Guy Cassiers (born in Antwerp, 1960) is considered one of Europe’s top theatre-makers. His idiosyncratic theatrical idiom in which he successfully marries visual technology with a passion for literature is highly esteemed within Belgium and throughout the world. He has been artistic director of Toneelhuis from 2006 - 2022.
In season 23|24 his direction of Primeval and Other Times (Olga Tokarczuk) will premiere at ITA and his direction of Lehman Trilogy will be reprised.
Guy Cassiers initially studied graphic art at the Academy of Fine Arts in Antwerp. Though his interest turned to theatre during that period, his training as a visual artist has always played a crucial role in his development as a theatre-maker. Cassiers continues to view the theatre as an outsider and it is from that position that he created an artistic idiom that is all his own. In terms of the content of his work, this outsider position translates as a preference for solitary, isolated and often asocial figures. In terms of form, it translates as a preference for literary texts (as opposed to dramatic texts) and the use of visual technology. He sets about redefining the theatre from the standpoint of literature (the word) and the new media (the image).
In the 1980s Guy Cassiers staged his first theatre productions in Antwerp, including Kaspar by Peter Handke, and Daedalus, a project with the handicapped. In 1987 he was appointed artistic director of the Oud Huis Stekelbees youth theatre in Ghent (later Victoria, now CAMPO). In a ‘declaration of intent’ for OHS he stated that: “… The OHS favours the sound of the word over its meaning, association over story, sound over music, light over lighting, emotions over ideas, contradiction over consistency, the theatre over reality.” Guy Cassiers’ productions constantly challenge the creativity of the senses.
When Dirk Pauwels took over from him five years later, Cassiers went freelance, working with (among others) the Kaaitheater in Brussels, Tg STAN and the Toneelschuur in Haarlem. In 1996 his first production with the ro theater in Rotterdam, Angels in America, won the Gouden Gids Publieksprijs (Yellow Pages Public Award) and the Proscenium Prize awarded by the VSCD (Dutch association of theatres and concert halls). A year later he also received the Flemish critics’ Thersites Prize for his output as a whole.
In 1997 Guy Cassiers directed Onder het Melkwoud based on Dylan Thomas’ ‘Under Milk Wood’ with the full complement of the ro theater. The announcement of his appointment as the new artistic director of the ro theater came during the play’s rerun in August of that year. Between 1998 and 2006 Cassiers developed a multimedia theatrical idiom for the big stage. With each of his productions – e.g. De Sleutel and Rotjoch (1998), De Wespenfabriek (2000), La Grande Suite (2001), Lava Lounge (2002) and the opera The Woman Who Walked into Doors (2001) - he took the integration of multimedia into the theatre a step further. Cassiers became increasingly interested in the possibilities of video projection and music. He was one of the few to work consistently and coherently on a stage idiom that did not try to shirk the issue of technology. The high point of this search was undoubtedly the four-part Proust Cycle he made between 2002 and 2004 and for which he won the Amsterdam Prize for the Arts and the Berliner Festspiele Werkpreis Spielzeiteuropa.
Cassiers is happiest staging adaptations of well-known novels, like Marguerite Duras’ Hiroshima Mon Amour in 1996, Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina in 1999 and Jeroen Brouwers’ Sunken Red in 2004. His valedictory production at the ro theater in the spring of 2006 was an adaptation of J. Bernlef’s Hersenschimmen (Out of Mind). His debut production with the Toneelhuis was Onegin, based on Pushkin’s novel in verse Eugene Onegin: a romantic story which, through the ingenious use of visual technology, rises above the anecdotal to become a dramatic game with the audience’s perceptions. For his first production as artistic director of the Toneelhuis, Mefisto for ever (2006), he also drew on a classic work from European literary history: Klaus Mann’s Mephisto in an adaptation by Tom Lanoye, which deals with the relationship between art and politics. This was a new theme in Cassiers’ work, stemming largely from his return to Antwerp, the city where he was born, and its complex political situation.
