Quartett — a conversation with Cynthia Loemij and Frank Vercruyssen

Published on 28.11.2018, 17:08

Heiner Müller’s play Quartett (1980) is considered by many to be his best work and enjoys a cult status. This is also the text you used in 1999 as the basis for a new collaboration between Rosas and STAN, right after Just Before. What drew you to Quartett?

Frank Vercruyssen: It is quite simply a very beautiful, strong text with an exceptional balance between lightness and weight, cruelty and tenderness. It’s because of the magnificent poetry that the performance stands the test of time. This retake is twenty years down the road, and that time makes all the difference to us and to our perception of ourselves in the piece, yet the text itself remains timeless in its quality. It is simultaneously very complex and very simple.

Cynthia Loemij: It has a very nice rhythm, an almost telegraphic style, with at the same time very complex phrases and a lot of imagery. The text also leaves a lot of room for silence, for movement, for interpretation... There is a lot of physicality, too: there is much talk about the body, the veins, the skin...

Might this physical aspect explain the possible affinity of this text for dance, or is that simplifying matters?

CL: The physical quality of the text does not imply its ‘logical’ combination with dance, but it does create openings.

FV: The text is also very mischievous, verging on devious, something that contrasts nicely with the intrinsic grace of dance. Even when you don’t write particularly graceful material, the language itself may exhibit a great elegance, as is the case with Müller. I think it’s fantastic: talking trash while you are standing there being very graceful.

CL: I sense that, too. There is something majestic and at the same time something very raw about the text and that is reflected in the movements. They are gracious, but also include raw or mischievous movements with repetitions that fit in with the rhythm of the text.

You remarked that the perception of yourself in the piece has changed compared to twenty years ago. Can you comment further?

FV: That’s simple: Valmont has aged. Whether or not that will as of yet affect our performance, we shall see [the interview took place at the start of the rehearsal period, Ed.]. Precisely how we will interact with the text, phrase by phrase, or how Cynthia, with the body she has now, will interact with the phrases, we don’t know yet. But there is already a kind of perception, an expectation. Effectively, a number of phrases will ‘fit’ better than they did twenty years ago, when we were possibly still too young for certain things, for instance, when Valmont asks the marquise when she last looked in a mirror. Quartett is about two people who have passed the peak of sexual attraction and continue to hold on to youth, physicality and sensuality and struggle with this. So things that weren't falling into place with the text in 1999 are now doing so. And vice versa no doubt, because back then we had an almost carefree or even indifferent predisposition towards a number of phrases. Now, there is more nostalgia, melancholy or a sense of finiteness in the reading of the text. Beyond that it remains equally cruel and exciting yet somehow more ‘fatal’. Were we to make Quartett now for the first time, it would be a different performance. Yet this undertaking, a 2018 retake, is definitely about going back to the 1999 performance and not about building a new performance from the ground up.

Am I correct in understanding, however, it is not a ‘retake’ in its most literal sense?

CL: We don’t change anything about the performance, but we are different. The twenty-year difference is very real, if only for my body. The material is from another era, I have to engage with it again and feel that it is very different, physically. Also, I haven’t done text in years. The text of Quartett, however, is as wonderful as it ever was and, while working with it again, a variety of stimuli have come up again.

FV: Until last week, before we had effectively started, we had some reservations: ‘what have we said yes too?’ Both Cynthia and I play in many different productions, some of them are somehow ‘part of our system’. For Quartett it turned out to be different, once again it was an unknown. We had no idea how it would turn out. But by working with it this week, it quickly came flooding back. It surprised me how we returned relatively quickly and naturally to an almost visceral knowledge of the text.

Quartett is a play that is not based on the concept of anecdote but is characterised by the beauty of the language and the freedom of interpretation associated with that writing style. In a 1999 interview, Cynthia said the text and the performance had no  illustrative function but that it was rather the ‘undercurrent’ of the text that mattered. In that sense much depends on the way it is played, the dynamics you create, bringing to the surface that which cannot be said. It seems hard enough in and of itself, but how difficult is that in a retake?

FV: The ‘click’ for me came with a quote from Müller: ‘People tell me my texts are difficult but you simply have to ‘do’ them and then they are quite simple.’ This approach allows for a different kind of knowledge, a different perception or interpretation of the words in this text to surface. If you really wanted to know what all these sentences meant separately, you would end up in a dead-end. But if you allow knowledge to come in from ‘a different level’ of the text, something very simple and organic comes to the fore. It has also happened to me with other texts – I really am a control freak and find it difficult to accept that I can’t grasp or understand something. Some texts already play themselves in a reading but some texts, like this one, you really need to read out loud to understand what to do with it.

