December 01 / Marjorie Bertin / DE SINGEL


In a few years, Julien Gosselin has become an important voice in the European cultural sector. The director is unequalled when it comes to creating thrilling theatrical adaptations of sometimes notoriously complex novels - Michel Houellebecq's 'Les Particules élémentaires' (2013) perhaps being the crowning glory. The grandeur of his new production, 'Le Passé' (2021), also bears witness to this. Who is this melancholic magician whose performances leave no one unmoved?


Flemish theatre culture was the first with which Julien Gosselin came into contact. During his youth, he became fascinated by the performances of theatre directors such as Jan Lauwers, Guy Cassiers and Ivo van Hove, all pioneers of the total theatre to which Gosselin also adhered. At 35, Julien Gosselin, unmistakably a child of his time, can call himself a great theatre maker. The reception of his plays only confirms this. But what makes his scenic writing so unique? How does he differ from his colleagues and contemporaries?

For his first Avignon creation, Julien Gosselin chose in 2013 to adapt and stage Les particules élémentaires from Michel Houellebecq. Remarkably, Houellebecq's work has never been translated to the stage in France, although it does happen frequently abroad (especially in Germany).-|-2016 was also an important year for Gosselin: he ventured to 2666, Roberto Bolaño's unfinished magnum opus. The director turned it into a marathon performance, in which the actors of Si vous pouviez lécher mon cœur, the company he founded shortly after graduating, played themselves to destruction for twelve hours. The result was a whirlwind that demanded so much concentration from the viewer that this atypical odyssey completely exhausted and purged him. In 2018, Gosselin again made his presence felt in Avignon, with Joueurs / Mao II / Les Noms, an adaptation of no less than three Don DeLillo novels, good for nine hours of spectacle. This new odyssey mixed theatre with performance, music and film.


Julien Gosselin does not dislike theatrical texts, but he acknowledges that he sometimes prefers to read them, especially classical ones. He prefers meandering oeuvres, novels built around a complex and flexible system of communication. His preferred material is labyrinthine and fascinating, often with a touch of bittersweet irony; he wants to browse through it without necessarily understanding everything. The latter comes as no surprise, since Julien Gosselin admits to taking very little interest in the story he brings to the stage. We could even say he distrusts it. Nor is the director keen on 'dramaturgy' that explains too much and he rejects any form of didacticism, even though he cannot help but touch on certain dramaturgical elements in order to give his actors a handhold during rehearsals.

Adapting postmodern novels is not a neutral choice. For both Gosselin and Bolaño, reality is elusive. As one of the characters of 2666 puts it, "People see what they want to see and what people want to see never corresponds to reality." So rather than the story, the thin basis, even if it comes in the form of an investigation, it is the writing itself that fascinates him: the textual matter and the 'organic' mise-en-scène of fiction.

Like a true athlete, Julien Gosselin is constantly setting himself new challenges. He invariably sets to work with so-called 'impossible' authors, as Cassiers did for him in Musil's The Man Without Qualities I, II and III or Orlando, after the eponymous text by Virginia Woolf. Gosselin's long-drawn-out odysseys are akin to a long-distance run, in which he searches for an emotion as powerful and as intimate as that of a read. -|- Another typical feature that partly explains Gosselin's success is that he resolutely refuses to impede the audience's imagination by firing too strong images at them. The director prefers to work with text projections. Perhaps that is why he likes to leave his audience in the dark, accompanied only by the actor's voice and, if they are lucky, the organic and electronic music that is almost permanently present in his plays, or accompanied by text. Projected onto the big screen, the latter doubles (sometimes even triples) the actors' statements, from which it also slightly distracts the viewer, as if refusing to surrender the viewer entirely to their power.

Sometimes the projection replaces the speaking, but in most cases the spectators hear and read the text simultaneously, while the omnipresent music keeps them in a state of utmost concentration and intensely physically stimulates them, as in Les particules élémentaires. This unique relationship to reading allows Gosselin to establish a special bond with his audience, which he exhausts and confuses without fail.

Julien Gosselin develops an ontological vision of the world, which is expressed in his performances. It is a rather sad vision, sometimes disillusioned but never without a sense of humour, and often tender. He does not design a unique voice for the 'dramas' of the texts he puts on stage, just as he does not outline culprits and victims: his theatre contains no heroes, no romantic figures who accomplish or reject familiar mechanisms. On the contrary, he makes it a point of honour to throw around a multitude of hypotheses. Gosselin presents his characters in all their extremity and banality; sometimes they are even downright uninteresting. He thus shows himself to be the proud heir of a generation of disillusioned and shameless authors and writes his oeuvre as a gigantic experimental network, in which the scenography and the actors take on as important a role as the text.