Mefisto for ever is the first part of a triptych, Triptiek van de macht, about the complex relationship between art, politics and power. Mefisto for ever tells the story of (diabolical) seduction by power. Part two, Wolfskers, is the story of poisoning by power (wolfskers translates as 'deadly nightshade', a highly poisonous plant). And finally Atropa. De wraak van de vrede tells the story of the agony of power, drawing on the Greek tragedies and more specifically those featuring the Trojan War. Mefisto for ever was an immediate success with critics and public alike. Theatre critic Pol Arias described the play as the highlight of 2006: “Director Guy Cassiers does a magnificent job portraying that complex piece. Using discreet cameras, he lays emphases, enlarges faces and portrays the fear, desperation or simply the vanity. The extremely subtle set refers to the Bourla theatre itself, the lighting plays an important role as does the ingenious soundtrack. Equal praise goes to the actors who are all equally good. Together they stage a political play, one that is looking not to instruct but to question and they do that through their own world, that of the theatre.” (Radio 1, October 23rd 2006)
Wolfkers is the story of a day in the life of three rulers, Lenin, Hitler and Emperor Hirohito, a day that is both ordinary and decisive. Guy Cassiers drew inspiration from three films by the Russian director Aleksandr Sokurov about these dictators and brought the three figures together to form a “powerful-meandering play (…) that cuts to the quick.” (Peter Haex, Gazet van Antwerpen, October 13th 2007). “In Wolfskers (…) Toneelhuis gives history a face. Three world leaders who shaped the twentieth century are portrayed just before they lose their grip on power, or before it is cold-bloodedly taken from them. Even defeat is given a face. At times it is dignified, at times degrading. (…) Wolfskers is the sort of material the company can really get its teeth into, a play that puts an interesting theme like politics on the agenda." (Geert Sels, De Standaard, October 13th 2006).
Between the first two parts of the triptych, Mefisto for ever and Wolfskers, Guy Cassiers invited the other six Toneelhuis artists to join in a collective, site-specific project in the Bourla theatre: an ironic journey through the past based on A History of the World in 10½ Chaptersby Julian Barnes, who is a past-master when it comes to juggling fact and fiction. Guy Cassiers worked with Benjamin Verdonck, Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, Lotte van den Berg, Olympique Dramatique, Wayn Traub and De Filmfabriek to create a surprising theatrical journey through the Bourla which explores the borders of reality and imagination, downfall and creation. Or how art and catastrophe are closely linked…
After Wolfskers Guy Cassiers set to work on De geruchten (The Rumours) based on the novel of the same name by Hugo Claus, directing and coaching the Olympique Dramatique collective. De geruchten (2008) is now playing to full houses and has also won critical acclaim: “A Flemish Twin Peaks, as Olympique Dramatique's latest production has been dubbed. ...Working closely with theatre-maker Guy Cassiers..., they turned Hugo Claus' De geruchten into a fascinating play about a village and its inhabitants, about their longings and frustrations, their idiocies, weaknesses and brutality.” (Karin Veraart, De Volkskrant, January 19th 2008).
Guy Cassiers rounded off his Triptych with Atropa. De wraak van de vrede (script Tom Lanoye), in which the victims of war and violence are given a voice. Drawing on the Greek tragedies and on the recent war in Iraq, Lanoye wrote a sobering and gripping story of five women who confront the ruler Agamemnon with the reality of his ideological choices. The production was extremely well received by the press: “A magnificent cast in a play which has you gasping for air. Pitiless and thoroughly gripping.” (Geert Sels, De Standaard, May 17th 2008). The Triptych toured widely in the autumn of 2008 and the reviews continued to be very favourable.
In 2008-2009 Guy Cassiers staged two operas: Adam in Ballingschap (Adam in Exile, Vondel) to music by Rob Zuidam, and House of the Sleeping Beauties (Kawabata) to music by Kris Defoort. In the autumn of 2009 he made Onder de vulkaan after Malcolm Lowry’s novel Under the Volcano. Josse de Pauw adapted the text and also played the lead role. The play was very well received and toured France extensively. Guy Cassiers then began work on two projects which spanned several seasons: a three-part stage adaptation of Robert Musil’s De man zonder eigenschappen (The Man Without Qualities, Toneelhuis) and a production of Richard Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen (Milan/Berlin). While Onder de vulkaan had focussed on the intimate drama of a man and a woman, the two later projects returned to social issues raised in the Triptiek van de Macht. In both these stories of decline and fall – Musil’s novel and Wagner’s opera are both Götterdämmerungs - Guy Cassiers saw a metaphor for the political crisis of our own time. However, those who went to see SWCHWRM - a ‘multicultural’ play in different languages (Dutch, Moroccan, Turkish and Vietnamese) about a boy who decides to become a writer and discovers it is not that easy after all – will know that Guy Cassiers is also capable of striking a lighter note.