CL: I think it’s easier for me because I’m a dancer, a dancer furthermore in a company that doesn’t produce any narrative ballets. I expect people to have an open disposition, that they don’t wonder what precisely it is I mean by my movements. That’s exactly the reason why Quartett lends itself so well to dance: those words are dance, they overlap and their perception is similar.

FV: At the same time, you shouldn’t exaggerate that mythical unintelligibility; reading through the text of Quartett, most of what is there is clear. It certainly isn’t gibberish.

Müller called Quartett ‘a reflection on the problem of terrorism, using material that on the surface of it has nothing to do with it’. How would you interpret that statement?

FV: To me, Quartett is much more about terror than it is about terrorism. The latter is a kind of political means, whereas terror can exist on both a personal and a social level. Quartett is about the terror between two people and at the same time about the terror on a more societal level: the terror between man and woman. It is typical of the universal quality of a ‘classic’: the piece is relevant in any time. Of course, Müller speaks more from what was the East-German reality at the time, with the RAF and so on. With a small note indicating time and space at the beginning of the text – ‘a bunker after the Third World War – he added an apocalyptic layer to the work of Choderlos de Laclos [Quartett is based on his Les Liaisons Dangereuses, 1782, Ed.]. His imagery goes much further and is far more deadly. In that sense, the interaction between the characters betrays a much greater terror level than is the case with Choderlos de Laclos, where the interaction is embedded in the civility of 18th-century letter-writing culture.

Terror, manipulation and power games between man and woman: it’s a very hot topic at the moment. Have the (societal) developments since 1999 had any influence on your interpretation or perception of what happens in Quartett?

FV: Of course that is something that's always playing at the back of your mind. For instance, there is no getting around #MeToo any more. But this text is not anecdotal – it is not a value judgement, it is simply an observation. I recently played Ingmar Bergmans’s After the Rehearsal, in which an older director and a younger actress are caught up in a game of attraction and repulsion. This text is the exact opposite – very anecdotal, almost casual – and this subject matter is more pertinent to it. My co-star even changed the way she played her role to avoid lapsing into too obvious a relationship too easily. Conversely, the style of Quartett is very lyrical and poetic, it is less viscous and therefore not as susceptible to the moment, it defies being broken down into themes. And, yes, the scenes between Valmont and Tourvel do unmistakably conjure up associations with #MeToo, but the triumph of Valmont is wiped out when he, in turn, is treated equally cruelly and dies at the end.

CL: It was a relief to me that Merteuil is in fact very strong and actually is in control, to the extent she ultimately kills Valmont. I am glad to be part of this piece and not of a piece in which the woman is the stereotypical seductress or is seduced by a man. The characters are well matched and the classic story between man and woman does not occur here.

FV: The equality between man and woman in cruelty and abuse is indeed refreshing.

CL: Added to which Müller wrote the text such that the actors trade roles and I can also play a man.

How do you deal with the presence of the audience in an ‘intimate’ performance like this? What effect do you hope to achieve with the audience?

FV: In this case it’s more the text you present to the people, that you offer them, and they themselves decide what to make of with it. If you start playing Quartett towards the audience too much, it becomes almost vulgar. Mind you, in another performance that might be precisely what is required.

CL: The same goes for dance: some performances require more involvement of the audience, while others invite the audience to hear and see them and don’t assume that same interaction.

FV: The microphones we use make it very intimate. The tone is set from the outset: Cynthia murmurs the text to herself, she doesn’t greet the audience. The energy is more centripetal than it is centrifugal. During the course of the performance, there are nuances of or exceptions to that basic concept, but when the music stops, you really get this suction effect to the figure of Cynthia, who starts all over again with the text and the imagery. The audience doesn’t know whether she is speaking to somebody who is supposed to be there or whether she is talking to herself.

What is the biggest challenge in this retake so far?

CL: The combination of text and movement remains the biggest challenge. It is in fact quite a challenge.

FV: A retake cannot be a ‘retake’, you have to be able to ensure that it is a new performance in its own right. You want to keep what worked well at the time because naturally that performance has its own value, but in the details it is important to stay alert and on top of it. We have to allow the confrontation with the effect the text has on us now, in 2018.

Floor Keersmaekers