‘Freedom is a strong word that as a society we oftentimes use lightly.’ This opening line of the programme accompanying the performance of Freedom by Club Guy & Roni, which premiered on 16 October at Stadsschouwburg Groningen, could not have been more timely. It is a sentence – and sentiment – that is especially resonant today, when having to produce a QR-code during corona is equated with wearing the star of David during the Nazi regime.
Our current predicament almost couldn’t contrast more strongly with the experiences of Mohamedou Ould Slahi, who was held captive, interrogated and tortured for fourteen years at Guantánamo Bay because of presumed terrorist affiliations. Ould Slahi always maintained his innocence and was released in 2016, without charge. He kept a diary during his incarceration, which was released as a book while he was still in prison in 2015 (and recently adapted into a movie, The Mauritanian). Ould Slahi is credited as the writer of this performance. He attended the premiere via video call. Even now, five years after his release, Ould Slahi is still unable to travel outside Mauritania.
Freedom is off to a very promising, and harrowing, start. Roni Haver, dressed in a black cloak, is standing at the front, surrounded by large, dark, rectangular boxes. Two stark and blinding lights are turned towards the audience, making it hard to see. At intervals, the lights turn on, then off again. (After the first act, the flickering stops). On the soundtrack a relentless thundering beat can be heard.
Guy Weizman and Roni Haver evoke an almost visceral sense of disorientation. The audience never quite knows when the lights will turn back on, or when they will be turned off. In the short intervals of illumination, we see the huddled figure of a man (Harold Luya), whose face is partially obscured by one of the boxes suspended from the ceiling. Below another box, a man (Camilo Chapela) is offering a woman (Angela Herenda), wrapped up like in a cocoon, something to drink. When later on Chapela cuts Herenda out of her clothes, this feels like the opposite of liberation. As if the tight fabric was the only thing that held her together.
Freedom boasts some very powerful imagery, and is most potent when it steers clear of going too literal. Unbidden, the scenes and atmosphere already bring to mind the indelible image of the hooded Guantánamo Bay prisoner standing on top of a box, arms outstretched, long before three of the performers actually mimic the gesture. The eleven black boxes scattered across the stage already evoke the Twin Towers and 9/11, even before only two are left standing.
Herenda is a strong lead, effortlessly combining text with dance. She seems to be the obvious stand-in for Ould Slahi, evoking the despair and frustration of feeling wronged and feeling silenced. But Ould Slahi, in the end, also preaches forgiveness. ‘Vengeance has no end.’
The most impressive features of the performance are without a doubt the set and sound design. It is awe-inspiring to see how many different uses Haver and Weizman find for the rectangular boxes – designed by Ascon de Nijs, who is also on stage during the performance, painting the backdrop as the dancing enfolds. They act as lamp shades, creating square prison cells of light (light design by Maarten van Rossem) on the ground. The boxes can be mounted, but performers can also be trapped inside. The performers can even draw on the sides with chalk, counting out the days on the walls.
Most importantly: the boxes are the main instruments for the five percussionists of Slagwerk Den Haag. Their use of the boxes is almost just as inventive; they create a range of different sounds with their hands, sticks, chalk and nails. The most evocative use comes from Niels Meliefste, who bangs his head against the wall despondently, compressing oppression, helplessness and despair into a single, repeated movement.