Falling Between Reality and Theatricality
by Don DeLillo
adapted by Julien Gosselin
directed by Julien Gosselin
Most people remember where they were, what they were doing and who they were with on 9/11. As the world watched hundreds of Americans expecting an ordinary morning at the office jumped from the top floors of Manhattan skyscrapers, something shifted. The spiral of history converged in an event that changed the world order. Terrorism no longer felt contained – it became fluid, unpredictable, its illusive boundaries redrawn in a single stroke.
Internationaal Theater Amsterdam’s production of Falling Man, based on the novel by Don DeLillo, is a poetic, three-hour experience that transports its audience into the loss and confusion of a post-9/11 world. Protagonist Keith (Eelco Smits) works in the World Trade Centre, but wakes up having survived the attacks. His colleagues are less fortunate. Unable to return to his apartment, he takes refuge with his ex-partner Lianne (Maria Kraakman) and there strives to retrieve some sense from the rubble of that morning. Those around Keith – his ex-partner, his new lover, his mother-in-law – struggle in their own ways to do the same. We watch as bereavement swells in each character, morphing between the loss of a shoe, a suitcase, a relationship, an identity. Worse yet, the loss of sanity and the loss of hope.
French director Julien Gosselin, in his company debut, has directed a visually stunning production gilded with impeccable technical skill. The stage is divided between a naturalistic set and projected footage, mostly of the actors in real time. The precise camera work of Boris De Ruijter seamlessly captures the actors over the first two hours of the show, layering new meaning into the live images. The terrorist Hammad, for example, is filmed looking through translucent white curtains on stage. As the emergency exit lights of the theatre stairs twinkle like city lights, the image takes on a new form of hyper-realism. We peer through Hammad’s eyes as he surveys a nation that considers itself untouchable. This production is filled with such visual gems. Eventually the staging shifts to predominantly filmed footage and, just like 9/11, the event becomes more removed from us. But as the stage lifts to reveal the final image of Hammad sitting on a blank set, we’re reminded that the reality is always there, waiting behind the scenes.
One of the challenges in telling a story such as this is the victim/perpetrator dichotomy. Thankfully the cast of Falling Man draw out such highly realistic and complex characters that this binary pitfall is averted. Smits plays protagonist Keith – a man not particularly stable before the event – falling deeper into the psychological mire. He offers a realistic portrait of trauma, shifting from attempts at mundane activity, such as laughing about nothingness in bed with his ex-wife, to a tumultuous romance with a fellow survivor. In the end, his character delivers the exquisite tragedy of those that did not die that day: a toxic cocktail of grief, guilt and all the psychological contradictions of having survived. Kraakman is very moving as Lianne, who seeks not only to help Keith but the others in her life. In the first half she is a generous and silent anchor to those around her. Having lost Keith entirely, however, she begins to battle with her own mental health. Losing her grip on reality, she falls into a state of complete mania, finally releasing her pent-up anxieties. It is strangely cathartic to watch her rip off her shirt and slam a chair into the wall – a representation, perhaps, of our collective fear. Her polar opposite is survivor Florence, played by Stacyian Jackson. Our first introduction to Florence is through a camera close-up where she loudly and clearly depicts the horror of her escape from the towers. There is nothing repressed about this character: she embodies the full angst and violence of the event. Through this we come to understand Keith’s attraction to her – she offers a space where he can openly explore his anguish. The rest of the stellar cast add further layers to this world, especially Hammad, played by Majd Mardo: a silent, reflective character who breathes new life into the reality of the terrorist.
Though admirably ambitious, the complexity of the production comes at a cost. The loaded narrative’s many strands are sometimes difficult to follow. There is also the more general difficulty of adapting a novel for the stage. While the poetic text and images are at times captivating, the dramatic energy often seems stuck on one note. Being a three-hour production, this is a big ask for an audience. Having said that, perhaps it is better approached as an experience in its own right rather than a traditional piece of theatre.
By the play’s end we are left with the central image of Falling Man, Richard Drew’s iconic photograph of a figure plummeting from the North Tower. Like this image, Gosselin’s production sits somewhere between harrowing reality and bizarre theatricality. Falling Man is part-doomed protagonist, part-performance artist. Our understanding of the events that led to that fateful morning will always exist in some nebulous space – luckily, companies such as ITA are willing to take us there.
photos | ©Jan Versweyveld