This article was originally published Jun 15, 2016
If one of the goals of the Israel Festival is to bring in bold, “elitist” events that would otherwise never be seen here — and I believe it is, even in our anti-elitist era — then bringing Jan Fabre’s 24-hour-long “Mount Olympus: To Glorify the Cult of Tragedy” has achieved this goal in a big way.
About 1,000 people left the Jerusalem Theatre’s Sherover auditorium last Friday between 5 P.M. and 6 P.M., eager to continue talking about the experience, its significance (or lack thereof) and its value; in the space between the intense ecstatic experience (on the range between disgust and spiritual elevation) and amazement at the performance, play, “show,” all of it spiced with the rarefied air of discussing the role of Greek tragedy in the cradle of Western civilization and here and now, in the Middle East.
First, we must say that the decision of Fabre — a Belgian multidisciplinary artist, playwright, director, choreographer and designer, together with his company of 28 talented performers — to stage a work that lasts an entire day, and the decision of the audience members to buy tickets to the experience, negate all the accepted criteria for approaching a work of art.
In such an expanse of time, the concepts of “good” and “bad,” or even “interesting” or “boring,” have no significance. In such dimensions of stage art, anyone who comes in the first place, and especially those who remain until the end (full disclosure: I saw around 14 hours, in two courses), feels a need to justify to themselves their personal investment in the work.
In any case, with so many details over so long a time, each audience member can organize the experience for themselves in their consciousness and find themselves inside it, with their own passions and reservations. Everyone who agrees with what I am about to write, everyone who disputes part or all of what I have to say — they are all correct.
Even if they find two completely contradictory interpretations for this work, it remains capable — because of its overweening ambition — of containing everyone. Just as our lives in general, and the heroes and materials of Greek tragedy with which Fabre works can.
Fabre’s 28 actors-dancers-singers-athletes-gymnasts, of all ages, nationalities and genders (The races have only partial representation: Most of the performers are light-skinned.) are trying to return to the days in which watching a play — in ancient Greece, with its Olympian gods and mythological heroes — were holidays and rituals for the people, the participants and audience.
On one hand, events in which they were freed from the chains of the subconscious and common sense, and called on to go wild in the realms of insanity (a greased actor covered with vibrating rolls of fat, who is nimble and an amazing drummer, speaks of the “insanity” he gives human beings).
At the same time, a subversive intellectual statement underlies the performance, rebelling against accepted norms, calling to the individual with common sense not to surrender, neither to power nor the masses, and to decide themselves about the character of their own tragedy.
The event, which begins with “bad tidings,” (in which a species of hellish dogs with red tongues shout unclearly into the rear ends of naked heralds, and they in turn speak the news in their own voices), ends in a call to the audience to take back the power, whatever that means.
It is impossible even to describe everything that happens on stage. We saw incredible physical acts: An entire group conducted a rope-skipping exercise (in reality a chain) while shouting out training calls, as in an elite military unit.
Figures wrapped in white robes pulled out from their bosoms chunks of raw meat and beat their chests with it; these pieces of meat were later tossed into the air from a red cloth the actors played with.
Most of the performance was colored with the scene from Euripides’ “The Bacchae,” in which the women tear apart, in an ecstatic frenzy, the king who watched them and who sought to rule them.
It was a constant mix of mass ecstasy achieved through physical exhaustion (in wild dancing, with astonishing music), sexual stimuli verging on and even exceeding pornography (a great deal of female nudity, and even more male nudity, on the stage, and quite a number of things that one never expected to see, certainly not on the stage, without any intimacy), as well as political texts, which sounded appropriate for Israel too.
Within all this, we meet all the heroes of Greek tragedy that as theatergoers we recognize (or at least should know). But when one tragedy of those that have survived is presented, we are exposed to an entire process that we are capable of following. This is the series of well-known climaxes and characters at the height of their tragedies, without the specific context of the personal or plot.
This is the power of Fabre’s work, and its weakness. The knowledgeable audience is missing what they know that also exists in the story of Oedipus, or that of Clytemnestra. But it seems Fabre is reaching here for a more general message, and the farther I distanced myself from the viewing experience, it seemed to me that it became a bit clearer.
What remains in my memory from the enormous abundance on the stage was the story of a society, which thanks to the madness that occasionally overwhelms it (and this insanity has a very sharp sexual background; in fact the insanity means dedication to the body’s urges) and this gradually moves from the world in which its laws are set and controlled by men, to a world in which the women, who are willing to admit to their sexuality and devote themselves to it, rebel against convention and take power themselves.
It was a “one-time experience.” Such an undertaking is in itself beyond any imagination and its fulfillment — done with such momentum, with the addiction of the entire troupe, which acts from within an incredible discipline on the part of each and every one of them, and the willingness for total devotion on the border of insanity and even a bit beyond it, is also beyond all expectations.
The finale is a wild and long dance (more of an “international twerkagedy” than a “Greek tragedy”) with all the participants on the stage, truly until their strength runs out (and they really collapse and get up again and continue to run in place) while being covered in confetti and splashed with paint, while repeatedly crying out “give us your love.”
The audience really goes crazy and applauds time after time. But this audience sat there and broke out in applause time after time all day long. It seems that the performers are going through ecstatic processes while the audience, instead of devoting itself to the ritual as a participant, constantly flees to the comfortable and protected status of a spectator at a play, and rushed to thank the participants who tore their souls and bodies into pieces on the stage as if they were ballet dancers.
Maybe this duality of the audience — giving themselves over to the insanity, but also arrogant spectators watching the young men and women playing before them — is intentional.
In the end, it seems the most appropriate thing that can be said about this work is what Rossini said about Wagner’s operas: “Monsieur Wagner has beautiful moments, but terrible quarters of an hour.” All this joins the 24 hours of sensory overload, at the end of which comes, of course, the inevitable hangover.