A Dance review

The Power of Theatrical Madness - Jan Fabre (1984, retake 2012)

In 2012 Jan Fabre retook his 1984 masterpiece The Power of Theatrical Madness. With a new cast of 15 performers he reopens the whole apparatus of the oeuvre: a four hour long performance with a screen backstage where are projected famous Baroque and Rococo paintings and looping musical themes from the Romantic period. It takes place in a very sober décor of low hanging light bulbs that can dim to create a candle light effect. The piece is built as a series of independent tableaux featuring the repetition of one action sometimes overlaid with another action. Their theme is invariably the exertion of power.

Scene after scene, Jan Fabre illustrates various symbols of power: the emperor’s attributes, the interrogatories, the threat of a weapon, the slaps on the face or on the buttocks, the shouted orders: “Eerste knop!” Fabre actually enumerates symbols of power until exhaustion. Each individual scene is also prolonged until exhaustion of its subject after an average duration of twenty minutes. Many scenes are also bringing the performers to physical exhaustion: the running on the spot downstage, the everlasting adagio, and the fight to get access back on stage. The process to achieve that is by bluntly repeating the action, one time after the other without variations. Any action thus loses its meaning and acts as a mere foil to underline the process. More capital than the content itself, the process of exhaustion becomes the actual subject of Fabre’s piece. In contrast with the violence displayed all along the piece, the closing image is soft and relieving: two stunningly beautiful macaw parrots, each standing on its perch. Glaring feathers from an outer exotic world. It feels as a send-off. Ite missa est.

As an audience, watching this piece is a challenge. It contains a lot of violence edging between artificial and real, but above all it lasts four hours. To know in advance its duration is a necessary condition to adequately receive The Power of Theatrical Madness. It makes the audience patient with what is unfolding; it makes us shift our reading time scale to be able to apprehend every scene. We are no longer pressing for the standard dramaturgical bow of tension; we can but let the piece happen. The piece exerts on us a fascination. We are mesmerized by repetition. It keeps us in the expectation for some change and awaiting for any shifts in space or differentiation between performers. We all sense that with fatigue individualities will pierce through the performers’ rigidly uniformized roles. Real fatigue should at some point irrupt. We are awaiting for any manifestation of reality. We wonder if it is a real exhaustion that the performers are showing (they do smoke a cigarette afterwards!), if the frogs were really slaughtered, if the knife is really a danger, if the slaps really hurt. But we know it is theater, so we know that even if it is real it is all gratuitous. And that is the madness about Fabre’s theater.

All through The Power of Theatrical Madness, titles of vanguard performances are quoted by the performers. In 2012 in the retake version of the 1984 creation, there is at the opening and closing of the piece a mention of Fabre’s previous piece This is Theater as it was to be expected and foreseen, 1982. Thirty years later it is a piece that is undoubtedly recognized as a breakthrough oeuvre and fully deserves the tribute it is paid nowadays. It is an unprecedented work linking physical theater, dance and performance. I wonder however if the auto-reference was an addition to the 2012 retake of if it was present already in the original version in 1984. If it was the case, what could have Jan Fabre really meant?

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