A New Altarpiece: Lam Gods, NTGent, and the Theatre (& City) of the Future

| 18 oktober 20188
What would Ghent’s famous altarpiece look like if it were painted today? Who are the angels? The saints? Who are Adam and Eve? Who are Mary, John the Baptist, and even the Almighty? These are the questions that NTGent’s new artistic director Milo Rau looks at this question in his new production Lam Gods.

The stage lights are down… not just turned off, but the actual, physical grid the lights hang from have not yet been raised – a beautiful metaphor for a theatre re-opening after a year and a half of renovations. As the prologue concludes the lights are raised and the trappings of the theatre come into place. With a thick fog pouring over the audience, Lam Gods (The Ghent Altarpiece) – along with Milo Rau’s artistic directorship of NTGent – officially begins. And this production is – I will say right at the top – is a truly beautiful piece of theatre.

Lam Gods takes its inspiration and name from the Ghent altarpiece (a bona fide, certified masterpiece), painted by the brothers Hubert and Jan van Eyck and complicated in 1432 (just for scale, Columbus didn’t even land in the Americas until 1492, sixty years after the completion of altar). The painting marks a complete shift within the art world, and artistic paradigm shift of how the world was represented. The beginning of a completely new, style of painting and portraiture with a new focus on extreme detail in both the portrayal of nature and humans. It also brought the world outside the stories in the Bible into the world the painter himself inhabited.

The painting – as Nima Jebelli, who plays both a narrator/directorial role as well as Adam, points out in the opening – used real people from the world surrounding them as the models for figures included in the altarpiece. When we look at the redness of Adam’s lightly sunburnt hands in the original altarpiece, it is because the model came directly from working the fields to van Eyck’s studio. The panels are actually filled with familiar faces: popes and antipopes alongside the saints and martyrs… perhaps even a self-portrait of Jan or Hubert van Eyck on horseback in the “Just Judges” – maybe this is the reason why Rau choice to include a picture of himself (admittedly somewhat hidden among his actors) in the video double of this panel as it is projected onto the onstage altar.

In addition to casting real Belgians as the Biblical/religious figures in the altar, van Eyck (I am purposefully imprecise in specifying which van Eyck, because who painted what is unclear historically) also brought Belgium itself – specifically Ghent itself – into the iconography. When you look at the altarpiece you can clearly see Ghent streets through the windows behind Gabriel and Mary; in the adoration of the mystic lamb Belgian landscapes as well as the tops of European churches and cathedrals. The use of perspective is incredible, because even with the exquisite detail of each individual panel (and even each individual section of the panel) the key is drawn towards the lamb at the center, but when you look upwards you see an expansive world – not a Biblical world, but the Europe that both van Eycks knew and lived in. A visual intertwining of the religious world and natural environment representative of the complexity of the present moment. Not just a reflection, but an image representative of a moment that was absolutely present and contemporary for the van Eycks, the patron, and the subjects.

So, returning to Lam Gods

How could this – i.e., what the van Eycks did with the Ghent altarpiece – be done today? In 2018 Ghent?

What would this altarpiece look like today?

Who is Ghent?

How do different sections of the population fit into the altarpiece’s panels?

The production is an exploration of the textures that make up the population of Ghent today: Who are the just judges? Who are the knights of Christ, still willing to fight for their beliefs? The pilgrims? The hermits? The mothers? The fathers? The angels?

The production looks at the city itself as a living, breathing, shifting, transforming entity – it looks at the city in connection with its politics, its past, its present, its future, and (most importantly) its people.

Lam Gods is a clear break from Rau’s earlier (pre-NTGent) work and while it still contains the hallmarks of a Milo Rau production: the presence of non-professional performers telling their stories as part of a larger narrative mural (this is a particular genre within Rau’s work that I define as recollection borrowing from Kierkegaard as well as placing a particular emphasis on the “collection” element of the term), the little nods to the audience, the inside jokes, etc. Throughout the evening, we, the audience, are led through both the altarpiece and Ghent – it is important to note that, for Rau, Ghent is more than the city, it is its people – by Frank Focketyn (the beloved star of the Belgian equivalent of The Office… according to the lovely Belgian couple sitting next to me in the theatre) and Chris Thys (also one Belgium’s most recognizable television/theatre stars according to the same couple). Music, images, and the sort of uncontrollability Rau loves are all there (this uncontrollability is in fuller force than normal with the co-presence of five sheep, a sheep dog, a children’s choir, and many lay-performers and people with various levels of experience and comfort on the stage).