Although Julien Gosselin refuses to take his spectators by the hand, he manages to hold their attention with his masterly rhythmics. He does not hesitate to 'plunge' them into a crisis, especially because of the exceptional length of some of his shows (remember 2666, which lasted twelve hours, and Joueurs/Mao II/ Les Noms, which lasted nine hours). It is as if he wants to elicit a reaction from his audience at all costs, even if it means losing them or irritating them along the way, as in Joueurs/Mao II/Les Noms, where in the hour-and-a-half-long opening scene he records a film and plays it simultaneously. In addition to this mechanism, Gosselin stimulates his audience by the restrained expressions he presents to them: the actor usually stands facing the audience, creating a very direct flow of words between the one who speaks and those who listen. Gosselin emphasises that this is a way 'to use the real within fiction, so that the importance of the theatre as a place cannot be denied'. Although this permanent break with the convention of the fourth wall may not be particularly innovative, it does provide an effective means of (re)attracting attention.

B moreover, the actor often takes on the voice of the novelist, including the descriptions. Although the purified scenography, sometimes reminiscent of the films of David Lynch, especially in 2666, does not seem to want to take the place of literature, it is because of the abundant presence of text that Gosselin's scenic writing is able to distinguish itself so strongly. The doubling of the text in projection and speech sharpens the concentration of the spectator, who (especially because of fatigue) is inevitably tempted to want to avoid the flow of words, but who nevertheless, almost in spite of himself, remains under the spell of the discourse and the scenography. He undergoes a kind of stimulating hyperlecture that overwhelms all his senses.-|-As the place for live representation par excellence, the theatre is a priori far removed from the experience of a bookworm navigating on his own between the lines of a novel, guided by an author with his own frame of reference and imagination. However, Gosselin does his utmost to merge the two worlds: "Nothing touches me more than an object that says something or tells something extra, than having two adjacent works meeting each other with text and theatre. The audience provides the other connections between the two objects', says the director.

The idea of theatre as a community is thrown overboard without hesitation. Gosselin refuses to sign up for didactic and militant theatre, or for performances - however sensitive they may be - in which emotions take the upper hand and meaning and aesthetics fade into the background. However, it is very difficult not to be carried away or emotionally affected by the mechanisms he employs. The director realises this all too well: 'I can't bear it that an audience remains in its corner. I need a spectator who enters a universe, who jumps into the water, into the world I show him during the performance, and who only surfaces at the very end. (...) I don't want tourists who come and gawk at what's happening on stage; I want people who immerse themselves in the world that's created before their eyes.


The final common denominator in all of Julien Gosselin's performances is undoubtedly tristesse. A tristesse with a pinch of irony, often balanced by a touch of humour or a change of tone in the scenography, which can be hidden in voices as well as in sounds. As a creator, Gosselin is nourished by the childhood and adolescence he spent on the beaches and in the villages of Northern France, when he discovered and took to his heart the authors of solitude. These are mainly the two notoriously disappointed authors in French society: Michel Houellebecq and Virginie Despentes. Letting the tristesse resonate, 'that feeling that covers everything', is crucial for the director, who also does not hide his admiration for the singer Dominique A.

From the postmodern novels, which try to embrace the world in order to better understand its melancholy, Julien Gosselin derives a vision that is both impressionistic and enlarged. The views expressed by Don DeLillo or Houellebecq are not set in stone, but sow confusion around the issues at the heart of their novels, and introduce characters who argue their way through and barely seem to exist... only to be completely obliterated in the end.

Nor does Julien Gosselin try in his plays to cure the fragility of the human condition by simplifying it. He prefers to play with an unstable balance in order to avoid putting on stage a representation of reality that belongs more to Madame Tussauds. This is undoubtedly one of the reasons why the director does not consider himself a craftsman. Like the texts he puts on stage, Gosselin works with gradations, sometimes in a kaleidoscopic way, and he does not hesitate to double or triple a scene with the help of screens, so that the spectator sees different facets of a character or a situation, without putting forward one of them as the right one. His pieces are a reflection of the contradictions in reality, of a chaotic state that he tries to restore by working like an impressionist painter.


