With every new project, the Belgian company Ontroerend Goed never fail to inspire excitement and wonder, even if their chosen subject might be as bleak as the world after apocalypse. The content of their new piece is completely and quite literally contained in its title. For just over an hour, a performer – Valentijn Dhaenens and Karolien De Bleser take it in turns on alternate dates – speaks, frequently in complete darkness, a sequence of verbal articulations of what that world might look like, each sentence beautifully honed, each mental image almost visibly sparking off thoughts in the heads of the audience.
As ever, it is the clarity, simplicity and brilliance of the form found in order to express specific content that dazzles when it comes to Ontroerend Goed’s work. This is not the kind of theatre that is interested in displaying the vocal or physical virtuosity of the actor. It is rather the imaginative virtuosity of the ensemble as a whole (including the audience) that is at the centre of its accomplishments. There is a sense of complete and utter commitment to the task the company have set themselves – the act of imagining a world without us.
It starts off simple, at the here and now and zooms out to take in a bigger picture: a rat until recently hiding somewhere in the theatre building will come out and munch on a biscuit lying in somebody’s bag, our technology will outlive us for the duration of its battery power, the natural world will carry on without us despite the fact that everything is radioactive and ‘no one will complain’. There are scenarios of how much better off and how much worse off things might be without human intervention and then in characteristic OG fashion, the thought is taken to its ultimate conclusion. What the world will be like without us won’t even matter without human consciousness. But there is a sting in the tale too, this piece of theatre in fact is not just blue-sky thinking , it is directly related to the existence of specific material that may or may not one day in the future become ‘found material’. For the Voyager spaceship has just left the solar system, together with our messages…
According to director Alexander Devrient, each one of Ontroerend Goed’s pieces aims to answer a difficult question the makers set themselves. With Internal the question was ‘how quickly can you establish a meaningful connection with a stranger?’; with Teenage Riot it was ‘is a riot still possible?’. World Without Us contains within itself not only the obvious question of what the world would be like if we all instantaneously disappeared but also a much deeper one – the possible meaning of our existence in the universe. Like many of its precursors, this OG show opens up conversations between audience members on their way out, and flows on further into discussions with those who have not even seen it yet. Above all however it shows how crucial and how yielding a good question can be in a theatre-making process.
Additionally, if you have ever wondered what ‘dramaturgy’ is, there is seldom a better opportunity to have this question answered in very practical terms. This is the kind of theatre that is luminous and pristine in the way it makes its inner workings the core of its content, while at the same time pushing the boundaries of theatre and live performance a little bit further. This time, like every time before.