Although the similarities and Rau-isms are easy to identify, the break from Rau’s earlier work is much more difficult to describe. It is very subtle, but still palpable.

Perhaps it is a sort of absence in violence… not an absence of violence, because there is violence – including a rather skittish sheep is sheered onstage while a video of a slaughter plays in the background. Maybe there is an abundance of hope, a connection to a rebirth of a city and a society rather than of violence begetting further violence. The specific form of violence we see on the stage – either live or via the projection – the slaughter or sheering of a sheep, birth (video), an old woman in a palliative care facility (video), an intimate dance stimulating sex (live) are jarring, but they are also closely connected to the thematic of death and life – underlined with the theme of water (the fountain of life in the mystic lamb panel) and a key geographical feature of the city itself. Life, death, and rebirth are also of course closely connected to the altar’s sacrificial lamb. The hope is located in the rebirth, specifically that the rebirth will not lead to more violence but to something else, to love and reconciliation (to something that unites rather than tears apart). While the city may continue to grow, demographics to shift, languages to appear and disappear (Flemish, according to Jebelli, will most likely disappear by the end of this century), but something new always, inevitably emerges. And even after humans disappear, the earth with continue – after all (to paraphrase) this world began without us and will continue on long after we are gone.

Unlike other Rau productions, which look at cycles of violence, Lam Gods looks at a different cycle – at cycles of migration, at coming and going, and life and death both of people and of communities. it is about how the city changes and how its people change, but how this change doesn’t mean destruction, it means metamorphosis and what that means is yet to be seen.

Here I finally come to my central point, Lam Gods is also different from Rau’s other pieces, because Lam Gods is a sort of love letter from Rau to the city of Ghent.

It is a celebration of a city in constant flux as much as it is a celebration of the theatre and community which has accepted Rau itself. A theatre that is itself in the grips of rebirth. It is about beginnings, endings, and what comes next, the new beginnings – the so-called future.

A mother recalls the death of her son (who joined the fight in Syria), stands in as Mother Mary, who tearfully chuckles that Mary’s son also always caused her grief.

A beaming new father watches the video of his son’s birth and stands in for John the Baptist.

A choir of children happily singing upbeat Sunday school songs are the choir of angels.

The children’s’ conductor, Wim Claeys (another fairly well-known public figure), is the Almighty – providing musical accompaniment from the screen above but never physically present on the stage.

Sheep, children, a dog, professional actors, and ordinary people – mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, believers, fighters, migrants, refugees – are all together a full stage.

But even more so, they are together with their audience in a room full of people.

About a week before I left for Belgium I had in an argument with my Canadian PhD supervisor about the altarpiece. He insisted that the Ghent Altarpiece was about innocence, but I saw it and still see it differently. I see an image about gathering. People

coming together from across Belgium and across the world that Hubert and Jan van Eyck knew in 1432. When I look at the centre panel (the adoration of the mystic lamb), I see people coming from all directions – processions extending out of sight but also moving closer together… towards the centre.

And I see Lam Gods as trying to do something similar, bringing people of Ghent from all different social, cultural, economic, and national backgrounds coming together – a reflection on what it means to be a city in a globalized world and a realization of what it means to create a global realism in theatre

A sort of performative, presentative convergence that proclaims:

“This – this thing you are seeing right here, right now – this is Ghent and this is the theatre of and for Ghent!”

Lam Gods is a play about roots, blood, water, love, and a city. It is celebration of sorts – of the highs and lows, of the triumphs and failures of a society. It is a play that says, you find history where you are born, but you also find it where you are. You are literally standing in history and you are in this history the subjects – whoever you are – that Jan and Hubert van Eyck would have used for their altarpiece.

But in additional all these things, the production also marks an entrance to a theatre that is – after a year and a half – once again open.

The production opens up not just the stage, but also the theatre. It invites actors and spectators alike to come and look at themselves, to see themselves as a part of a larger historical and cultural moment and as a part of a new beginning – as a part of the theatre’s new beginning. It proclaims, in line with Rau’s City of the Future and his Ghent Manifesto, that you – the spectator, both in- and outside of Ghent, even those beyond the perspective of the painting – are a part of this theatre and part of this future… We’re happy you’re here. We want you here. You are here. We are here together in this space in this moment.

Welcome back.

And in the end – like in a painting – it’s all about perspective… isn’t it.

 - Lily Climenhaga, on her theatre blog: lostdramaturgininternational.wordpress.com