The Sheep Song
A pensive banjo accompanies a herd of live sheep on the stage in the big hall at ITA. On 14 June, FC Bergman performed their latest, The Sheep Song, live as part of the Holland Festival. The pastoral scene is a prelude to a visually stunning and evocative fable about transformation and belonging.
As the herd moves aside, bleating discontentedly, one sheep remains (an unrecognisable Jonas Vermeulen in a costume made by Joëlle Meerbergen). Quivering, it comes to stand on its hind legs alone to break free from the fold. And bravely or foolishly, he steps onto a moving walkway into the human herd, his desire to transform awakened by a naked dancing demon with a bell.
Beginning is never easy, and predictably the beast has difficulty connecting. He cannot read the human faces staring at him – and nor can we viewers, as the performers’ faces are covered with blank masks. Their language, represented in this largely wordless performance by white lettering cut in two, dances before his eyes. While there is hope and laughter early on, with a vaudeville-style puppet show warning against lust and hubris, the mood goes from light to dark as the show progresses and the sheep leaves more and more of his sheep-ness behind.
It becomes increasingly painful to see the implications of his optimism and ambition. Why try to join human society, when humans are cruel to animals, as proved by a bull pierced with arrows. The incessant, inconsolable wailing of the sheep-man’s offspring predicts more misery. Medical aid only helps to rid the tragic hero of his fleece, not to ease his transition and acceptance. It is a frightful image to see Vermeulen stagger down from the operating table, less sheep than ever, while the very doctors who crafted this new form for him show a blatant disregard for his safety and wellbeing, smoking in the operating theatre. Have they created a monster? Or have they rid themselves of the need to accommodate otherness, by violently re-shaping the other to fit the norm?
This is the mirror this contemporary morality play holds up to its audience. After the end of history, we are now living in a militant universe where progressive thinking is forcefully opposed by a reactionary defensiveness. The sheep as the Everyman must navigate the middle ground alone, besieged by a steady crushing of perspective and regarded as monstrous for failing to comply with group norms.
The viewers’ journey is trying, but although the sheep’s face can’t really be read, the piece is deeply moving. This is to a considerable extent due to the music by Frederik Leroux, with live banjo playing as a strong carrier of hope, doubt, or despair. Another factor is the absence of language, which means the bodies onstage have to carry all the communicative force of thought and feeling, which they do, dancing, reaching out, teasing, caring, blocking. The visual poetry of the set design by FC Bergman, with the moving walkway dictating the time weighs in. But ultimately, it is the sheep’s very, very human desire to belong that resonates.
Photos: Kurt van der Elst