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Layers of reality
The title of her novel summarises the underlying theme of her work as a writer. Het twijfelexperiment is a story about a girl Vicky who tries, with an investigation of her own design, to find out whether her disabled sister is really disabled. In fact, Vicky wants nothing more than her sister to one day say that nothing is wrong and that their family is a normal family. The title of the story of course refers to the methodological doubt of the French philosopher Descartes, with whom Vicky has nocturnal conversations in her mind. That tension between reality and imagination and the sometimes thin line between actual reality and constructed reality are important themes in her theatre work. The lightness of tone and playful way of telling that characterises the novel are also reflected in her plays.
Wijs’ theatre texts are always produced in a specific theatre context and often in collaboration with others. In 2003 she worked together with a number of fellow actors on Ca va!, based on texts by the Russian poet Vladimir Mayakovsky. In 2004 she, with Ryszard Turbiasz, created the production Wat is denken? [What is thinking?] based on the biography, the diaries and the love letters of two of the most influential philosophers of the twentieth century: Martin Heidegger and Hannah Arendt. The text focuses primarily on Hannah Arendt’s perspective and is about how thinking and feeling, philosophising and living are connected. In 2007 she wrote the monologue Niemand kan het [Nobody can do it] with Dutch photographer Hans Aarsman, who decided at some point in his career not to take any more pictures. In the form of a lecture, a photographer examines why we take photos, why we want to capture reality when we may not even have seen it? Do we actually see what we see? Niemand kan het is an ironic exercise in the (im)possibility of seeing.
F=ma (2010) is based on the novel Clair De Lune (1985) by Albanian writer Ismail Kadare. Marianne, an attractive young woman, is disgraced by the gossip, accusations and suspicions of her colleagues. She is portrayed as an immoral woman. Because Marianne herself does not respond to these allegations, the suspicions increase. At a certain point even the defence by her friends contributes to her isolation. Although all the accusations are false, her fall is inevitable.
When the novel appeared, it was immediately banned in then communist Albania. The similarities with the suspicious and manipulative political regime were apparently too clear. In her adaptation, Carly Wijs is consistent. Marianne herself does not speak. She is always talked about. Wijs leaves Kadare’s story intact as much as possible. She does not rewrite the book into dialogues, but allows different voices to sound throughout the narrative, thereby creating space for more contemplative passages. The theatre text shows the almost Kafka-like effect of rumours that take on a life of their own and are no longer capable of being refuted. The gossip and accusations create a new parallel reality in which everything Marianne says or does is misinterpreted. The title refers to Newton’s Second Law that says that an object at rest will move when a force acts on it, and that its speed will increase as this force increases. And that is exactly what happens with the gossip about Marianne … Again, Carly Wijs calls the status of reality into question.
Carly Wijs wrote her best work for youth theatre. In this, she does not shy away from taboo topics that are sensitive and difficult to discuss. For the youth theatre text WIJ/ZIJ [US/THEM] (2014), Carly Wijs based herself on the dramatic events in Beslan (East Ossetia) where Chechen terrorists attacked a primary school in 2004. The hostage-taking and the reaction of Russian special units cost nearly three hundred and fifty lives, including many dozens of children. It is anything but an easy subject for children 9 and older. It is precisely this alleged ‘taboo character’ that has become the starting point for Carly Wijs. The BBC documentary Children of Beslan was a source of inspiration for the production. Wijs says she was struck by the detachment with which children talk about what they experienced and the imagination they possessed to devise a solution to the horrible situation. The writer uses these two elements – detached, factual description and imagination – to construct her text. A boy and a girl are speaking who, together and then separately, narrate a few moments of the hostage drama. They do not agree on all the details. For example, they both draw a different map of the school and they indicate different locations when they refer to specific places. WIJ/ZIJ is not a story of a horrible drama, but about the unique way children handle extreme situations. Sober and humorous, WIJ/ZIJ contrasts the view of a boy and a girl to that of adults. With the title, Carly Wijs refers to the black-and-white logic that governs world politics and is responsible for much hatred and violence. Her piece is also partly a criticism of the way in which the media makes an ideologically digestible story of events.
At the same time, the elusiveness and coerciveness of reality becomes clear in the installation/performance Yes (2014), based on Exiles, the only play that James Joyce wrote. The installation/performance was shown in a museum for modern art. The text was an integral part of the installation that was presented live. Accompanied by the film Monologue Intérieur by Dutch artist Marijke van Warmerdam, the actors acted from opening until closing of a museum day. The focus is on the intrigue between a married couple and their lover and mistress. Yes is a reflection on modern society and its contemporary interpretation of what relationships are: the main character Richard encourages his wife to have an open relationship and even forces her to take a lover, especially, however, so that he himself could do his own thing.
In Show (2017), a youth performance for 10+, Wijs treats a topic that, despite the openness of modern upbringing, is still sensitive, both among parents and in education: sexual awakening. We live in a society that allows young people to come into contact early on with explicit pornographic material, but which has still not found a way to communicate with young people about sex. Show explicitly focuses on the vulnerable, uncertain but also ‘magical’ moment of that discovery. Through the confrontation between a young magician and a young dancer who comes to do auditions for the show, this sensitive subject is treated in a playful, humorous way. The magic show is full of metaphors about falling in love, raging hormones, desire, … Wijs ingeniously mixes dialogue and narration: in the same sentence she allows both the magician and the dancer not only to talk to each other but also about each other, as in the following excerpt in which the adolescent girl already starts dreaming about marriage:
Female dancer:I’m convinced now that we’re going to get married or that other thing I can’t think of the word for, and I say: Yes siree…
Conjurer: I explain what I mean by we can really talk to each other, because I really want her to understand me and say: It’s not everyone that can say that.
Female dancer; ,Suddenly I think: I’d like to have six children one day and say: No, that’s really unique.
This technique makes it possible to show the difference between thinking and feeling on the one hand and speaking and expressing on the other, but also creates space for humour, suggestiveness, winks and ambiguities. Here too a game is played with different layers of reality. Show brings together all the qualities of Carly Wijs’ texts: a serious theme that is treated in a playful way. Playful in the sense of ‘light’, but also in the sense of ‘providing opportunities for play’.
Written by Erwin Jans
Translated by Dan Frett and Rina Vergano
Erwin Jans is currently working as a dramaturg at Toneelhuis in Antwerpen. He teaches theater and drama at Artesis Hogeschool Antwerpen where he also does research on the history of the dramatic text. He writes extensively on literature, theater and culture. He published Interculturele intoxicaties. Over kunst, cultuur en verschil (Intercultural intoxications. On art, culture and diversity) (2006). He was co-editor of an anthology of Flemish postwar poetry Hotel New Flandres (2008). Together with the philosopher Eric Clemens he wrote an essay on democracy that was also translated in French (2010). Last year he published an anthology of the dramatic work of the Flemish playwright and director Tone Brulin (2017).
Texts available in Dutch, unless stated otherwise