After being harassed and driven away, many people are left not with feelings of hatred and vindictiveness, but with a sense of emptiness. With the tangible , tg STAN seeks to express a Palestinian experience beyond the news broadcasts.

The Belgian theatre company tg STAN is starting to grow fond of Norway – well, I don’t know if they actually like us, but still: After the original performance of Finn Lunker’s first play, The Answering Machine , at BIT Teatergarasjen in 1994, they have visited Norway several times. Most recently, they were here last autumn with the performance of/niet , and two years before that with The Monkey Trial . Their new performance that was staged last week, is a Norwegian co-production. The world premiere was held in Bergen, and afterwards it played at Black Box Theatre in Oslo.

Both Belgium and the Netherlands have had a tradition of independent theatre ensembles since the 1960s. tg STAN (toneelspelergezelschap Stop Thinking About Names) stems from this actor-dominated tradition: the company was formed in 1989 by a group of acting students from Antwerp. The members of tg STAN work very closely with texts, and thus represent a kind of response to the director-dominated theatre: they are their own director and dramaturge; they function as a mouthpiece for the text, not for a director. A related attitude to acting has also started to gain entry in Norway: Today, Norwegian academies of the performing arts are, to a greater extent, supposed to educate co-creating artists with extensive work experience, rather than traditional, specialized performing artists. In the field of independent companies, Verk Productions is an example of a Norwegian company that works in a similar manner.

Palestinian experience
“At the beginning of every tg STAN performance, there’s usually a text. Not this time.” The same tagline that is being used here in promotion of the tangible was previously used in connection with another tg STAN production, one that has not been staged in Norway.  Nevertheless: this is a slightly different tg STAN production. The words are not already there, waiting – they have to be excavated in an attempt to express something. There are actors on stage continually, and after a while, they do start performing a text. But contributions from other art forms are also important: from dance and visual art. This kind of interdisciplinarity is not new to tg STAN, although we haven’t seen too much of it on their visits to Norway.  They often employ a number of artists from outside the company in their productions. This time, Frank Vercruyssen is the only permanent tg STAN member on stage. There is also a Syrian and a Palestinian actor, two Palestinian visual artists, a Canadian and an Italian dancer – and one Norwegian: Tale Dolven (b. 1981), residing in Belgium, has collaborated with tg STAN previously; she is a member of the dance company Rosas, lead by Anna Teresa De Keersmaeker, the sister of Jolente from tg STAN (she has, incidentally, contributed to the tangible , but does not appear on stage).

More accurately, the performance attempts to articulate a Palestinian experience. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been a hot topic on the Norwegian art scene lately, in relation to the controversial collaborative exhibit Stop Making Sense that showcases Israeli contemporary art. After a much debated press conference, several people suggested a cultural boycott of Israel: the exhibition is sponsored by the pro-Israeli Stiftelsen Morgenstjerne in collaboration with the Norwegian Arts Council. The initiators of the boycott was the artist duo Goksøyr & Martens, who have addressed the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in their performances Gudstjeneste for Gaza (Church Service for Gaza) at Kunstnernes Hus this spring, and Palestinian Embassy in a hot-air balloon over Oslo last autumn. “To bully an exhibition that tries to establish a different perspective just defeats its own end”, art critic Tommy Olsson stated in Morgenbladet.

Attempting to establishing a perspective is precisely what I conceive tg STAN to be doing in the tangible . What, then, is the Palestinian experience? Ever since the establishment of the state of Israel, the borders have been moving across Palestinian territory. Two parties in a (I’d rather not say deadlocked) position are both desperate for recognition from the outside world. But even if both sides suffer injustices, one of the parties clearly has more weight to its argument. The Palestinians can be said to suffer from what Walter Benjamin described as a modern “poverty of experience”: after having been harassed and driven away, many people are not left with – as the tangible shows – hate and vindictiveness, but with emptiness. The witnesses in this performance are several Palestinian and Arabic writers and their texts of loss and exile. Mahmoud Darwish is perhaps the better known among them here in Norway. British John Peter Berger is also included, and it is from his words that tg STAN has culled the title of the performance: He describes the ruins of a Palestinian house: “Except for pipes and wires no recognizable objects remained. Everything which had been assembled during a lifetime had gone without trace, had lost its name. An amnesia not of the mind but of the tangible ”. It is this 'tangible', that which is the very core of art, that the performance is seeking, or groping for. the tangible begins with the dancers making their first, delicate movements on the stage floor. Actors stand around them, watching, beside large screens in the rear end of the room and on each of the sides, showing dark, obscure projections. It is as if the dancers are searching for something, for a beginning. All we can hear is their breaths and the sound of the fan in the ceiling. It is as if they are getting to know their own bodies. They are deeply focused and pay no heed to anyone but themselves.

