BRUSSELS — Shortly after I finished theater school, I started interning with the director of a major company. The diplomacy his position required, combined with our highly Canadian tendency to never want to offend, led him to develop a particular way of telling people he didn’t like their work. You always knew he really hated a show when he said, “It made me love theater.”
I caught myself thinking back to that director as I was preparing to see Jan Fabre’s latest work Mount Olympus at Kaaitheater. My skepticism for the Belgian visual artist, choreographer, and theater director runs deep, and on the way there, I found myself preemptively contemplating creative ways to articulate my dislike for the show after the fact. Along with his reputation for excess — long shows spanning four, sometimes eight, hours, created by stretching out material through endless repetition — Fabre’s frequent misogyny, occasional animal cruelty, and general pomposity that goes with being King of Belgian Dance, have made past experiences of his work occasionally unbearable.
Subtitled “To Glorify the Cult of Tragedy,” Mount Olympus stitches together more than a dozen classical Greek plays including: Medea, Elektra, Antigone, Phaedra, and Oedipus, and clocks in at 24 hours. How to summarize or even effectively evaluate a work of this duration is a challenge. In one way, Mount Olympus encompasses all of Fabre’s indulgences I find so hard to stomach. At the same time, the work was unlike anything I’ve ever witnessed.
The superstructure mimics that of classical Greek theater: protagonists deliver lengthy monologues and alternate with the chorus, who engages in storytelling through song, filling in background information or revealing things the protagonist doesn’t know. But the show itself is less about the stories and structures of classical Greek theater than with the circus that originally surrounded it.
These texts have been performed, adapted, and deconstructed for more than two millennia. Indeed, they’re the foundation for Western drama. The way in which they’re most often produced today employs a kind of reverence, leading to rather staid staging approaches. If you’ve ever been to a contemporary production of Oedipus or Medea, you’ve likely witnessed audience members in awkward slumber as discussions of sex and murder play out before them. Based on what we know of the Greek theater experience, however, these delicate approaches likely do not capture anything close to the true spirit of the event. Dionysus, the Greek god of theater, also had wine, ritual madness, and religious ecstasy in his portfolio. Devotees of his cult demonstrated their affections with orgia: intoxicated, all-night revelries complete with open-season sexuality and animal sacrifice. Viewed through the lens of these other activities, the idea that theater should or even could be this uptight thing we often want it to be, doesn’t make as much sense.
While Mount Olympus incorporates characters, texts, and structural elements from the Greek theater we know, it also pays a hefty homage to the cult of Dionysus. Fake blood abounds, as does very real raw meat (primarily hearts from what I could tell, though there was also something that looked like a pair of lungs dipped in glitter). Violence is pervasive in both genuine-looking simulations and cartoonish slapstick. We witness heroines and heroes speaking about cutting out their eyes, murdering their children, and burying their dead, intermingled with lengthy choreography sections and video projections. Sex is omnipresent, including an extended scene where the cast gets it on with a bunch of potted plants.
After nearly 10 continuous hours inside (minus brief bathroom breaks) I emerged with a friend I found inside shortly after two in the morning. The lobby was stacked with huge, cushy beanbag chairs, with people passed out over them. The bar staff looked exhausted. I watched one guy try to pour and spill a beer three times.
Our own dedication to the spectacle was outweighed slightly by the fact that I happened to be staying a five-minute walk from the theater. We decided to head back to my place for a brief nap and a shower.
We woke up around 7am and made our return, pausing for takeout coffee on the way. The sun was blazing and people were huddled outside in the chilly morning air, puffing on cigarettes. Some folks were still passed out on pillows, but many had risen and were snacking on croissants and boiled eggs.
We paused for a second coffee before making our reentry. The bar staff apparently hadn’t switched over (one told me she slept a few hours in the office). What was more startling, the dancers apparently hadn’t slept either.
Originally I’d assumed the team would perform in shifts, with some people waking up partway through to take the stage. Of course the sections with only one or two performers would allow the bulk of the cast to chill out occasionally. But according to one of the dancers I spoke with after, no one really sleeps. The adrenalized fear of missing the next cue keeps people alert for the duration.
As we stepped back inside the theater, many people were draped over their seats in slumber. In a normal theatrical setting, this would be a sign of failure on the part of the artist — an inability to sufficiently hold the attention of the people who’ve come to see what you’re offering. But here, it was the opposite. Audience sleeping in their seats was a sign of intense dedication to experience the event in its totality, and ultimately, artistic success.
Fabre often works with seemingly endless repetition, stretching things out in a way that moves you from attention to boredom, and eventually a mental departure from the room, your thoughts going on to whatever menial issue might capture you in that moment. But here, this excessive stretching of time produced something unexpected.
One moves through the phases of attention, boredom, and mental departure. But eventually, focus on the present moment returns, and it’s somehow intensely more concentrated than it was at the beginning. It’s as if the process of extended watching serves as a kind of mental palate cleanser, preparing your brain to fully receive the work. It makes me wonder whether his other shows were simply too short to achieve this.
We refer to people who witness a theatrical event as an audience: a group who shares in something together, as opposed to the viewer in the visual arts who sees something alone. But the collectivity we nearly always imply among a public at the theater so rarely manifests. Instead, we are alone in our seats, waiting for it to be over, perhaps chatting with the people we came with afterwards about what we witnessed, most likely just going for a drink.
With Mount Olympus, there was a sense that I’ve rarely had in performance of having truly experienced something as a group. This may be most appropriately exemplified by the show’s climax, itself lasting close to an hour, and for which nearly all of us, wobbly yet ecstatic, took to our feet. As the team of dancers doused each other in multicolored paint and glitter, transformed before our eyes into sparkling aliens, we stood together, for a near-hour-long preemptive standing ovation.
Twenty-four hours after we entered, we emerged into the lobby bright and breathless, unable to articulate what we had just experienced but knowing that it was something that we had shared together. I still at this point feel a bit daunted by trying to describe what it was that happened. But it was something that captured the power and possibility of the medium in a way I’ve almost never seen before. To put it in the simplest, least cynical terms I can find, Mount Olympus completely and unironically made me love theater.