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When the imagination is a suit of armour
Actor, director and writer Jan Sobrie describes himself as a ‘negative enthusiast’. Anyone who encounters his characters sees this paradox reflected in them. Fate has not dealt them the best cards, but with humour and imagination they make the best of it.
Two brothers who have lost their parents in a car accident. A teenage boy who is contemplating suicide. A girl with a handicap who is being bullied until she bleeds. Two children living in poverty. A grandmother who is withholding family secrets. A lovesick autistic boy. No, Jan Sobrie’s characters cannot be said to be amongst the most privileged in society. The social-realistic canvas against which Sobrie paints them, with detailed strokes, is drably coloured. This allows their own colours to shine through all the more vibrantly.
Immediately after the turn of the century, Sobrie (b. 1979) studied drama at the RITS, where the practice of writing for the theatre was not high up on the curriculum. In the third and fourth years, the students were asked to create a solo performance, and in the absence of satisfactory text material Sobrie started writing himself. Neue rozen and Levend begraven are early pieces about characters in vulnerable situations, but they already contained the germs of what would grow into an unintentional but consistent theme.
The fear of loss is a common thread in this. Along with his classmate Joris Van den Brande, Sobrie wrote and performed his first fully-fledged play at the Brussels youth theatre BRONKS. Zolderling is the story of two young friends who tackle the reality of their parents’ messy divorce with unbridled imagination. Zolderling was immediately selected for the 2003 Theaterfestival. This early recognition and the opportunities that opened up as a result meant that for the first few years Sobrie’s career developed primarily in youth theatre.
Soon after this, Sobrie wrote Titus (selected for the 2006 Theaterfestival) for the Ghent-based youth theatre company KOPERGIETERY, in which a boy who has lost his mother threatens to jump from the roof of the school. This is again a story of loss and a story of ‘not being heard’. This theme, in which Sobrie portrays those who are inaudible or invisible, would later be explored in greater depth and breadth in the ‘diptych’ Bekdichtzitstil (2015) and Woestzoeker (2017, co-authorship with Raven Ruëll). In these plays, it was not only the family, but also the school and, by extension, the whole of society that remains deaf to the signals of children who fall outside a certain norm (Bekdichtzitstil) or class (Woestzoeker).
Society, in terms of both the small and the big picture, is thus a second vein running through Sobrie’s writing. Often it is the friction between ‘normality’ and so-called ‘abnormality’ that drives the dramatic developments. From the peculiar brothers in Fimosis (selected for the 2006 Theaterfestival) to clubfooted Mira in Remember me (2009) and the protagonist in Bloemen van een autist [Flowers from an autist](2019): Sobrie’s ‘heroes’ are invariably antiheroes; there is always a twist. They endure their fate with grim cheerfulness, but in between the lines the writer’s fury shows through. The world only works for those who neatly comply with the norm.
He filmed me on his mobile today as I slipped in the corridor,
and posted it on YouTube.
Under the title:
Footsie Footsie does a Whoopsie.
Barely one day later and it already has two thousand hits.
I cried in my room.
Until I suddenly realized:
the world keeps on turning without me.
Nobody needs me and I don’t need anyone else.
(From: Remember Me)
Narrating through the eyes of an outsider enables Sobrie in the first instance to hold up a mirror to a hard and status-oriented society without too much moralising, but at the same time this is a trick that creates stylistic freedom. The ‘craziness’ of the characters paves the way for subversive imagination, for magic. Because although the purpose is often socially realistic, in many of the plays a point comes when reality tears open and a magical thinking seeps in through the tears. This magical thinking is not a noncommittal box of tricks, but a stylistic device with a variety of purposes.
On the one hand, Sobrie deploys a form of hyperrealism that is humanly recognisable. At decisive or traumatic moments in life, there can be a sense that time is standing still, that space is frozen, that what happens to a person in reality actually belongs to the realm of the unthinkable – a piece of bad news or an accident for instance, when reality is momentarily torn off its hinges. In Memé, de peetmoeder [Gran, the Godmother](2016) the dying primeval mother addresses death:
I can feel your presence.
I can feel how you, with all your coiling dirty fingers,
are slowly worming your way inside of me…
I do like you though.
I’ve come across nastier pieces of work.
At least, with you, I know where I’m at.
The scene is based on an autobiographical experience: Sobrie recounted that just before she died, his own grandmother asked her grandson ‘who that man in the corner was’ – whilst apart from the two of them the room was empty. In a watered-down version we also see this ‘magical thinking’ in the imaginary friends of young children, or in hypersensitive teenagers’ habit of magnifying banal events into monstrous proportions. The images that are created by this do not conjure up a world alongside reality, but are a grotesque version of reality itself.
