What does the piece's title, The Memory of Trees, refer to?
Dominique Pauwels: I always try and search for the visual and poetic dimension in a performance; this also constitutes the space in which the music is afforded room. In Russia we drove long distances by car and crossed vast forests. There are beautiful forests that are flourishing, despite what we know about the ever-present radiation and contamination. Very occasionally you come across a small, rusty sign that reminds you this is a hazardous, radioactive area, but the trees and forests are so lovely and grow as if everything is perfectly normal there.
Fabrice Murgia: And yet it is probably one of the most contaminated places on earth.
Dominique Pauwels: Yes, if you entered the forest and stayed there long enough, you would die – it's as simple as that. And yet those vast birch forests are absolutely stunning, completely white... Perhaps the trees are happy they are rid of people, we said to each other. Because nobody lives there, and there are hardly any animals. Well, all the animals died just after the disaster. And those trees lived through it all, they saw everything, they are ancient... They were there before the disaster and will survive long after we are gone... And when you see them you realise that it's not such a bad thing that there are no people there any more.
So, could we say the music is the voice that expresses the trees' point of view?
Dominique Pauwels: Not really, the music is on a more general, poetic level.
Fabrice Murgia: This aroused our interest in the theories – or rather the recognised scientific insights – on the way in which trees 'think', communicate with each other, and act in solidarity... Peter Wohllebens The Hidden Life of Trees, for example, enthralled us. About how trees use their creaking and intricate root system to talk to each other, warn each other.
And on the one hand the secrecy and hidden world of the closed city; we see it through the eyes of a scientist that studies the past and tries to find out why everyone dies so young. On the other hand, nature and the forests as witnesses of the history of man. You can't keep secrets from the trees: they were present and saw everything. If the man on stage were to begin deciphering the language of the trees, he might be able to understand what really happened. The information that originates from the trees – of which he receives fragments – will be shaped by our interviews with the village residents near Ozyorsk.
Dominique Pauwels: For this new piece we opted to depart from the world of documentary theatre, which was prominent in the first two productions of the Ghost Road series.
Although the methodology is the same: we travelled to Russia and conducted interviews with people that were connected in some way to the disaster that occurred in 1957, or to the closed city. However, the interviews will be at the service of the story told on stage, in a dialogue with Josse de Pauw. Josse will play the role of the scientist mentioned above, who strives to decipher the language of the trees. To make this language theatrical, it will be expressed graphically with motifs that are drawn in the sand using frequencies.
So, it will be a dialogue of sorts?
Fabrice Murgia: The two previous pieces clearly belong to the realm of documentary theatre. Viviane De Muynck narrated and conjured up a dreamlike atmosphere by mixing elements of her own life with her journey, and the audience saw a documentary video we screened at the same time.
In this production we plan to omit the video screen and also the fourth wall created by the presence of the actor/narrator. We aim to use a composition such as that of a scientist commenting on the outcome of his research. He records it all in the privacy of his laboratory and the spectator witnesses that, perhaps through headphones we will distribute to the audience. I would like the atmosphere in the room to be very intimate, with Josse talking to himself while making his discoveries. This means there will be a relatively cinematic approach that evokes the concept of the 'secret', as a result of the mumbling and the monologue, and in fact through the scenography as a whole.
Can you already tell us something about what we will actually see?
Fabrice Murgia: Well, it's a bit too soon for that of course, but a number of conceptual directions have already developed. Since I directed Sylvia I feel that I have taken a step forward. In this production I have explored different narrative forms and I want to go in different directions, to find other ways of constructing and telling stories.
In this next piece I want to tackle the relationship between the stage and the room. To create an extremely intimate connection, almost touching the main character. And not only in terms of physical proximity, but also via the other senses. Hearing, for example: hearing Josse breathe as if we are inside his head. Or via the story's structure, because it reaches us in fragments that appear 'real', because 'real people' are speaking in the videos, yet the fragments remain cryptic and mysterious, and you wonder to what extent they are true until the very end. As far as we are concerned, it all boils down to convincing the audience to join the scientist in his search, to differentiate between what is true and what is not...
Will the interviews be the only documentary sources?
Fabrice Murgia: I think we are also going to use archive images: some of them are horrific, the kind that take root in the collective unconscious.
Does this mean we can expect a somewhat 'vintage' design?
Fabrice Murgia: Russian vintage? Why not?
Interviewed by Cécile Michel
On May 8, 2019
La Mémoire des arbres / Fabrice Murgia, Dominique Pauwels / interview