-|-The productions Bloed & rozen. Het lied van Jeanne en Gilles (2011), after a text by Tom Lanoye, and Duister hart (2011), based on Joseph Conrad’s novel Heart of Darkness, reflect Guy Cassiers’ growing interest in European political history. In Bloed & rozen Tom Lanoye concentrates on two historical figures – Joan of Arc and Gilles de Rais – and on their conflict with the Church, but he also tells a universal story of political power and manipulation which contains echoes of our modern-day world. The play was a great success when presented in the Palais des Papes at the 2011 Festival d’Avignon. The combination of live music (Collegium Vocale), video and acting went down extremely well with press and public. Duister hart, in Josse Pauw’s adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and with Josse De Pauw as the narrator, plunges us into Belgium’s colonial past. But even more than that, it is a descent into the depths of the human soul. In this way, the play bridges the gap between the murderer, paedophile and rapist Gilles de Rais and Moosbrugger, the murderer and rapist who is at the centre of De misdaad (The Crime), the third part of De man zonder eigenschappen (The Man Without Qualities). Both Moosbrugger and the figure of the writer Musil appear in this third part, written by Yves Petry. Cassiers’ version of The Man Without Qualities consists of three parts which show the prism of a disintegrating society: The Parallel Action (part I, premièred in June 2010), The Mystic Marriage (part II, premièred in September 2011) and The Crime (part III, premièred in May 2012).
So Cassiers’ oeuvre also reflects on the place of the artist in society. In the 2012-2013 season he staged Orlando, after the novel of the same name by Virginia Woolf, “an ode to life, language and imagination”. The play was selected for the Dutch Theatre Festival 2013. That season Cassiers also completed Wagner’s Ring cycle in Berlin/Milan. In the 2013-2014 season he changed tack as far as his choice of texts was concerned. Instead of adapting novels, Cassiers concentrated on Shakespeare. With composer Dominique Pauwels, who was also responsible for composing the music and vocals for Bloed & rozen. Het lied van Gilles en Jeanne, he created the music theatre production MCBTH, in which word and song, text and music, actors and (female) singers made for both cohesion and conflict. With Hamlet versus Hamlet Tom Lanoye made a notable adaptation of Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Actor Abke Haring took the lead role. Coproduced with Toneelgroep Amsterdam, the show was highly rated by press and public alike and selected for the Theatre Festivals in Flanders and the Netherlands. Abke Haring won the Theo D'Or, the Dutch Prize for Best Female Lead Role. In 2014 Guy Cassiers (along with Ivo Van Hove) was awarded an honorary degree by the University of Antwerp for services rendered to society.
In 2014-2015 Guy Cassiers and the ensemble of theatre-makers and actors staged Maurice Maeterlinck’s Les aveugles (De blinden). At HETPALEIS he made a show based on Toon Tellegen’s Het vertrek van de mier (The Departure of the Ant) in cooperation with the socio-artistic organization KunstZ. As a set designer and director’s assistant he was also involved in AUGUSTUS ergens op de vlakte (August, Osage County after Tracy Letts), an Olympique Dramatique (Toneelhuis), KVS and NTGent coproduction. He rounded off the season with Passions humaines, a play about the nineteenth-century sculptor Jef Lambeaux, to a script by Erwin Mortier and performed by a French and Dutch-speaking cast. This show was produced in cooperation with the Théâtre National à Bruxelles, Le Manège in Mons and La Fondation Mons 2015, and is a synthesis of the themes which have preoccupied Cassiers for many seasons: the position of the artist vis-à-vis power, politics and European history.
