I went to see The Blind Poet at the Foreign Affairs Festival (Berlin). The programme for Needcompany’s piece reads
“History is written by the victorious. By men. By the selected few who think they know what has to be done. In “The blind Poet”, Needcompany counters historical truth with personal stories: Individual portraits of the seven performers on stage, whose histories ultimately interweave to form an alternative image of (world) history.”
That sounded very ambitious and much needed.
I would like to start by acknowledging it would take too long to describe what makes the show a really beautifully crafted piece of performance, which has won it the status of masterpiece in other reviews: great scenography, poetic and gigantic, where you get to see a joust between two giant chess pieces, where a dead horse is brought back to life, where angry electric guitar chords make you shiver, where a swirl of arresting stories go through several centuries of history… All of this, is masterful and is the reason why Needcompany is, from an aesthetics perspective at least, a radical, uncomprimising, world-touring company.
The problem lies elsewhere.
The show starts with Grace Ellen Barkey, co-founder of the company. Costumed as some marvelous cosmic clown. Repeating, then screaming then sobbing her name, her amazing start sets the tone: how can our individual, insignificant being override the official history?
Nonetheless, immediately after this striking overture, I start cringing. Listing her multiple origins, Grace Ellen Barkey mentions that one of her grandmothers was a Hakka Chinese. And adds to this (in substance):
“this is important that I say I’m Chinese, because you know, they’ll own everything.”
Laughter. She then goes on to explain that Indonesian people have this particular way of squatting when they eat, before another performer, Mohamed Toukabri, jumps in to say that Tunisian people also squat this way, giving it another name, but mainly use this position to take a shit. Laughter.
This particular kind of humour, that comes back a couple of times in the show, one would simply call it racist in other circumstances. Meaning by that, perpetuating stereotypes about an identified group of people in the context of an imbalance of power – Indonesia and Tunisia both having a colonial history with European countries.
By playing with fire, the company wants to point at the idea of multiculturalism as sometimes too easy a liberal instinct. One that has as much to do with a sort of exoticism as it does with good intentions of getting to know “the other” – the very notion of “culture” as a positive notion being critiqued in this context. The characters play for us what we would like them to play: their otherness. The company’s aim is to attack the “beast of identity”, as Erwin Jans, the dramaturge of The Blind Poet writes it in the note of intent for the show (p.12). Jan Lauwers himself has already pointed at the European identity and its arrogance as one of his favourite targets.
Watching The Blind Poet, I am already aware that Needcompany does enjoy discomforting its audience. Yet if by that it means to challenge an established order and opinions commonly accepted, in other words to be subversive, I start doubting its technique. Is there not another way to call out an audience’s prejudices rather than by putting in the mouths of the ones affected by clichés (whether negative or positive) those very same clichés in order to denounce them? One could also refuse to use them at all, to ward off completely the fantasy that “the other” would confirm the prejudices we have about her/him.
And the structure of the piece doesn’t make the choice of using these clichés easier to understand. Indeed, Jan Lauwers chose to give each performer’s story the same space as the others, for they all are an “every(wo)man’s story” entangled in the greater history. And does it with great success. But, while there is nothing wrong about dreaming of a reality where this would be the case, a dream the tight-knit community formed by the ensemble probably lives by, it’s also, despite the best intentions, deciding to completely ignore postcolonial perspectives. When looking at the imbalance of power around who gets to decide what is and isn’t in the history books in the Western world, saying a white man’s story, a white woman’s story, an non-white man’s story etc. can all be given the same weight because “We are all refugees or cannibals” (p.15) becomes questionable.
In definitive, this undecisiveness between an attempted subversion highlighting race issues and a depoliticised perspective that levels every voice, damages for me the possiblity of a real political coherence to the piece, which is a shame considering the expectations set by the programme.
The aesthetic experience remains nonetheless intact. But left me unsatisfied.