Julien Gosselin is a gifted reader. Although the director has always had a strong preference for living authors - Michel Houellebecq, Don Delillo and Anja Hilling - he now turns to Andreyev, who was very famous in his time. But who today still knows Leonid Andreyev (1879-1911)? This friend of Gorky, author of a hundred short stories, was an anti-tsarist and anti-Bolshevik activist and also wrote about forty plays. They were performed in the biggest theatres in Russia, notably by Stanislavsky and Meyerhold, and translated into German and English as soon as they were published, according to André Markowicz, his French translator. Yet Andreyev, both a symbolist and a Chekhovian, has indeed fallen into oblivion. A terrible paradox for a writer who dreamed of becoming famous and whose reading remains addictive. At the age of 20 he said, "I would like man to turn pale with terror when he reads my books, that it is like a drug, like a nightmare, terrifying, that he loses his mind, curses me, hates me, but that he reads it anyway, before he kills himself." The tone is set. Julien Gosselin has selected several texts from Andreyev's oeuvre which he adapts here: two plays, Ekaterina Ivanovna and Requiem, and three short stories, Dans le brouillard, Le Gouffre and La Résurrection des morts.-|-Whimsical and unruly material, both classical and symbolic, also a little strange, permanently haunted by madness and death, it had enough to seduce Julien Gosselin. Not least because it comes from very far away, from a "past" that he does not try to bring closer to us. On the contrary, he invites us to hear the dead. Thus, the performance opens with Ekaterina Ivanovna in a minutely realistic dacha at the end of the 19th century. A fire crackles, men drink and whisper in the kitchen. The women are in finely embroidered white dresses, we see samovars, paintings of ancestors ... Julien Gosselin stages an old play that shows characters with a - perhaps fatal - tendency to self-destruction. The enchanting Russia of neglect, ghosts, passions and madness emerges. A ventriloquist monkey who has failed to "become a superior being", a man who tries to kill his wife, Yekaterina Ivanovna, whom he suspects of being unfaithful. And this innocent woman who is on the verge of insanity ... So many strange and paroxysmal situations in which the spectator, initially in the manner of an entomologist, observes these characters emerging from a burning past that seems to be the echo of a vanished humanity. And they see all the better because the stage action is filmed and broadcast simultaneously, allowing them to zoom in on these characters and their surroundings with great finesse.


The end of man is also the end of theatre. It is the core of Requiem. The action takes place in a theatre, we learn. We will not see any of it because everything is plunged into darkness. It is up to the audience to be guided through this darkness by the voices and the text, projected on a large screen. "His brightness", a sombre and omniscient character, argues with the "director" of a theatre and underlines how essential it is "that between the actors and that, there is nothing alive". The empty space becomes the black space. The spectators, we are told, are wooden dolls. "We don't want living spectators in the theatre," says the voice of His Clarity, distorted with auto-tune software to that of a painter. The spectator listens and reads, immersed in this double statement that Julien Gosselin is so fond of and that we will find at the heart of Le Gouffre. The disturbing and brilliant Carine Gouron, an excellent actress and reader, tells the story of the rape of a young girl by drunk men, and then by her lover, in the Russian countryside.

Requiem is reminiscent of Kantor's Dead Class, Pirandello and his role-playing games in which the metatheatrical contemplation is dizzying. One is also reminded of Maeterlinck with his strange characters: "The Director", "The Painter". It is a reflection on the life of the theatre and its necessity that emerges. The sea plunges us into waves that seem to come straight from a painting by Caspar Friedrich or from a description of the English Channel by Victor Hugo in The Man Who Laughs. In another story, where the masked characters are so sinister as to be distracting, a bit like The Addams Family, it is the malaise and madness of Pavel, a teenager in crisis, his eyes rimmed with depression and masturbation, that will express itself.

Julien Gosselin is the master of time in this all-encompassing show that celebrates strangeness. While he allows his extraordinary actors - especially Carine Gouron, but also Victoria Quesnel and Joseph Drouet - the time to make their glowing characters extremely vivid. Carried along by a sumptuous score borrowed from Peer Gynt and original compositions by Guillaume Bachelé and Maxence Vandevelde, Julien Gosselin takes us to the edge of the abyss, and makes us feel the ills of his flamboyant characters, to the point of discomfort. And he shows us that it is possible to create a theatre of powerful sensations, immersing us in a fascinating and deeply melancholic past.

Accountability and thanks

Part of this text was first published at Etcetera on 14 December 2018. Commissioned by DE SINGEL, author Marjorie Bertin wrote an addition about the performance Le Passé. Our thanks go to DE SINGEL for allowing us to use this text.