There is a pronounced dramaturgy, or curve, in all parts of the performance. After a period of time, the dancers grow a bit livelier, then they dance together, involve an actor; and for a few moments, they regard each other, and briefly, the audience. The projections on the large screen become clearer, we see that we are in a tunnel and that there is light at the end of it. Then, we are at its entrance. We see buildings, cities. We see half-finished and bombed-out constructions. We see parts of walls. We see the great wall Israel is building. Photos taken from a car window along a road, in cursory manner.

Meanwhile, Frank Vercruyssen stands on the side of the stage, controlling the projector and the sound. We hear buzzing, white noise, a few beeps, signals. Here, too, a search – like the tuning of a radio. We hear fragments of distorted voices, of music: classical, from the West, from the Middle East, didgeridoo, pop, free jazz – and more buzzing and noise. Now and then, Vercruyssen speaks quickly and indistinctly in English: for instance, he looks up and says, indifferently: “In a moment a whole house is destroyed”, then looks down, continues: focused.

Between Stanislavskji or Brecht
The two actors, Eid Aziz and Rojina Rahmoon, interpret the textual fragments in a tg STAN manner, between Stanislavskji and Brecht: sometimes, they enter into the illusion, at other times they stand on the outside, calling attention to it. For instance, they glance up at the screen behind them, where English translations of what they say in Arabic is being shown. Everything happens quickly, it is hard to keep track of everything that goes on onstage and on screen at the same time (especially if you are trying to make notes). I believe this is intentional: the experience we are trying to grasp remains difficult to get hold of. This is just something we have to endure; we are interpreters in a multi-linguistic cacophony (one of the writers, Lebanese-American Etel Adnan, spoke Greek and Turkish as a child, attended a French school, and first wrote in French, then in English). How do you perform when large parts of the audience does not look at you, but over your head?  You look over their heads.

Some of the texts deal with the fundamental themes in poetry and prose; they describe everyday life, love and loss. We also witness stories of human shields, Israeli tanks and Apache helicopters. Palestinian martyrs are not hailed, but shown understanding, Israelis are not demonized; individual Israelis are far away. An author (sources are not listed during the performance) describes life in Palestine as “palindrome days” without end. Every day is a question of to be or not to be. At one point, even the dancers contribute as actors: In English, they describe attempts to restore a relationship to the tangible in everyday life, movements over small surfaces: dragging a chair over the kitchen floor, opening the window. “We need to be distracted by trees, by art”, they say, and it reminds me of a line in a poem by Brecht: “What times are these, in which
/ A conversation about trees is almost a crime
/ For in doing so we maintain our silence about so much wrongdoing”.

Artistic license
In an interview in Norsk Shakespeare- og Teatertidsskrift (Norwegian Periodical of Shakespeare and Theatre) in 2008 (no.1), Frank Vercruyssen was asked what might lead to the disbandment of tg STAN. He couldn’t imagine it, it was up to each individual member, he said: the only reason for quitting the he could imagine was if they lost financial support (he was perhaps thinking of how Jan Joris Lamers’ Discordia was cancelled in 2001?). “Or”, he added, “war, of course”. Vercruyssen is aware that not everyone has the same financial and artistic license that he and his colleagues benefit from, and in this perspective, the tangible is not only an expression of a Palestinian perspective, but also an attempt to let art occupy and create spaces for growth, a contribution to jump-starting an experiential process.
Do they succeed? How close do we get to the Palestinian experience? Towards the end, after one and a half hour, drums thunder and the wind instruments scream over the speakers, Rojina Rahmoon almost stomps out the words, Eid Aziz is so distressed that he leaves the stage, pictures shown earlier on the rear screen are bombarded at us in reverse order – and we are back in the dark tunnel. The screens turn white, there is no sound: Vercryussen enters the stage calmly, places a cell phone on the floor that plays an Arabic song I don’t recognize. “Thank you”, he adds, politely. At the exit we are given a brown paper envelope – it contains information, and texts not used in the play. Especially when I recognize some of the phrases from Wikipedia, my impression of the performance is reinforced. The material differs wildly, is fragmented, and it is easy to lose sight of the premise: the tangible . tg STAN are not on home ground – but in this case, no one is. It fumbles, necessarily, but feels vital, and must go on., Erlend Røyset, April 20th 2010
Translated by Hanne Dale