Dealing with death: En avant, marche!

Alain Platel, Frank Van Laecke, & Steven Prengels
Sadler’s Wells, London
June 16, 2016

Róisín O’Brien

What are the sounds we are allowed to make? Who makes them, using which body parts? When is it appropriate to make them? From the sombre swells of a brass band, to a gurgled ‘God Save the Queen’, En avant, marche! is a wonderfully crafted piece about our need for (musical) ceremony in times of change, and our equal need to disdain it.

Wim Opbrouck plays a former trombonist, robbed of his profession by a ‘flower in his throat’ given to him by death. Now a cymbal player, Opbrouck, at some points petulant, at others scared and angry, confronts and pleads with the band around him. His delivery perfectly swings between these contradictory responses to death: often balancing his dishevelled self on his toes, Opbrouck’s body and voice are instruments that belch, trip, glide, and soar.

Directed by Alain Platel and Frank Van Laecke, with music direction by Steven Prengels, En avant, marche! also features a group of core actors and musicians. Chris Thys and Griet Debacker’s in-sync duet provides one of the most poignant moments of the night: they shift and slump and negotiate their places on the empty orchestra seats, their hands covering and uncovering their mouths, regulating their grief. The musicians prove incredibly versatile in their ability to move from sonorous tunes to raucous percussive frenzies across the stage, while Hendrik Lebon provides a choreographed moment of impressive, if not overly original, athletic prowess.

En avant, marche!Photo Phile Deprez
En avant, marche!
Photo Phile Deprez

Each incarnation of the piece features a local brass band, here, London’s The Heroes Band. The separation of the band from the main group of performers in fact adds to the piece. Their regimented marching, their straightforward gazes as they avoid Opbrouck brandishing his cymbals, all contribute to an attempt to confront death. If there are a few moments at the beginning where they seem unsure in their footing, their final song is compelling and assured.

Luc Goedertier’s set design evokes an empty house; a bare, copper backdrop with cut out squares, we are offered glimpses into memories and images of a life lived in and wholly given to something that has now thrown Opbrouck back out.

At one hour and forty minutes, and no interval, there’s always a risk of losing the audience’s attention. Around the halfway mark, En avant, marche! loses some pacing with a predictable scene of ‘carnival’. The strength of this piece really lies in its tying of the mundane and silly with the official and serious; for instance, the physically deft duet between Opbrouck and Lebon, despite the large difference in weight of the two men, or when the musicians tie bells to their legs and then very precisely march and beat together. What we should do versus what we want to do (the latter often bodily, obscene and uninhibited), vie against each other, spurting out at inopportune moments. As such, the piece explores how to deal with death – do we rage and scream, or do we sit quietly and accept the proceedings?

At the close, the band assemble to deliver one final hurrah and we wait expectantly for Opbrouck’s cymbal delivery. He wanders softly through the band, then exits the stage, but never returns. The band catches, stuck on the penultimate note before the grand conclusion, and the lights dim: his absence resonates, our desire for an ending unfulfilled. A catch rises also in my throat, even now, at this memory.