Brighton Fringe 2018
De Fuut is a portrait of a paedophile. Anything else do you need to know?
It’s a one-man show, written and performed by the Belgian playwright Bastiaan Vandendriessche. It won the ‘Best International Performance’ award at the 2017 Fringe Amsterdam.
It’s also the most profoundly disturbing piece of theatre I’ve seen in a very long time.
It’s because the man was there – right there, just feet away from us, sitting smoking and telling us about his life. His inner life. His fantasies and his dreams.
Or rather – not telling us, at least not directly. For almost an hour he skirted around the central object of his fixation, coming teasingly close to giving us the detail, but then retreating back into generalisations and justifications.
The narrator – he doesn’t give us his name – is obviously influenced by ‘Lolita’. By what he calls Nabokov’s ‘restless, refined’ study of sexual obsession with young girls. But he tells us at one point that all this is for a play he’s writing. Like Humbert Humbert, he’s ‘writing under observation’. He doesn’t want to give anything away.
It was a very simple set: just a chair and low table with his cigarettes and laptop. A single lamp down low at one side of the stage sharply defined his features – like a Caravaggio painting – and cast his shadow huge on the opposite wall. I came to see this more and more as the distorted twin of the ordinary-looking man in front of us.
He’s a group leader at a Sea Scout summer camp. He stood up, looking down at us in the front row, berating one of us for some misdemeanor, and we became the children in his ‘Patrol’. All the groups in the camp had the names of seabirds, and our patrol was ‘De Fuut’ – The Grebe. Admonishing us, from his position of greater age and authority. See how unequal the balance of power is in this situation.
Summer Camp is two weeks of fun and games – but some of the games are much darker than we as parents might think when we send our children off. Initiation rituals, such as older boarding school pupils or military cadets play on newcomers. Quite violent corporal punishment, as part of a system of forfeits. And sex. Sexual games played under the supervision of the camp leaders, as well as sexual exploitation of the children by some of the adult leaders themselves. It seems that concerns about Scout-masters shouldn’t stop this side of the Channel.
The narrator’s telling us how some of the leaders behave, both as a defence, and as a justification of his own actions. He explains how easy it is for people in authority to gain the trust of children. But he’s also giving us a demonstration of how easy it was to ‘groom’ some of them.
But he was grooming us too, in the audience. He’s fun. He makes up games to make people laugh. He tried to get us to dance, gyrating suggestively right in front of me. Loads of direct eye contact. (Never sit in the front row with a notebook if you don’t want to get picked on). I was laughing without intending to – I couldn’t help myself.
A woman further along our row had looked really disapproving as the show developed – but when he reached out to her she started to get up to join him, before he moved back. Even as adults, it’s very hard not to be drawn in.
He’s obsessed by two young girls. He’d first seen one of them when she was eleven, on stage at a summer camp a couple of years before. He told us he had been enthralled by her power over the audience. He saw her, even then, as – a woman.
“Am I weird to have imagined them naked? ”
Grooming them. Persuasive – telling them how special they are, how talented. Manipulative – he’s tried to isolate them, spinning them a load of cod philosophy about how society doesn’t understand the individual. Boring middle class conformity everywhere. But we are special . . .
Spinning a load of vindications, too – musing to himself as much as to the audience.
“It’s not like I’d ever act on it …” “I could never allow myself to defile …”.
I wondered how much of this was the narrator managing to convince himself, and how much was his knowledge that, like Nabokov’s character, he too was ‘under observation’.
But for me, that was what made the man exist. He gave off such a sense of self-delusion, of constantly side-stepping an overwhelming truth, that it felt horribly, dreadfully, authentic. Bastiaan Vandendrissche hardly ever raised his voice – for whole sections he seemed lost in reverie – and he didn’t employ high emotion or grand gestures; but I never for an instant doubted that I was seeing a real person, just feet away from me.
All through the production the narrator had kept circling round and round his recollections of a particular event. Tiptoeing up to the lip of it and then backing away. A sexual episode, obviously. He told us at one point that he had ‘a hole’ in his early memories, and I wondered if he himself had been abused as a child.
‘Man hands on misery to man’
See how I believe in the narrator enough to care about the details of his life.
Afterwards, Vandendrissche told me that in a number of performances he gets very negative feedback, and even abuse, from some audience members. They obviously believe in him, too. I can see why. A few years ago I saw another Fringe production that left me feeling battered and drained by the sheer realism and intensity of the lives falling apart in front of me. The director asked me afterwards if I’d enjoyed it – my reply was “I hated it … but I’ll never forget it!”
I have the same feeling for this absolutely Outstanding production.