The exact position of things

Can a piece of theatre induce a deep sense of claustrophobia just by using the human voice? The exact position of things by Nicole Beutler Projects and Theater Malpertius – seen 27 November at Theater Ins Blau in Leiden – offers undeniable proof that, yes, it can!

Strikingly enough, the stage itself is anything but claustrophobic. It is almost bare: four chairs, a rug, an undefinable piece of black cloth and a string that turns on the light. Two female silhouettes (Hester van Hasselt and Esther Snelder) are standing near the front of the stage, their faces obscured by the backlighting (the lighting design is by Minna Tikkainen). Snelder starts talking: ‘We’re stuck. We’re stuck now. We are stuck’. The relentless repeating of these words, coupled with Van Hasselt’s whisperings – ‘you have to go left…through the glass door’ – had an oppressive effect on me, as if I were stuck in their loop with them. Forever and ever and ever.

With The exact position of things, Beutler revisits the original, eponymous, piece she first made in 2005 (which I didn’t see). I don’t know what is different, but one thing is the same: the two main performers, both whom have gone on to do other things (Snelder still performs and is also a teacher, Van Hasselt is a writer and speaker).

Beutler was inspired by the documentary Der Tag der in der Handtasche verschwand (2000) about a woman who suffers from Alzheimer’s. In The exact position this woman is given a voice. Two voices in fact. Both performers are the same person, in an ongoing dialogue with each other, either with words or with movement. The first part poignantly captures the idiosyncrasies of the disease. The panicked shufflewalk, the aimless wandering, the vacant expression. Van Hasselt and Snelder gaze at a wrinkle in the carpet, or distractedly fondle a black cardigan, wondering if it is theirs. Underneath is the soundscape by Gary Shepherd and Wouter Snoei: an incessant thumping, like an erratic heartbeat.

It is a highly evocative beginning. Yet, Beutler very nearly lost me in the middle, when the two ladies protractedly lug around the now rolled-up carpet, with Snelder shrieking commands. Thankfully, afterwards, there is some release. Both women start dancing, Snelder with a slightly baffled expression on her face. Their movements are unconventional, but riveting.

The ending is the strongest aspect of the piece, a great combination of the absurd and the true-to-life. The two women, lying prostrate on the floor, are very slowly, moving only their shoulders and heels, making their way to the back of the stage. Snelder is chattering on, about hot and cold light, about how Zambia may not even look like Zambia. She finishes her ramblings with a recital of empty proverbs: no pain no gain, tomorrow is another day, no news is good news. Her soliloquy is punctuated by Van Hasselt, uttering the same three interjections throughout: How do you know so much? What do you mean? Which is better? Slowly the light fades away, just like their memories, fading back into the black.


Seen: November 27, 2019, Theater Ins Blau, Leiden.

Photo: Anja Beutler.

Concept/choreography: Nicole Beutler I created in collaboration with performers: Hester van Hasselt and Esther Snelder I music Gary Shepherd, Wouter Snoei I lighting design: Minna Tiikkainen I dramaturgy: Robert Steijn, Igor Dobricic.