“Henceforth there is war between us!” (“À nous
deux maintenant!”) is the famous phrase
pronounced by Rastignac at the end of Le
Père Goriot from the hill-top in Père-Lachaise as he decides to conquer
Paris. The same phrase could have been uttered by Guy Cassiers as he prepared
to direct Trompe-la-mort. The image
we have of this Belgian director is one of an artist who has no hesitation in
taking on vast literary frescos and giving birth to panoramic productions – as
was recently the case with Les
Bienveillantes (The Kindly Ones) by Jonathan Little. Everything points,
then, to his being the right man to tackle this world premiere inspired by
Balzac’s saga, La Comedie Humaine. When
we met him, he had been in Paris for a week, sitting in on the first music
rehearsals of Luca Francesconi’s opera. Having done considerable preparation on
the work, he did not hide his excitement at hearing the music take shape at
last. Here he draws aside the veil on one of the most secret and intriguing
productions of the season.
What was your relationship with Balzac before working on the Trompe-la-mort project?
What impression did this fifty-six-year-old man get of La Comédie humaine?
As a director, you often work on productions that resonate strongly with the politics of contemporary society. What can Balzac tell us today?
Who is Trompe-la-mort?
The character of Lucien maintains an ambiguous relationship with Trompe-la-mort: he both admires and detests him. What is your view of this character?
You spoke earlier of your admiration for the system of Balzac’s novels. Have you, in turn, created a system for the direction of Trompe-la-mort?
As you previously stated, there is a very strong idea of the 19th century surrounding Balzac’s work. Are you not afraid, in your turn, of being “devoured by the past”?
Your work as a director is characterised by its close links with literature. You like adapting works for the stage and taking on grand literary frescos: Tolstoy, Proust, Musil and Littel to name but a few. What significance does literature have for you?
G.C.: In my
free time, I read a lot of novels, more than theatrical texts. Of course, the
theatre repertoire is fundamental for me and I think it is important to perform
it and bring it up to date constantly. But novels provide me with a freedom I
don’t have with a play, in which the author is more controlling and often
communicates his own idea of the staging of his text. I would add that today we
have at our disposal the technical means to combine visual arts with sound that
allow us to transpose the universe of a novel to the stage and to go beyond
simple dramatic dialogue. On stage we can furnish the mental spaces of the
spectator, which was not the case in Molière’s day. There is also another
aspect of the novel that inspires me: it’s the serial side of it. As I am the director of a theatre [the
Toneelhuis in Anvers which houses the biggest Flemish company], I am lucky
enough to be able to create voyages with the audience and not merely
productions closed in on themselves: a story above and beyond the productions
themselves that aims to create a form of common awareness, of memory shared
with the audience. It is important for me to exploit this dimension of theatre.
I really like what the serialised work brings to it, and its contemporary form
– the television serial, which interests me a lot.
When you adapt novels for the theatre, you create the adaptation yourself. In the case of Trompe-la-mort, the libretto was written by someone else. Does this feel like a risk for you.
When you staged Les Bienveilantes by Jonathan Littell, you stated in an interview that your adaptation was not so much dramaturgical as emotional. What did you mean by that?
When you transpose a many-layered novel to the theatre, which remains an art of limited means, do you feel that you simplify?
G.C.: No, not simplify. Make choices rather. But that is not what’s essential. The essential thing is what is at the heart of the production.
Just before Trompe-la-mort, you put on another production at IRCAM: Le Sec et l’Humide based on Jonathan Little’s work by the same name. A few days ago, you told me there was a link in your mind between these two productions, which is surprising since one is inspired by the universe of Balzac’s novel and the other deals with the figure of the Belgian fascist Léon Degrelle (1906-1994). What connection do you make between these two productions?
G.C.: In both cases, it is a question of examining evil. Le Sec et l’Humide was conceived as a precise grammar of fascism. Trompe-la-mort is a virtuoso of language: with him, language is a tool of manipulation. In Jonathan Littel, we find the idea, borrowed from Degrelle, that language can direct our actions and push us to commit inhuman acts. This is an important question for me. How are we influenced today? How can a man like “Trump-la-mort” become president of the United States?
Could one argue that Jonathan Littel’s x-ray of fascism is the sequel to Trompe-la-mort?
Before I conclude this interview I must ask your advice on what to read…
Do you ever read books without adapting them?
You were explaining earlier that you were also a fan of television series. Which series do you find inspiring?
G.C.: I really
love the fictional renaissance brought about by the new Scandinavian series. At
the moment, I’m following a series called Rectify:
a man gets out of prison after being inside for ten years. We don’t know if
he’s guilty or not of the crime he’s been accused of. The series examines the
way society looks on this man. Then of course there’s House of Cards [a series that retraces the career of a politician
with neither principles nor scruples who succeeds in becoming president of the
United States]. But in that regard seemingly, in the United States these days,
reality is slightly stranger than fiction.
Interview by Simon Hatab
Your reading: Henceforth there is war between us