His two main theatre projects for the 2015-2016 season were Camus’ Caligula and Jonathan Littell’s The Kindly Ones De welwillenden). The latter was a coproduction with Toneelgroep Amsterdam. In Lille (FR) Cassiers staged Francesco Cavalli’s opera Xerse. Again the leitmotif in these projects is the reflection on power and the misuse of power: “Caligula is emperor of Rome. After the death of his sister with whom he is in love, he loses the will to live. With his aggressive and provocative behaviour he challenges those around him and brings down the whole political and moral structure. Because he allows himself complete freedom, Caligula’s downfall is apocalyptic. Jonathan Littell’s book paints a picture of Max Aue, a man closely involved in the efficient destruction of the Jews in Eastern Europe. Here I stage two extreme characters.”
The smaller project Le sec et l’humide (The Dry and the Wet, 2015), originally conceived as a research project on the essay of the same name by Jonathan Littell on the same subject as De Welwillenden (The Kindly Ones), grew into a full-fledged theatre production that went on tour and later appeared in the Festival of Avignon in 2017.
In 2016, Cassiers made De moed om te doden (Courage to Kill) by the Swedish playwright Lars Norén. For the Ouverture of the city of Mechelen’s festival Op.Recht.Mechelen, a special concertante reading of Bloed & rozen (Blood & Roses) was presented. In Japan, he recreated the music theatre production House of the Sleeping Beauties, which he originally made in 2009 with composer Kris Defoort, based on the similarly named novel by Kawabata. In 2017, at the Opéra Garnier in Paris, he staged the opera Trompe-la-mort, after Balzac, set to music by Luca Francesconi. In Grensgeval (Borderline) he tackled work by Nobel Prize winner Elfriede Jelinek.
In the 2017-2018 season, Cassiers continued his interest in the fate of the refugee, which he first examined in Grensgeval (Borderline); now he has staged the intimate Het kleine meisje van meneer Linh after the book by Philippe Claudel. After making a Dutch-language version in the fall of 2017, he followed that up in the spring of 2018 with a French-language version with a French actor. In December 2018 there came a Catalonian version, La Néta del Senyor Linh, with a Spanish-Catalonian actor who also performed a Spanish version in the fall of 2019. In the spring of 2018, he worked along the lines of the family narrative that he started with De moed om te doden (Courage to Kill) – now in a lighter vein – with his staging of Vergeef ons, a soap about a family gone awry, with a happy ending. “A colourful, bold, extremely funny and festive piece of theatre performed by a top-notch cast.” – Filip Tielens on Klara radio, 23 February 2018.
In the spring of 2019, Cassiers joined forces with Arsenaal/Lazarus to create Bagaar, after the film from 1981 by Bernard Tavernier. With this production, Guy Cassiers has continued his theatrical search into the darkest depths of the human soul, a descent that he previously carried out in productions such as Atropa. De wraak van de vrede; Duister hart; Musil 3: De misdaad; MCBTH; Bloed & rozen. Het lied van Jeanne en Gilles; and De welwillenden.
In that same spring, Het kleine meisje van meneer Linh was also recreated in English, premiering in Luxembourg as Monsieur Linh and His Child.
In the fall of 2019, Guy Cassiers directed Purcell’s The Indian Queen at Opéra de Lille. In the fall of 2019, Guy Cassiers directed Purcell’s The Indian Queen at Opéra de Lille. For Toneelhuis, he created a double bill in the autumn of 2020: Antigone in Molenbeek +Tiresias. The lead figures in both of these productions question the laws of patriarchal (Western) society, each in their own way. In the spring of 2021, Guy Cassiers directed April, based on a text by Willem de Wolf in which the key figure is April Glaspie, the American ambassador in Iraq in the period right before the outbreak of the first Gulf War, a conflict that changed the relations between the Arab and Western worlds.
In June of 2021, Guy Cassiers is making a French version of Antigone in Molenbeek + Tiresias with the actresses Ghita Serraj and Valérie Dréville in the leading roles. In October 2021 he is directing an adaptation by Erwin Mortier of Dostoyevsky’s Démons at the famed Comédie Française in Paris.
In January 2022, a homage to one of the most important living poets writing in Dutch, Nolens, will have its premiere at the Bourla. Guy Cassiers is rounding off the 2021-2022 season with Lonely Hearts Club Band, a collective project that presents all of the Toneelhuis makers on the Bourla stage in June 2022. With this project, Guy Cassiers also brings his 16-year directorship at Toneelhuis to a festive close.