A Playground of Ambiguity
Anne-Cécile Vandalem’s »Die Anderen«

by Joseph Pearson

2 November 2019

A special challenge presents itself when writing about Anne-Cécile Vandalem’s new production, »Die Anderen«. A secret lies at the centre of this play and it’s one I don’t want to give away. You will need to come and see the production to find out. And, in the meantime, I suggest you read as little as possible about it to safeguard the surprise. Except for this preview, of course, which – I promise – is spoiler-free, except for maybe a clue or two…

Let’s start with the set. A whole building built on-stage, a revolving set with interior hallways and many rooms that you can only see obliquely or through video. Early one Thursday, before the actors begin their rehearsal, I walk inside, feeling like I am crossing into somewhere forbidden.

It’s a maze of claustrophobic spaces. I smell something acrid and almost get wet paint on my jacket. The hotel is creepy: full of stuffed animal trophies and yesteryear furniture. The spaces are much smaller than I at first expect: it’s an illusion that will only be ameliorated and enlarged when filmed.

The actors are called on stage and I sit on a chair in the dark. I am lucky to observe the cumulative scene of the play, which takes place on the Feast of St Martin. Vandalem switches between French and English, a translator is involved, the actors reply in a smattering of languages. It feels like all of Europe is on-stage.

Vandalem is mesmerising to watch; she is both omnipresent and gives more space to the actors than many directors. How does she combine these opposites? The actors are encouraged to improvise, to take control of their characters.  But Vandalem remains also constantly vigilant: sensitively pulling them back if at any moment their world becomes disharmonious, when even a small gesture seems off-key. She poses them psychological teasers such as: »What consoles you? What pushes you into trauma? Do you have more power when speaking or by remaining silent? What would be different if you left the room now instead of staying? Is this the right moment to cry? What if you wait to cry?« Her direction demonstrates a fine balance between the devised and director-led theatre, combining both flexibility and attention to detail.

When we finally break for lunch, it seems an obvious question, but I ask it anyhow of the director, »Why in your productions do you create these structures on stage, these worlds with hidden passages and compartments? Why this meta-reality?« I am thinking of the ocean-liner in her previous production, »Arctique«, or a village of houses in »Tristesses«.

Vandalem replies, »If I have nothing to hide, I cannot show. These sets create another dimension for the piece. As the set turns, it can show or not show. You can choose to go inside the set or not. I can choose to reveal an otherwise impenetrable space or keep it a secret. A scene in the kitchen is unseen until I choose to reveal it with a camera, while at the same time I can show something different occurring elsewhere. Working with a set like this one is a gift of possibilities to the director. It’s a tool. A playground!«

All this creates the necessary uncertainty for a play with a secret at its heart. Ambiguity – like that suggested by these impenetrable rooms only mediated by the camera – is also suggested by many of the aesthetic choices.

The »Old Continent Hotel« is not where I’d ever like to spend a night or take a meal (although writing a Tripadvisor review afterwards would be an amusingly macabre exercise). The hotel presents a set of unknowns: it is difficult to place where this hotel is located or the time period of the action. It is in the future but the interiors are drab, the furniture is utilitarian and vintage. Vandalem upends our desire to solve the temporal questions. Notions of progress are frustrated: perhaps the future will look more like the past, like a second-hand shop.

I ask about this atemporal aesthetic, and Vandalem replies, »We did not want the set to be either old or new. It’s always a combination of different layers, styles, and periods, melded together. Again, we are not after too much clarity. Rather we want to put the audience in a mood of questioning, of being surprised. Insecurity is our goal. It is a strategy. It is as if you have entered into a past where you think you have already been and you believe you have recognised something. But, in fact, you haven’t«.

This sense of mystery goes with the subject matter, of course. Without giving too much away, the play examines how a village relives a tragedy through the passage of migrants. When the drunken manager of the hotel runs over a boy with her car, she hides him in the hotel, and raises suspicions among the other villagers. Through the microcosm of the often brutal interactions in a hotel, we can begin to ask questions about European societies’ notions of belonging and difference.

But Vandalem is insistent that her world is not exactly ours. It’s an artwork, after all, and she tells me, »It’s obvious, I belong to the world and we reflect on it in the piece. But it is not a piece about migration or climate change, even if these are part of the story. For me, fiction is the condition of my work. Because I really believe that fiction is the only way of getting around this reality in which we are stuck, to read the reality, to have a position and an opinion«.

Karolien de Schepper, one of the set designers, adds, »Think of it like reading the newspaper and then that actuality entering your dreams – not in a direct way, but distorted. The politics are always there, but it remains dreamlike«.

Vandalem continues, »And this dream is an entire world not just built of actors and a story, but it is a visual, musical and atmospheric world. It is one which we can dive into – one that has its humour, and is, of course, tainted by the secret, the trauma that it contains«.

»And who are ›the others‹?« I ask.

Vandalem replies, a little mysteriously, »That is the question for the audience«.

Die Anderen (The Others)

by Anne-Cécile Vandalem
Translation by Uli Menke
Director: Anne-Cécile Vandalem
World Premiere

Premiered on 30 November 2019