On the other hand, Sobrie also often uses magic as an escape route, as a ‘solution’ for the inescapability of ‘real’ life, and as such as a world that does run alongside the existing one. For example in Woestzoeker, which ends with a vision of an abundant dinner of mussels for the children living in poverty:
The yellow scrap pipes light up.
Some kind of dream vision.
Two beautiful white napkins fall out of the pipes.
A beautifully laid table is rolled on.
Sammy and Ebenezer walk towards it.
They sit down.
A waiter appears with a steaming pot of mussels.
Sammy and Ebenezer clink their glasses of champagne.
(stage directions from Woestzoeker)
Here imagination paves the way for hope. Sobrie seldom leaves his readers or viewers burdened with the unfathomable weight of a crappy world – he at least allows his characters to dream of a better life. Not that everything turns out well as a result, but for the writer the notion of comfort is indispensable. Sobrie: “As a child I suffered from acute embarrassment. Humour and imagination helped me to find my way, as is also the case with Titus, for example. For negative enthusiasts like us, the imagination is a suit of armour, a firm base. I at least want to communicate this experience to my audience.”
Language as a tennis match
The combination of recognisable realism and alienating surrealism has its roots in the careful observation of life itself. Sobrie draws inspiration from what he sees, hears and experiences himself, and then elevates this experience to a theatrical level in his writing. The ‘simplicity’ of the characters and their colloquial language perhaps create the impression that the writing too is naive, but nothing could be further from the truth: an intense study of form underlies it. For this apparent simplicity of language and style, Sobrie refers appreciatively to the witty dialogues and vernacular, poetic directness of the American playwright David Mamet. In the opening monologue of Memé, de peetmoeder, the language ping-pongs back and forth in true Mametian style like in an exciting tennis match, with balls being playing into every corner of the court:
I was five.
Everybody wants money.
What the fuck.
Everyone wants money.
Anyone who claims he doesn’t want money is fucking lying.
You’re on your way back from school.
You pass a candy shop.
What do you want?
You want candy.
How do I get my hands on that candy?
You can steal it.
Which may work once, maybe twice.
But in the end, what do you need?
You need: money.
(From: Gran, the Godmother)
Humour is an essential component of Sobrie’s plays: the weight is never so intense that it pulls you to the bottom. Laughing at your own misery is in the very nature of the plodding man, because ‘there’s always a dash of humour in every shitty circumstance’, the writer believes. Sometimes the humour is at the level of the language, and sometimes it is in the tragicomic sketch of the situation. In Woestzoeker, the children’s parents, who are buckling under a growing mountain of debt, also become physically smaller and smaller – until they are in danger of being trampled by their children. The intervention ensures that the poignant problem area of poverty is countered by an image that is pure delight for children: they become the boss at home!
After working extensively in youth theatre, in 2019 Sobrie wrote his first play for adults: Bloemen van een autist for Tutti Fratelli. The difference is negligible. Bloemen van een autist is not substantially different from his plays for the young. However, the intensive collaboration with the composers Anneleen Boehme and Fien Desmet, who provide the music for Bloemen, had great significance for his further writing career. The interaction between words and music appears to please Sobrie, and this is a direction that he wishes to explore further. In the meantime, he has adapted the fairy tale of The Tin Soldier into a libretto for the Geneva Opera. He also has an adaptation of Schubert’s Winterreise in the pipeline, to be performed by DeSchoneCompanie, which is led by the director Tom Goossens and pianist Wouter Deltour.
Indeed, the collaboration with Geneva is not a one-off excursion over the border: since Zolderling was already nominated in 2003 for the Kaas und Kappes playwriting prize at the Kinder- und Jugendtheaterfestival in Duisburg, the German-speaking world has also discovered Sobrie. In 2018 the Schauspielhaus in Zürich invited him to write and direct a play, which resulted in NACHSPIELZEIT. Several of his plays have now been translated into German and have won awards. This may seem surprising, given that Sobrie’s plays are so ‘native’, one might say recognisably ‘Flemish’, but beneath the superficial local colour, time and time again the universal recognisability of the little characters makes them great: you might meet them anywhere in the world. This observation is important in light of the fact that, with globalisation in mind, spoken-word theatre is pronounced dead with the regularity of clockwork.
In any case, Sobrie himself continues to believe in the power of language: “Ultimately it is still about us telling one another stories around the campfire. This primal reflex will never disappear.” With the oeuvre that already exists, plus the plays that are in the pipeline, Sobrie is certainly making his contribution to this.
Written by Evelyne Coussens
Translated by Nadine Malfait
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.