Broeders verheft u ter vrijheid

Spring Performing Arts Festival was permitted to serve as one of the cultural ‘Testen voor Toegang’ events towards open up society, which enabled the festival to present live performances alongside its online programme. Dries Verhoeven opened the festival with Broeders verheft u ter vrijheid, which I attended on Thursday 20 May between 7 and 8 PM.

While many of the live shows this edition were originally planned for the last edition of SPRING in Autumn, which was cancelled for two-thirds, Verhoeven was lucky enough to present the rerun of U bevindt zich hier last summer. Ten years after its premiere, this turned out to be a Corona proof event par excellence with spectators all in their separated spaces.

After a negative test result in the morning, my timeslot at Stadsschouwburg Utrecht on 20 May started at 7 PM. Upon arrival some simple instructions were provided by the theatre host about how to enter the hall, how to obtain a program sheet and to follow the directions on the floor. 

Broeders verheft u ter vrijheid was presented as an installation, but for its nine performers on the big stage it was at the same time a durational event: they sang the socialist anthem ‘Broeders verheft u ter vrijheid’ every day for eight hours straight. The Bulgarian workers Verhoeven employed were seated inside a glass room, a transparent space resembling a non-descript office with bright lights and simple cafetaria-style chairs, the kind people working from home today would no longer accept. Every 30 minutes, the singers left for exactly five minutes. There was a clock in the auditorium, and the start and end times of these breaks were announced by a loud beep. 

On both sides of the glass box there were fences that completely enclosed the stage behind it. Within the fenced-off space, impressive robots were working and moving white crates. The space was immaculate with its shiny white look and metal population. The only person entering this space from time to time was fully dressed in a white suit, unrecognizable and unable to leave any traces behind or contaminate the scene. Nature – especially human nature – was cancelled out from this perspective. 

Visitors could stay for half an hour or an hour, the choice was theirs. And whatever timeframe you chose, you would see the workers singing and the robots working. Whenever the robots became the centre of attention with their sounds and movements, the light int the glass room dimmed and the sound of the workers’ voices became inaudible. But you could still see their lips pronouncing the syllables of the song. 

This landscape of labour Dries Verhoeven thus sketched is an invitation to reflect on the practice of outsourcing work, whether to futuristic machines or people from lower wage countries. By having his performers sing for the audience, he also included the theatre spectator in this equation.

If the aim is to make spectators feel uncomfortable, Dries Verhoeven certainly succeeds. Even though the program sheet states that the workers employed by Verhoeven are paid by CAO Theater standards, there is a worrisome resemblance between their position on stage and that of the workers we read about in the newspapers, crammed together in small apartments and, because of these cramped living and working conditions, unable to comply with social distancing rules to protect themselves from the Corona-virus. And while singing in a choir has been forbidden for months now as it is an extra risky activity, this choir is singing for hours on end within the confined space.

Moreover, the staging of Broeders verheft u ter vrijheid in a theatre has a different effect on visitors than the site-specific projects Verhoeven has presented so far. This coded space – where spectators are used to following certain rules – in combination with our by now daily experience with Corona regulations, overrules the instructions Verhoeven probably had in mind for his audience. So members of the audience sit down and watch and listen. They may exchange a look with members of the choir, but their postion is fixed and inactive. 

What lacks in Broeders verheft u ter vrijheid is Dries Verhoeven’s stance on his subject matter. It remains unclear and unquestioned unless you read his full essay afterwards. And even then, what Verhoeven adds to the discussion is open ended, and if it is a comment on society it is not particularly world-shattering.

Spring Performing Arts Festival

Dates Broeders verheft u ter vrijheid

Photos: Willem Popelier