Just before the start of Treize by the Dutch physical theatre company Bambie, on 5 December at Theater Kikker, I overheard a group of friends talking. One of them was gushing about the upcoming show, which first premiered in 2008. “It’s one of the best and funniest performances I’ve ever seen!” There is always a risk to bringing back classics to the stage. Will it live up to the memory? (If you have seen it before). Will it live up to the hype? (If you haven’t).
The not-so-secret ingredient of Treize is its use of language: all three performers speak in laboured French (think high school entry level). A man (Jochem Stavenuiter) enters the stage, this is dressed to represent a small Parisian apartment. Haltingly he starts a one-sided conversation, looking furtively at the audience. ‘Bonjour, je m’apelle Jean-Paul.’ Since his vocabulary is limited, so is his conversation. He is mostly pointing things out – that is to say, the things for which he knows the French translation. The sink and the hat rack prove to be a step too far. ‘Ça, c’est une chaise! La chaise est tres comfortable!’ Sometimes a disembodied female voice interjects from behind the wall.
The voice belongs to ‘Michelle’ (Ibelisse Guardia), who soon joins ‘Jean-Paul’ on stage. Bonjours all around. Michelle is very impressed with the apartment. ‘La maison est belle! Elle est tres petite!’ Jean-Paul corrects her. The apartment is hers. She quickly acquiesces. Likewise, when Jean-Paul tells her she is ‘triste’, sad, her face dutifully clouds over.
It is a great central conceit. For me, it felt like being back in high school and having to keep a conversation going with a class mate. I remember my first ‘performance’ well. Me: ‘Ça va bien?’ She (sad face): ‘Non, ça ne va pas bien. Je suis malade!’ Me (compassionate face): ‘Ah! Dommage!’
The second brilliant epiphany is to have the awkwardness of speaking a language you haven’t mastered also affect the acting itself. The actors’ movements are highly artificial, as if they are continuously aware they are playing a part. They are locked in a loop, in their own, never-ending, French farce. The arrival of ‘George’ (Klaus Jürgens) adds a classic Jules et Jim-type romantic triangle to the mix. Michelle forms the centre. The two gentlemen are constantly fighting for her attention and affection – sometimes accompanied by dramatic music – while she, as befits a traditional femme fatale, tries to sensually drape herself across the piano (which is ‘gris’, grey, by the way). Michelle is sultry, but bored; passionate yet unattainable.
Treize makes great use of French movie tropes and recurring gimmicks (people exit through the window more often than through the front door) and references a number of famous French-Belgian artists and characters like Maigret and Magritte. It is a thoroughly enjoyable romp, which is sure to keep a smile on your face, even though its three characters may indeed be caught in some kind of Parisian purgatory. Did I laugh out loud? I didn’t, although many in the audience did.
A final note on the context in which Treize was shown. It was performed during the second edition of the Bambierambam, a festival organized in collaboration with Theater Kikker, focused solely on the works of Bambie. Following immediately after the performance of Treize, Bambie’s Paul van der Laan performed his Dutch-language solo Heen, a raw and relentless portrait of a man experiencing psychosis. At first I thought: why not switch both pieces around, and end the evening on a comical note? But walking to the train station after the ending of Heen I realized the organisers had made the right call. Laughter after this autobiographical solo would have felt as unnatural as the French spoken by the three performers in Treize.
Seen: December 5, 2019, Theater Kikker, Utrecht.
Photo: Ben van Duin.
Created and performed by: Ibelisse Guardia, Klaus Jürgens, Jochem Stavenuiter I guidance and final direction: Paul van der Laan en Marijn van der Jagt I set design: Diana van de Vossenberg I costume design: Atty Kingma I lighting design: Paul de Vrees.