance performances lately all desperately trying to slap me in the face with something special? Using all possible means to impress me? Is that why I was so taken by that simple and charming Bij het kanaal naar links (‘Turn left at the canal’; a play in Dutch), by Belgian theatre company Olympique Dramatique and Dutch company De Mexicaanse Hond, which premiered yesterday at Toneelhuis (Antwerp)? Maybe. But I’m sure I was touched too because it’s such a well-balanced play. It’s strange, but not too strange, it’s light but not too light, sinister but not too sinister, funny but not too funny. And the actors are delightful to watch.
It’s a simple story. Two families living next to each other. For some unspecified reason they have been hating each other for ages. At your left hand side: a poor family of four; a policeman, a depressed mother, and two children. At your right hand side: a son and a father, hustlers, mixed up in all sort of criminal schemes. The son doesn’t understand why both families have to continue harboring their grudge, as they are the only two ‘white’ families left, surrounded by foreigners. He asks the mother of the other family to come and work for him, at his office. But pretty soon it becomes clear that his intentions weren’t that honest and pure at all.
At first Bij het kanaal naar links, written and directed by Alex Van Warmerdam, appears to be having nothing special. But gradually and slowly this play casts a spell over you, by a strange balance you see and feel in all the elements: language, decor, story, characters and acting. There’s a simplicity that permeates all of this, but at the same time everything you see or hear is slightly off-kilter. It’s realistic but has lots of surreal and slightly weird accents. It’s funny but never hilarious. It’s light but quite tragic as well. I hope you understand what I’m hinting at, because as I write this, I realize that it’s very difficult to put your finger on.
Those of you who are used to that rather over-the-top/ rollercoaster approach of Olympique Dramatique might be disappointed at first, but I’m sure you will inevitably become enchanted by this marvellous balancing act. And if all of this works, it’s (apart from Van Warmerdam, of course) thanks to the actors. All six of them are acting remarkably restrained, never overdoing it, and giving it that little bit extra just at the right moment. Wonderful.
Tour schedule here.