ZOO Southside – Main House
“The play begins”. It is a simple statement by one of the Ontroerend Goed cast. After all, every play has a beginning. We know that. We know the familiar rhythm: house lights go down, stage lights glow into focus, and the performance starts. But with this Belgian company, it’s best not to assume you know anything. So what’s strange about “The play begins”? Well, it’s a weird thing to say 15 minutes into your show.
Every Word Was Once an Animal is a piece that toys with form from the start – or before the start, depending on who you talk to. The play opens with the audience being told that the play hasn’t opened. Later scenes discuss how the show should be performed, as if the piece is still being workshopped. Other timelines are chronologically and logically impossible. The result is a meta-theatrical odyssey that constantly keeps you on your toes, trying to get a handle on this production which refuses to be defined by the normal limits and rules of theatre. If that sounds a little academic, it also achieves a lot of humour by keeping the audience guessing. Along with an early obsession with the opening of the play, Karolien de Bleser repeatedly tells us to watch out for “The Curtain Scene”. When it arrives it is an amazing, stupid, Monty Python-esque gag which has me belly laughing – only to be told, “That was not the curtain scene”.
The nature of truth and who we trust is also in the sights of this production. One of the first characters I feel I can cling on to, like an island in an ocean of misdirection, is Bas (Bastiaan Vandendriessche). Bas says “Trust me”. Bas looks friendly and promises to take the microphone offstage. We laugh appreciatively. Bas does not take the microphone offstage. To some extent every production you’ve ever seen is lying to you and you willingly suspend your disbelief, but few lie to you as brazenly as this. It makes me question who I trust, and why. All the while the piece is tugging on the thread of what it means to tell stories in an age when veracity is difficult to determine.
Peppered throughout the performance are references to what ‘should’ have been the opening night – the 5th of April. In 2020, this was supposed to be the final day of stricter lockdown measures in Belgium. In this period Belgians, like all of us, entered a new world of anxiety, working from home, and trying to understand what was going on. In the end, of course, the government extended these measures beyond the 5th of April ‘freedom date’. As artistic videos, taken exclusively from within people’s homes, are projected onto the stage, the purpose of the hour’s playful chaos becomes sharply clear. The lack of a classic structure is reflected in my own experience of entering lockdown, as my familiar routines and rhythms were lost. The difficulty in understanding what is going on, and what information is true was never more pertinent than in those turbulent times.
Every Word Was Once an Animal plays with what it means to tell stories. It grapples with how we know things to be true and how we trust in an entertaining and engaging way, forcing the spectator to think about how theatre works. More than just meta-theatre, however, this is simultaneously the clearest and most amorphous meditation on the experience we all shared during the pandemic. When you have no idea when something will end, it’s sometimes equally as challenging to work out when it started.
Directed by: Alexander Devriendt
Written by: Alexander Devriendt, Angelo Tijssens, Charles Purcell and the cast
Produced by: Marie Peeters and Fien Vandermeersch for Ontroerend Goed
Every Word Was Once An Animal plays at EdFringe 2022 until 28 August. Further information and bookings here.