Trombosis! Prostatis! Incontinentia! Josse De Pauw on becoming ‘An Old Monk’

an old monk

‘A near perfect performance.’  That’s the thing with a festival presenting the best of last season’s theatre plays: you tend to expect too much. ‘A near perfect performance’ was what someone had written about An Old Monk, a collaboration between revered Flemish actor Josse De Pauw and noted jazz musician Kris Defoort (and his trio), one of the opening performances of this year’s edition of Het Theaterfestival in Brussels (through September 7). And so I expected… a lot.

‘Een dansje doen! Een dansje doen!‘ It sounds neat, in Flemish. In the opening scene of An Old Monk the actor plays his younger self, high on a night of dancing, partying and loving. It’s great to see: De Pauw, dancing around the piano, arms waving in the air, on the music the jazz trio is playing, such as Crepuscule with Nellie by Thelonious Monk. (Apparently Monk used to dance around his piano in a similar way.) It’s a scene that shows immediately how strong this collaboration can be: the actor and his text merging completely with the musicians and their music. Breathing together, as one band.

‘When did I stop dancing?’, De Pauw asks, in the second part. Every (older) member of the audience is wondering too: when did I stop going to parties; when did I stop dancing? It quickly becomes clear that An Old Monk (combining music by Monk and Defoort) is a reflection on age and the invigorating appetite for life one tends to lose when growing older.
In this second part De Pauw portrays a man avoiding parties, wanting to go home the minute he arrives at a party, a man desiring to become ‘an old monk’. In the third part, De Pauw will be playing that old man, dancing one more time, notwithstanding the discomforts age have brought. (De Pauw apparently got the idea from this performance when he was diagnosed with diabetes.) Trombosis! Prostatis! Incontinentia! Those are the three words he encourages the audience to shout.

As Belgian theatre audiences know: De Pauw is one of our greatest actors and in An Old Monk  he is once again displaying his (sometimes almost shamanistic) powers. And as a couple of his previous performances have already proven: he sure knows how to do this, building up a play, combining acting with music. But this time around I felt he could have pushed himself just that little bit more. He could have put just that little extra effort in the writing of his text (quite a few of the jokes are really silly, although he gets away with them).

The overall balance of the performance just didn’t feel right as well. The scene during which De Pauw is talking about the party he wished he hadn’t gone to, took too long and felt too much like a stand up comedian-act. What felt  awkward to me as well was the last part of the performance during which De Pauw is looking at, and commenting on, a bunch of black and white photographs of himself, dancing naked, on the back-wall (taken by Bache Jespers), with drawings added by illustrator Benoît Van Innis. Too contrived. I thought it was meant as a transition to the next part of the performance, but no: all of a sudden An Old Monk was over. A weak ending.

One closing remark: while De Pauw was obviously at the center of everybody’s attention, my eyes were glued to the drummer of the band, Lander Ghyselinck. What a joy to see that young guy play.

Curious? You’ll find a 20 min. video excerpt here. Tour schedule on the site of  LOD music theatre (Ghent) here.

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