On Saturday 5 June, the Holland Festival presented L’Etang by Gisèle Vienne Compagnie at ITA. I saw it two days later on Monday 7 June. Vienne has created a deliberately slow work that deliberately steers clear of anything that could invite viewers in. And yet. The two actresses who between them perform all the roles give a truthful account of the main character’s struggles.

Depression can make people feel like they are looking at the world from the bottom of a well. Estranged from the people around them and from their own emotions, life is a strain, and every step can feel like they are wading through water. Mental exhaustion is physically exhausting. The main character in L’Etang, which was based on the novella Der Teich by Robert Walser (1902), is adolescent boy Fritz who experiences something that is very similar, triggered by the feeling that his mother doesn’t love him. As his relationships with his family deteriorate, he pretends to drown himself in a pond at the bottom of the garden. 

Adèle Haenel plays the boy with her face turned to the floor and shoulders drawn up. More strikingly, her movements, and her fellow performer Ruth Vega Fernandez’s, are slow to soporific. Like swimmers’ limbs under water.

The two performers enter a vast room onstage that minutes before was peopled by life-sized dolls dressed like a group of teenagers, hanging out. The dolls were carried off one by one with great care by a stage manager who could have been one of their dads. He lovingly inclined his head to touch the dolls’ as they slumped in his arms. Seen from Fritz’ point of view, people either must appear to him as dolls or as sleepwalkers. Lifeless or barely conscious. I was reminded of Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye, who in his depressed state experiences people as ‘phoneys’. 

By making her performers play several different characters, Gisèle Vienne underlines the sense of disconnection her main character suffers from. Haenel has an impressive array of voices, but she hides her face and never changes gears, and coupled with the eerie sound design by Adrien Michel this makes it deliberately hard to distinguish between Fritz, his sister, brother, or friend. This is the boy’s experience of himself amid the constellation of family and friends; he is never a real part of any group. He has no way of dealing with it, and turns a blank. With a sense of disconnection comes a loss of self. It must be utterly frightening.Vienne has created a deeply frightening world for Fritz to inhabit, in which every element only serves to confuse him more. Music (by Stephen F. O’Malley and François J. Bonnet) is extremely loud, the room is immeasurably vast and white, the mother’s face an inscrutable mix of self-absorption and cruelty. The two actresses perform an impressive feat, playing roles that become unfathomable because of the way they must play them. We viewers grope for ways to sympathise. But the creators stay true to Fritz. 

L’Etang | Adèle Haenel| photo: Estelle Hanania

Holland Festival

Featured photo by Estelle Hanania: Ruth Vega Fernandez