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For Abke Haring (°1978) of the Netherlands, a career as actress seemed to be the logical first choice. Already during her acting studies at the then called Studio Herman Teirlinck in Antwerp, she attracted the attention of director Luk Perceval, who recruited her for various Toneelhuis productions. Only when Guy Cassiers asked her in 2010 to become one of the permanent theatre makers under the wings of Toneelhuis, did the wider theatre audience come to know that Haring writes, produces and acts in her own productions, as she had in Nageslachtsfarce/genocide [Offspring farce/genocide] (2002), the project with which she graduated from the Studio. This monologue paints in jet-black the distorted relationship between a daughter and a mentally ill mother. “There I discovered language as a weapon,” Haring would say of the production.
Disturbed family ties
And what a weapon. The twisted mother-daughter relationship in Nageslachtsfarce/genocide takes its form in razor-sharp language fragments that leave little room for the illusion of harmony. The equally beloved and hated mother later returns in Hoop [Hope] (2006) and in Linoleum/Speed (2009). In Kortstond/Zelfbaat/Tucht [Fleeting/Self-benefit/Discipline] (2004), she is in the company of two brothers and a house. It is clear that the nuclear family initially forms the leitmotiv in Haring’s writing, but always in its most oppressive, unhealthy form.
that I mistook love for hate
that you saw me as a girlfriend
and that I let you carry on
until it got embarrassing
I’m sorry that I misunderstood things so badly at times
and I’m sorry too
that I sometimes fucked your sweetheart
I hurt youand I’m still sorry for that (from: Nageslachtsfarce/genocide)
The family nucleus in Haring’s imaginary world is the scene of loneliness, sadism and violence. In later texts like HOUT [WOOD] (2010), FLOU [HAZE] (2011) or TRAINER (2013), she would extend that specific context of distorted power relations to the relationship between an individual and his or her community. The baseline remains the same: a person struggles with his disciplining through an environment (with as primordial topos: the womb) that squeezes in on him. He wants to grow, he wants to escape, he wants to be free.
The biggest misunderstanding about the work of Abke Haring, however, lies in the interpretation of this constant struggle. Her lyrics as well as her theatre language (dark, alienating settings, monotone soundscapes) sometimes result in the comment that her work is ‘dark’, even deterministic. Especially the latter is a thorn in the side for Haring. That the individual continues to engage in the battle, no matter how great the humiliation, she sees as proof of the infinite vitality of humankind – not of its destruction. Which is why many of Haring’s productions and texts consist of circular structures: she gives her characters the opportunity to start over again.
I’ve walked far
my feet feel itand myback
in my pocket
secretly, before the cheque
stuffed in my pocketa heart
at first there was a lot then less – nothing
I saw the exit on entering
but forget where
I believein the journey
in the person
who I was (from: HOUT)
Haring’s writing style is not the most accessible: it consists of bitten-off pieces of texts that function as a mantra, rather than as a narrative. The words are intended to exorcise a trauma. They circle around these broken (family) relationships, without ever really grasping the schism. Dramaturge Erwin Jans once called Haring’s texts ‘displaced’ – as displaced as her characters, who are desperately seeking a home and a bit of security. When Haring stages her own texts, these searching words often receive an explicit place: for example, they appear on a news ticker, as a bombardment of red-luminous letters. This projecting of words as visual work of art takes place in HOUT as well as in Song#2 (2013). Haring treats language as an object, shapes the words in their material appearance and ‘body’. Significant biographical detail: in a conversation about this, Haring refers to her father, a typesetter. As a child she first learned the letters as tangible metal objects.
Also on paper, Haring’s words are more than empty shells, more than the carriers of their meaning. They are visual sculptures, sometimes vertical and pressed against the page, staccato, other times as a stretched out, horizontal stream-of-consciousness of consecutive words. The rhythm of language, but also the sometimes obsessive repetition and often emotionless narration on stage, ensure that Haring’s texts have the power of formulas. They are ritual chants designed to stimulate the senses – rather than the mind – of the reader. The intoxicating musicality of language should provide a flow, like Haring’s own productions.
Also going straight to the lower regions of the body is the disruptive alternation of a high and a low register. Well-spoken poetry and the most obscene vulgarities go hand in hand in Haring’s imagination. What, for example, to think of:
I like seeing you
miss you a lot
like a song misses its chorus
a little game
I jerk the boy off
he comes in your face
I put a condom on the broom
put it in me
you have to watch
your hands on my tits
and a dummy in your mouth
I’ll lay on you naked
with my bum
in your face
my arsehole open (from: Hoop)
Between scabrous and poetic language used as third ‘language colour’, the spoken language, is used to express the utmost banalities, such as those exchanged by the couple in FLOU (2011) or more recently PLATINA (2018). Once again, Haring does not use language as a bearer of meaning, on the contrary: what becomes clearer and sharper between the chatter about vegetables and the neighbours is the screaming void between the partners. A void that stands still in time, with the man and the woman like animals frozen in an ancient ice cap. The experience of timelessness often arises when reading Haring’s work. Most texts contain no passage of time; they are situations, states of a drawn-out now. Especially FLOU is an endless standstill: the characters make absolutely no progress.
She: I need to lay down
I can’t get my breath
Why are you so quiet
What do you want me to say
Why should something be wrong if I’m quiet for a moment
You haven’t said anything for a very long time
I just asked what’s wrong
You’re so quiet
That’s because you keep asking what’s wrong
I don’t keep asking what’s wrong
You’ve already asked it twice
Because you’re so quiet
You haven’t said anything for ages
I want to know what’s wrong
The more lonely her characters, the more lonely also the words of Haring. The scarce phrases are surrounded by large, white spaces of silence. Sometimes the words seem not to want to exist – they are so minimal and stripped down – as if Haring would prefer to remain silent.
In an interview she once admitted that she prefers to create images, or movements, “and yet it’s always the words that come.” Words as images, interchangeable. That makes Abke Haring a poet, whether intended or not.
Written by Evelyne Coussens
Translated by Dan Frett and Rina Vergano
Evelyne Coussens studied Classical Languages at Ghent University and Theatre Studies at Antwerp University. She works for publiq and writes as a freelance cultural journalist for the newspaper De Morgen as well as for various Flemish and Dutch cultural media (among others, rekto:verso, Etcetera, Ons Erfdeel, Theatermaker). She is an editor at-large for Etcetera and has sat on various juries. Coussens is also a guest lecturer on the theory and practice of art criticism at various colleges and universities.
Texts available in Dutch, unless stated otherwise