Black beast on the loose: ‘Oedipus/bêt noir’ by Wim Vandekeybus & Ultima Vez

People sometimes mock Belgian playwright and theatre director/legend Jan Decorte, for the so-called simplicity of his texts and the plays he brings to the stage. Buy a ticket for Oedipus/bêt noir, the newest piece by renowned Belgian choreographer Wim Vandekeybus, and you’ll see: Decorte’s work is far more clever than you’d think and it really isn’t that easy to cover (if you allow me to borrow a term from the pop world). I left the theatre (KVS, Brussels) with mixed feelings: the dance sections often are quite powerful and beautiful, Vandekeybus comes up with some strong visual images, but actors (and director) are struggling with Decorte’s text and don’t seem to have found the right path that would lead them to a really convincing performance.

I’ve seen quite a number of performances by Wim Vandekeybus over the years. And sometimes I think I’ve seen every possible variation on his energetic running/jumping/falling style of choreography. But sometimes he nevertheless has me sitting on the edge of my seat, once again. As with Oedipus/bêt noir. The repeated use of freeze frames in the first part of the performance, for instance, is impressive: two dancers holding the body of a third one up in the air. But other dance sections of this performance are really vibrant too. The dancers clearly give it all they’ve got. So: nothing wrong with that, this time.

You can not but be impressed by some of the visual images either: that huge ‘wheel’ with lots of dangling pieces of fabric in many colours at the back of the stage, which dancers use to climb or hide in. All those shoes falling from the sky. That orange lamp swinging over the stage, as a ticking metronome. The mirror that is used by one of the actors at the very beginning to reflect the light of a spot to show us a cruel scene in the dark. The recurring family portraits. And I quite liked the costumes too and the overall atmosphere of Oedipus/bêt noir, and the way the music and the three musicians (with Belgian blues legend Roland as Laos) are integrated in the play.

It’s just that I felt that there is something wrong with the core of this performance. The principal actors seem to be struggling with Decorte’s language and therefore with the way that well-known Oedipus story has to be brought to the stage. What to do with Decorte’s simple sentences and his rather rudimentary, naive but nevertheless serious version of the Oedipus story? Do we opt for a serious, dramatic take on this? Or do we borrow Decorte’s style and go for a detached, almost playful way of telling this horror? As a consequence, Wim Vandekeybus, who plays Oedipus, often seems rather lost amid all this, on stage.

As I said: mixed feelings. I enjoyed watching Oedipus/bêt noir, but Vandekeybus and his team never succeeded in drawing me really in, in finding a profound and convincing way of bringing across the cruelty and intensity of this age-old story. One might say: strange, because it’s already the third time Vandekeybus has based a performance on Decorte’s Oedipus.


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