Creating Distance
Anne-Cécile Vandalem’s Tristesses

by Joseph Pearson

27 March 2017

»Tristesses« is a Belgian production from director Anne-Cécile Vandalem’s company Das Fräulein, coming to FIND17 at the Schaubühne. The piece is a laboratory on how the far-right feeds off sadness produced by the political system. It is an island world of intrigue, murder, but also comedy. It’s a story wrapped in a Danish flag that has much wider application.

If there were a theme to my conversation with the Belgian director, it would what an artist does to achieve an appropriate distance from her work. »Tristesses«’s microcosm is a Danish Island, to distance Vandalem from issues at home in Belgium. She uses the lens of a camera during rehearsals to give her distance, so she can later write the script. Humour and music create exterior views on dramatic situations. The function of all these dynamics becomes clearer the longer I speak with Vandalem, in advance of her Berlin premiere.

Joseph Pearson: What provoked you to write, direct, stage, and act in a production about the far-right?

Anne-Cécile Vandalem: At first, I was not thinking about creating a piece about the far-right, but rather one about how sadness creates powerlessness, how it makes people incapable of action. A way into this subject was Gilles Deleuze’s writings on Spinoza, in which he addresses the diminution of the power of acting. What is sadness? Someone or something appears, has power over your life, and this person or situation doesn’t correspond with your desires and blocks you. This is sadness. Hate, meanwhile, is everything you will start to do to erase or eliminate this person. And so, regarding how this powerlessness is imposed by sadness, I was interested in treating questions regarding the family, or couples, in intimate situations. But I wondered whether it could be applied as well to society. I was concerned with the position of right-wing parties in Belgium, the Flemish Block [Vlaams Blok] which rebranded itself to appear more acceptable to voters. So now people from the extreme- right enter government, simply by changing their name? I’ve observed this with the far-right all around Europe, and by the far-right I do not mean the traditional far-right but rather populist parties. I’ve observed how – in Belgium, France and elsewhere in Europe, even in countries that differ greatly from one another – the whole political machine is one built of sadness. The sadness was not produced by the far-right, but the new populist parties use it to increase their power.

Why did you choose Denmark then, and more specifically an island in that country, as the location for your play?

I need distance to write, to take a step back from my national situation, dominated by the Walloon-Flemish separatist question. I chose an island in Denmark as the location for this laboratory, originally because of one detail: that the country is apparently the happiest place on earth. Denmark, incidentally, has its own far-right tradition, which is old and accepted, part of the landscape, but the world I create on the island is not specifically national. Instead, on the island, I mix elements that I observed in Denmark, France, Greece, and elsewhere. On it, there is an abattoir that closed, for political reasons – because the port moved elsewhere on the island, and local politics favour tourism over this kind of industry – and so the former infrastructure is broken down. The manipulation of the far-right to recuperate this former economic activity of the island becomes a vehicle for conflicts.

Your plays are known for the humour. Is that hard to balance against the serious themes of populism and hatred?

My performances are preoccupied with death, and people always die in them. And so I need comedy. Laughter creates a space through which we can enter the drama. It comes from the conviction, my conviction, that we are all set up for failure, that we are not made for winning. And in this failure – of strategies to gain power – there is also a desire to escape, to create at the same time comic situations. The funniest characters are those who are trying to gain control over others. On the one hand, there is the desire to get out of these situations of failure. On the other, there is the conviction that we don’t have the option. This bind creates tension and anguish, and it provokes me to begin to write.

Could you tell us how you work with the actors? And what it is like both playing an acting role and being a director?

When I began this project in 2014, I gathered perhaps fifteen actors – most of them I had already worked with, or I wanted to work with – for two weeks. Together, we worked through five established large chapters in the play over five days. Each day was a chapter, a large improvisation, filmed by two camera operators and accompanied by musicians. In a large room, we created a village – one a little reminiscent of Lars von Trier’s »Dogville«. We created boundaries, which we drew on the floor, with six or seven houses. We discovered the island together, and at first we all created a home life, and then there is a murder. These initial improvisations were all recorded by the camera. One camera only filmed close-ups. Two musicians meanwhile created a certain ambience. We recorded the results, which by the end of the week were a grand improvisation. I then had a large amount of material with which I could begin to write. I came back eventually with a play, and we started rehearsing. The play also includes the shooting of a live film, the making of a movie. You also asked about how I include myself as an actor: when I act in my plays, I have someone playing my role until almost the end, and then I take over the role, to give myself some distance.

You mentioned briefly the presence of musicians during the rehearsals. How does music work in your production?

Music is, for me, the way I write and direct. First and foremost, I am an actor, and acting is a kind of musical language. I am talking here about rhythm and tempo, which are the two bases with which I am always working. When I am writing too, I always need music to be playing. I ask my composer to give me the music I need to write. Writing also has a rhythm. I discovered in »Tristesses« that music influences the way you look at something, it can influence the situation and the actors, how we work. For example, if I had a scene where I felt that there was too little or too much tension, or not enough rhythm, or where the characters were too uniform, I would use music to provoke them, to change how the scene was played. In this way, music was very functional.

Finally, another topic you brought up is your preoccupation with death. Could you expand how this relates to »Tristesses«?

Yes, it is very important in the piece. It’s always there, it’s physically always there. The three musicians are dead people, phantoms, always present. There is something uncanny and funny about them, but also very powerful. I wanted to talk about the power of death. This relates to jihadism, how young people use death as a statement to reject their powerlessness because as political people they have been forgotten. It relates just as much to other young people who take up arms to cause a massacre in a school. It is about armed struggle. This was a concern I wanted to be more present in the production, but you have to understand that the play developed during the recent series of attacks in France and Belgium, and I wanted to distance myself from those. I decided not to be as explicit about how death acts as a kind of divine power. We are powerful because we know we will die. This is, in fact, the subject of a new production I am developing, which is about immortality. Death is powerful. It’s a political tool. And »Tristesses« is about death and winning elections. It is Death, in fact, that wins the far-right its election.

Conversation in French and English. Translations by Joseph Pearson.


Concept, Text and Direction: Anne-Cécile Vandalem (Brussels/Liège)

Premiered on 26 April 2021