In ancient Greece, theatre performances often began in the morning and ran clear through the evening.
When Belgian director Jan Fabre is in charge, the show lasts 24 hours. For 24 uninterrupted hours performers scream, dance, sweat, fool around, wash, wrestle, laugh, yowl, sing and, yes, even sleep, onstage. This is Mount Olympus, and it’s a mammoth undertaking from Fabre and his Antwerp-based company, Troubleyn. Subtitled “To glorify the cult of tragedy”, Mount Olympus deconstructs and distills Greek tragedy: it’s a fractured collage of declamatory monologues, shorn of narrative exposition or psychological sense, and pasted together with scenes of eternal repetition, moments of extreme stillness and tasks of athleticism to slaughter any crossfit devotee. The 27 performers wreck and rebuild, over and over again, and as audience members, we endure it alongside them – with the opportunity to retire to tents in the garden or avail ourselves of raki and watermelon. “I gave them just a little bit of madness,” trills Dionysus toward the beginning of the marathon, which might be one of the few instances of understatement here. Mount Olympus is theatre of excess, the kind of exorbitant experience you just can’t get in a two-hour show. Sensation vanquishes story. It’s endurance over empathy, intuition over intellect. And that it sometimes verges on unbearable is part and parcel: Climbing a mountain isn’t supposed to be easy.
From the opening minutes of Mount Olympus, which had its world premiere last weekend as part of the Foreign Affairs festival at the Haus der Berliner Festspiele, it’s clear this is performance at a visceral and sometimes vulgar level. As things commence at 4pm on Saturday, a pair of men walk onstage, drop their togas and deliver messages – screamed into their anuses by two other men – of ill wind and disease. Nudity quickly becomes the norm: In the next moment, another man holds his toga in his left hand and stands, statue-still, face in shadow, torso illuminated. Five minutes pass. Ten. Audience members wriggle in their seats. “Male power,” the scene is called.
Then comes music – the opening beats are from “Turn Down for What” – attended by rapturous shimmying, undulations, a backflip or two. Whoops and whistles from the audience. Similar reaction when, half an hour later, the performers skip rope – with metal chains, while chanting a war song – for 20 minutes. “What is the monster that eats the day? Unused talent and hair turning grey!” they shout. Applause. An isolated boo. Well-earned ice lollies for the performers.
Blood squirts. Entrails fly. Goo-covered performers trudge about the stage. Genitalia are adorned with flower petals. There are orgies in the forest. There are orgies with the forest, because in this world, even potted plants become instruments of pleasure. (Par for the course for the 56-year-old Fabre, who’s staged sex with bicycle spokes and leather couches.) The usual suspects – Odysseus, Oedipus, Clytemnestra, Electra, Hercules, Orestes, Antigone – pop up, but they rarely interact. More often, we get monologues as incantatory, repetitive recitation. Fabre’s astonishing ensemble – actors and dancers from their early 20s to mid 60s who’ve rehearsed 12 months for this show – speak English, French, Dutch, Italian and German. But these languages aren’t really how they communicate, and sitcom-length passages are built from laughter, sobs or orgasmic moans. It’s less about words than about the physical production of sound: communication as a bodily rather than intellectual act.
Some of it blurs together, and the tableaux of violence and sex can be kitschy, but a few moments stop time. There’s a brilliant scene about Narcissus, in which pairs of performers – some in togas, some naked, some painted chalky white – mirror the other’s movements. With unwavering control, they preen and pose and make anguished faces, the intensity and the intimacy deepening as the soundless minutes pass. It’s that old acting class exercise, rendered otherworldly. In another scene, one of the few with dialogue, Jason (Kasper Vandenberghe) scorches Medea (Els Deceukelier) for killing their children. He convulses and flails, making painful retching noises in between sexist barbs. She stands downstage left, dagger in hand: unmoving, imperious, the traces of a smirk on her face. That he speaks in English and she in French is the least of their miscommunication.
She’s not the only Medea: There’s also a voguing drag queen with black bouffant and twinkling jewels who speaks in a campy British accent about the horrors of having a husband. Fabre understands that 24 hours of misery would be, well, miserable, and he leavens all the rape and revenge and murder with moments of humor. Andrew Van Ostade, who plays Dionysus, looks like Chunk from The Goonies, a comparison I probably wouldn’t make if he didn’t do his own truffle shuffle – jiggling his gold glitter-covered paunch to electrobeats – with such glee. Cheap fat jokes? Maybe. But Van Ostade is so delightfully cheeky, and it’s a relief when he comes onstage and addresses the audience like a casual friend – a welcome break from the harangues. The repetition, too, can develop disturbing humor. Guttural wails are awful at first, but after a while, they turn absurd. And after a longer while, annoying. And then awful again. Tragedy becomes comedy becomes tragedy.
As an audience member, fatigue strikes. That’s when you totter out of the auditorium and flip through your coupons – an entire booklet, titled “Filoxenia, or How to survive 24H” – to redeem a hot washcloth or a shot of raki or (ahem) a condom. Outside, a sheep turns on a spit. The atmosphere is buoyant, festive. Indeed, part of the experience of Mount Olympus is what happens when you’re not in the auditorium. Say, when it’s 2 am and you’re visiting the oracle (a woman in cat-eyed sunglasses reading tarot cards). Or when you descend to Hades (a techno dance party in the basement). Or when you swivel your way through an aerobics class. Or when you’re in the bathroom brushing your teeth with your fellow audience members, like before bedtime at summer camp. Or when you finally collect an eye mask and succumb to sleep, either on a cot inside or in a tent in the garden. Or, if you’re out of luck, on the hard floor. In the middle of the night, the lobby could be mistaken for the gate of a perpetually delayed red-eye flight: the detritus of durational theatre.
And yes, the sense of community is somewhere between that of a long-haul flight and a slumber party – at times grumpy and resentful, at times fueled by sleep-deprived giddiness and the knowledge that we’re all in this together, damn it. New rules quickly develop. Sleeping in the first row is acceptable. Snoring in the third? That prompts grumbling.
The performers, mercifully, are also granted a few opportunities for “dreamtime”. At around midnight, Mozart’s “Ruhe Sanft” beckons in the first 40 minutes of rest. The lights, 33 birdcage-like orbs that lift and lower in gorgeous patterns throughout the show, dim as the actors trundle onto the stage, lily-white sleeping bags in their arms. They toss these across the floor – covered in a slurry of stage blood, oil and dirt – and tuck themselves in. They get another 90 minutes at 6am, then 35 minutes later in the morning.
And then they wake, and the show marches on. Someone tweets about how Greece might be going bankrupt, but Mount Olympus is still standing. It’s almost too easy to exit and reenter the auditorium, because of the way scenes repeat and recycle themselves. Things don’t build upon each other with any narrative progression. But after 17 hours, you’re not still here because you want to know what happens next. You don’t binge-watch Mount Olympus like it’s the latest season of Orange is the New Black. You wouldn’t want to. You dip in and out, and you stay because time feels different in this theatre of excess, in this theatre of exhaustion. And even if you find yourself asking whether all these fragments of agony and suffering actually add up to catharsis, you stand and dance and cheer in the show’s final minutes, as a paint-splattered, glitter-encrusted twerkathon consumes the stage and eventually spits you out, dazed and bleary and maybe even purged, into the afternoon sun.
The Foreign Affairs festival continues through July 5 at the Haus der Berliner Festspiele. Full programme here.