76th Edinburgh Fringe: REVIEW
"Funerals are not just about the person we come to grieve for and what their life symbolised, which is then morphed into the greater symbolism of the funeral in a religious context; funerals are about connectivity."
Ontroerend Goed presents:
Part of Big In Belgium
August 18, 2023
Directed Alexander Deviendt
In a moment, I am going to have to remind myself to breathe. It is a strange request to ask of yourself, but as soon as we are ushered into the vestibule of ZOO Southside, a powerful, emotional feeling is going to instantly overtake us. I was unsure of the best way to review Funeral, and for the best part of two days I have been conflicted with the idea of whether I should write something that only explores the production or if I should inject a much more personal approach to how this show connected with me and made me feel as an audience member. Because of this, I decided to write the review from a much more open and personal perspective, which I hope allows me to show maximum respect to Ontroerend Goed, which they so richly deserve.
Ontroerend Goed Artistic Director Alexander Deviendt created Funeral as a way of exploring how we turn to ritual in times of mourning. Every step of this production is steeped in a personal, honest, and emotionally rich feeling that builds a profound connection with its audiences. It’s a powerful reminder of how much we share and how important connectivity is, even if our sense of community has become damaged.
Before we make our way into the main hall at ZOO Southside, Aurélie Lannoy provides us with a small rundown of what is going to happen, and once we walk upstairs, if we wanted to, we could add a name or names of loved ones we’ve lost to her book. Walking into the middle of the gathered audience, Sophie Anna Veelenturf tells us she is going to teach us some lines of a song. It is in this moment that something overtakes the space—some smirks, some smiles—and that nervousness that is ever present when strangers come together is still very much present, but the atmosphere is changing. A stillness that can only be found when our hearts beat in unison and you allow yourself to be guided by some unknown, unseen force that is guiding you. We go through three or four renditions of the song before we turn around and see Julia Ghysels now in Lannoy’s place, reading from a book roughly covered in white semi-course paper, letting us all know we can now make our way to the hall.
My heart is racing now, and the anticipation is growing within me, as is the fear. Making our way upstairs, we’re offered a warm, gently scented hand towel to wash our hands, which only confounds us. Once we get to the top of the stairs and turn into the hall, we see why the towels were provided. There is something truly grand about the spectacle Deviendt has created—an imagined new death ritual that erases the religious aspects and instead replaces them with a new sense of symbolism, with the focus on the gathering together of strangers who find a common connection.
I now find myself standing there next to a stranger that I feel is no longer unknown to me, and as more people slowly file past us, the less of a stranger we become to one another, and an unbreakable connection is forged between us all. At this moment, I can feel my eyes begin to water and my nose begin to tingle. More and more people pass by, and my confidence grows. I look everyone in the eye, smile, and say good morning or hello, and I embrace their replies, smiles, and nervousness. Now that the last person has walked past, we have embraced everyone who is now lined up in a square around giant black muslin curtains. The smell of sandalwood gets stronger, and the lighting in the space gets darker. As wooden logs are passed from person to person in another moment of interaction and connectivity between strangers, you can’t help but feel this sense of loss. Before we even know his name or hear about his life, you can feel his presence, and you can feel this powerful loss.
"I can hear my heart beating now; I can feel it, and my hands are grabbing hold of my leg."
I am sitting next to Sophie Anna Veelenturf, and as Karolien De Bleser, Charlotte De Bruyne, Julia Ghysels, Aurélie Lannoy, David Roos, Chris Thys, and Prince K. Appiah begin to share their memories of the person we're here to mourn, the first tear rolls down my face. I can hear my heart beating now; I can feel it, and my hands are grabbing hold of my leg. This forced tension was somehow trying to deflect my attention or my emotions from what De Bleser was saying. As she speaks, the double layer of black muslin curtains creates a dreamlike feeling that allows you to understand who this person was and the impact his life had on those around him in such a stunning way. Later on, when each of the mourners gathers a handful of coloured confetti, I find myself holding on to it so hard. I don't want to let go; I can't.
Even now as I write this, I find it hard to refer to Sophie, Prince, Julia, and Aurélie as actors, but that is what they are. This is a theatrical production, but Deviendt has elevated it into something else all together, with Joris Blanckaert's music and Sarah Feyen's lighting design being the final pieces that cement Funeral as one of the best shows of the Edinburgh Fringe 2023. Walking into this space, this was, for me, the first ‘funeral’ I have attended in over a decade. Funerals are not just about the person we come to grieve for and what their life symbolised, which is then morphed into the greater symbolism of the funeral in a religious context; funerals are about connectivity. The most important aspect of any funeral is the people—the mourners. The funeral is as much for them as it is for the person they're there to say goodbye to.
And it is that that has made Funeral masterful. Deviendt has brought together strangers who can’t avoid finding a connection—to love, to understand, and to feel a shared emotion that is so hard to maintain in our modern, busy society. We have lost this shared connectivity and feeling of togetherness, but, as Deviendt has proven, given the opportunity, we can come together, bond, and unite.