I need company | Jan Lauwers (Needcompany)

London, 15th March 1592: a pandemic is decimating the population of Europe. And on top of that it’s freezing cold. Incomprehensible changes in the climate. People panic or die of starvation and cold. Shakespeare has to close his theatre: a general lockdown is imposed. He has just come from a meeting with his company: they have no work and are hungry. It weighs on their minds: Richard Burbage, his best actor and the favourite of their audiences, cries out that this is the end of the theatre. They are inconsolable. Shakespeare throws his latest and unfinished play in the bin, is compelled to stay at home in quarantine and reviews his life. He writes his first world-famous sonnets. A few years later he builds his Globe theatre and writes Julius Caesar, and Burbage once again has the chance to shine. More than four hundred years later, theatre is still indestructible and outrageously present.

It’s April 2020. Just as in the 16th century, we are again in forced quarantine. Never before in the history of mankind have so many people been obliged to spend their time differently. To re-think their time. In spite of all the misery involved, this is a splendid notion. And it is happening at a time when a great many momentous questions are being raised, about the climate, equality, racism, the oppression of women, the accursed patriarchal system and so on. So many things are already going on today. And on top of all this we have now been given time to think. This ought to make the world a better place. It’s a good thing that theatres, museums and concert halls have to remain empty for a while. It’s a good thing for all of us to reflect. And I have noticed that our politicians and our scientists, who are now in overdrive and therefore have too little time to think, badly need those who are staying at home. Not for their civil obedience, but for taking time to think about such extremely thorny matters as love and happiness. For artists, self-assured in what is pointless, this is highly inspiring. OK. Let’s think! Why not theatre? Can we retrain ourselves? Become social workers? Doctors? Firemen? Virologists? Nurses? Make the world a better place by doing something that does matter? Scientists change the world much more than art ever can. It’s perplexing: art needs the world, but the world doesn’t need art. Alright, let’s call it a day. Away with theatre. Away with all those arts. But fortunately that’s not what we shall decide to do. Quarantine has no influence on the arts. On the contrary, new Globes will be built, as life under quarantine is surely a normal situation for a creative artist.

All writers isolate themselves to keep out the noise. Or to let in as little as possible. Because an artist must after all create a detached connection with the world. In theory there is no difference between, let’s say, Michelangelo, Rothko and Warhol: they all start from that empty moment, that blank canvas, and then decide when they will let the world in. I am convinced that the longer the noise is kept out, the more vividly the artwork manifests itself. The time Michelangelo spent staring at his block of marble before he carved the pietà: that is the noiseless time. Even an artist such as Warhol, always surrounded by people, was a master at controlling that noiseless time, which he did by making the people themselves noiseless, reducing them to the role of material. That is why he came across as unworldly and autistic. But in fact it was a noble anti-noise attitude.

But in critical situations the language of intelligibility is required. And then this language has to be shouted as loudly as possible. That produces a lot of noise. This noise makes the task of the silent artist extremely delicate, timeless, but invariably united by a single concept: time. ‘Time’ was invented so that not everything happens at the same moment. Theatre is one of those places in the great cultural whole where everything can happen at the same time. Theatre means questioning time. This is the only political significance of theatre. That is where its true beauty lies. And that beauty is dark, bright, excruciatingly slow or as swift as an arrow, velvety soft or viciously hard, obscure or clear, dull or violent, bleeding in a corner or dancing on a grave, and always demanding.

Theatre is about failing in style and the spectacular nature of the pointless. About the radicality of what is entertaining. About magic. About ecstasy. The importance of ritual. The necessity of being together in a dark auditorium. The tragedy of applause. About the beauty of working together. Theatre is the oldest and most intact artistic medium to have always proven its social and political importance. Theatre is a delightfully conservative and indestructible medium. No wave of iconoclasm, dogmatic movement or manifesto has ever been able to strike at the soul of theatre. Shakespeare had to compete with popular dogfights and public torture. He watched as his mentor, Campion, had his belly cut open alive and his entrails set alight ‘so that he could behold hell’. The people were overcome by so much fun. Yet he still loved people. And working together. And theatre.

This is what determines the difference between fine art and applied art. Splendid isolation and cooperation. As a writer I seek out solitude. As a theatre-maker I subject myself to the dictatorship of cooperation. As a theatre-maker I need company. I need company.

Jan Lauwers is a Belgian artist who works in just about every medium. Over the last thirty years he has become best known for his pioneering work for the stage with Needcompany which he founded with Grace Ellen Barkey, and has also built up a substantial body of art work which has been shown at BOZAR (Brussels) and McaM (Shanghai) among other places.