Director Frank Van Laecke has proven to be at home in the market of entertainment. He has directed musical, theatre and opera productions.
This year we are remembering 100 years of something which can not easily be called a ‘theatre of life”, but has brought many theatrical moments in many people their life. Television series have come to light, but with a €9 million budget Van Laecke wanted to bring the concept of musicals to another level and bringing history to life on the stage.
After the major success of the Daens musical, which attracted 220,000 spectators over 2008 and 2009, Van Laecke was eager to work with the same team for this production: composer Dirk Brossé, songwriter Allard Blom and the Studio 100 duo Gert Verhulst and Hans Bourlon.
Three years ago, with the centenary of the First World War creeping closer, Van Laecke went to Gert Verhulst of Studio 100 (with children productions and Plopsa Land adventure parks) to bounce ideas off of. Verhulst immediately embraced Van Laecke’s plan to “make it big and epic”, the director remembers.
“Pretty soon, we wanted to go for seating and scenery that could move, to give the audience the impression that they were part of a live film set.”
The cast and crew come from across Europe and represent one of the few factors not controlled by computers in this hybrid spectacle.
In Mechelen they found enormous stage, moveable seating and large, remote controlled set pieces, to set up 14-18, the Studio 100 musical about the First World War, not being shy about wanting to outdo its general entertainment competitors.
Already two weeks before opening night, 14-18 managed to get 110,000 tickets sold.
“The show,” continues Van Laecke,” is not a history lesson.”
“We’re not a school, or a book. We will focus on the lives, the dreams and the ambitions of a bunch of young people, suddenly confronted with war and its impact on those very same dreams and ambitions.”
With such an ambitious project spectators and critics would go and compare it with what they know for history, from their grandparents and family members who were closely connected to the horror that came over Belgium.
We can imagine the director being aware of it and trying to avoid to much negative criticism of research eyes, went through history books and spent months talking to experts, watching documentaries, scrutinising photos and reading books and letters.
Somebody not respect the historical details as much as possible could endanger any director tackling this historical event at a time when many of the entertainment industry (theatre, film, television) would make use to get a little bit of the cake.
“It was through reading the letters from soldiers and the answers from their friends and family that I got closer to the human story I wanted to tell,” Van Laecke says.
“It’s always my ambition to tell stories people are moved by. Storytelling is the foundation of this rollercoaster of emotions. We all know what it means to miss someone. But it’s not only a story about hardship. There is love, unconditional friendship and the compelling human ability to rise up from catastrophe.”
The historical accuracy of the story is carefully monitored. Apart from the war atrocities, profound human feelings are also covered in the story, clearly showing the impact of war on human interactions.
Van Laecke’s desire to tell moving stories also posed a challenge to the musical’s cast and crew. How to keep it human. How would they make this massive set, with actors and audiences separated by large distances, feel personal?
Veteran Flemish TV and stage actor Jo De Meyere, who plays a general in the musical, was worried about that, too. He recently told the director that he usually becomes anxious when the scenery overwhelms the actors.
“But he immediately added that there’s no reason to worry with me around,”
Van Laecke says proudly.
“Everyone knows it’s not an intimate play. It’s a spectacle; the music replaces the close-up of a camera here. Dirk’s symphonic score gives you a peek inside a character, generating the same basic emotion.”
Belgian composer and conductor Dirk Brossé, who is the focus of this instalment of the Consonant Classical Challenge, uses his music to underscore the deep human feelings on the one hand and the horrors of war on the other. He is very much a tonal composer, and one who’s not afraid of emotion and dares to create a musical diversity that may be deeply touching and that lingers on till long after the performance has ended.
Van Laecke and Brossé have been friends and creative partners for almost 25 years.
“We don’t need words to understand each other,” says Van Laecke.
The 14-18 musical will also be performed in an English-language version during its run at Nekkerhal, and Van Laecke travelled to London to cast actors for this one show.
As a former opera and theatre director, he doesn’t want to compare the present tour de force with musicals such as Grease, which he describes as “enjoyable but one-dimensional entertainment.” No, Van Laecke, whose next project will be Verdi’s La Traviata, mentions Puccini as a model.
“He wrote the same sort of music, he tells the same multi-layered stories. I’m not so pretentious as to say we’re breaking new ground, but we are taking the concept of musicals to another level here.”
The musical tells the story of Jan, who is now a father, needs to see his son and wife Anna when he and his friends come to see that the hostilities will not be short-lived as first thought. Many first thought it would never come to a war and when the Germans invaded Belgium they thought it would only be for a short passage. But the conflict not only drags on much longer, it is also more barbaric than could ever be imagined.
The Great War brings horrible thing we can see from the eyes of the loyal band of friends consisting of Jan, his younger brother Kamiel, his best friend Fons and macho avant la lettre Albert.
Albert longs for his sweethearts while Kamiel – quaking with fear at any form of violence – tries desperately to escape the situation, Fons is smitten with Celine, a pretty nurse.
The show wants to let the public feel the agony of the people and their heroic battle for survival.
It is the ultimate struggle against the insane violence and the war machine, with humour, hope and – above all – love and unconditional friendship as its weapons of choice.
From 20 April
English show on 22 May
Nekkerspoel-Borcht 9999, Mechelen
Jelle Cleymans = Jan
Jonas Van Geel = Fons
Bert Verbeke = Albert
Lander Depoortere = Kamiel