Happy Hour by Lobke Leirens and Maxim Storms – Vooruit, Ghent
Lobke Leirens and Maxim Storms are two unmistakable performers. Their appearance in ‘Another One‘ at the 2018 Edinburgh Festival, part of the Big in Belgium programme at Summerhall, was a revelation. Their show was complex, physical, dark, comic, and unclassifiable. It sent me to Ghent to see their new show, performed for only two nights as part of the Podium programme of new work, at Vooruit, the city’s fantastic workers’ palace arts centre. In ‘Happy Hour’ they take up where they left off, leaving the audience unable to guess what they might do next, but delighted by the unfolding of their bizarre, inexorable logic.
The show had the working title of ‘Folks and Fools’, which gives some sense of the surreal themes of ritual, repetition and folklore that run through the hour-long performance. Then again, the same could have been said about ‘Another One’. Leirens and Storms play strange very well. Storms appears first under a crawling, foam insect-like shell, blundering around the red circle that defines the stage on a fruitless search. Then he dons safari gear, socks and sandals, while Leirens wears rubber leggings and an off-the-shoulder top as sort of film noir moll. Both their necks are blacked with make-up, giving the impression their heads are only loosely attached. They stage a series of set-piece scenes which combine physical performance prowess with a Beckettian, to say the least, sense of humour.
The show is based on their performances together, in relation to one another. Repeated scenes require them to circle each other, separated by a long piece of two-by-four against their backs, stomachs and, agonising, their mouths. They are performing rituals designed, just like every ritual to prevent something and to make other things happen. We never know what, but we witness their extraordinary contortions as they frantically whip one another with cats-o-nine-tails, no holds barred, hopefully ring a bell into the darkness over the edges of the stage, and sing a strange folk song again and again. Leirens appears as a bare-bottomed, bucket-headed Hieronymus Bosch horse creature, and both later emerge as nun/bird hybrids, also straight from a Bosch vision of hell. They play a game in which Storms, obscured entirely by a furry suit, shoots urgent hand signals, interpreted by Leirens as an ever-changing mantra: “He gave me eight fears, two lies…” until she reaches the end point with “He gave me nothing, he gave me nothing.”
As an image of the futility of superstition it is hard to forget, but there is hope too and, by the end, the pair are ringing their bell into the shadows again. Their work is dark, but much more than that. It is considered, complex and often very funny too. Many influences are apparent, from art and film to music and dance, but the interpretations they provide are impossible to anticipate or predict because they are entirely original. It is safe to say you will not see anyone else doing what Leirens and Storms are doing, because no-one else could. This makes them two of the most exciting performers occupying a European stage at the moment. The audience in Ghent knows how good they are, and loved every moment. If they bring their work back to Edinburgh this summer, it is absolutely not to be missed.