Art as an escape from oppression

Nkenguégi

Dieudonné Niangouna

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Art is ‘an escape from oppression’ to the Congolese writer and director Dieudonné Niangouna. Theatre is his weapon. His work, which brings together African and European theatrical traditions, is rich, poetic, full of emotion and humour. Nkenguégi is the final part of a trilogy which also includes Shéda (Holland Festival, 2013). Niangouna shows the failure of a political system, the oppression of a people, and the perilous daily journey by refugees in small boats across the Mediterranean. He questions whether a refugee’s story belongs in a theatre. Ten actors and two musicians depict a journey through dreams and nightmares. Nkenguégi is unsentimental, musical, and driven by an irrepressible will to live.

Background information

The Congolese writer and director Dieudonné Niangouna (Brazzaville, 1976) is returning to the Holland Festival with a new performance, Nkenguégi. This is the last part of his trilogy La Trilogie des Vertiges (‘The Trilogy of Vertigo’), which also comprises Le Socle des Vertiges (2010) 

(‘The Source of Vertigo’) and Shéda (Holland Festival, 2013). For Niangouna, art is 'an escape from suppression'. Theatre is his weapon. In his poetic, layered and highly linguistic plays, African and European story-telling traditions come together. The same is true of Nkenguégi. Niangouna exposes the failure of a political system, the oppression of a nation and the atrocious journey that refugees take each and every day across the Mediterranean in unseaworthy boats to reach the 'fortress of Europe.' At the same time, he asks the question as to whether the story of a refugee belongs in a theatre. He does that in his own way, through the use of virtuous, kaleidoscopic performing arts. 

In Nkenguégi, a group of actors work on a contemporary, theatrical version of the iconic painting The Raft of the Medusa (1818) by the French painter Théodore Géricault (1791-1824). This painting – a benchmark in the French Romantic Movement – refers to an historical event whereby, after the naval frigate Méduse ran aground off the coast of Mauritania in 1816, a group of survivors spent almost two weeks drifting around at sea. Of the 147 shipwrecked people, the majority died due to dehydration and starvation. Only fifteen survived, thanks to cannibalism. In Nkenguégi, this raft symbolises the immigration problem today. While the theatre group deals with this issue, other characters searching for things appear in associative, dream-like scenes. A girl searching for true love, a boy guarding the desert, a group of idealistic students who want to change the world, a traveller on board the Flying Dutchman, two Congolese immigrants who want to settle in France, a lonely man with plans to kill himself, and two goats that are forced to mate until they die.

The title refers to a thorny plant with dangerous, razor-sharp leaves that grows in the woods and savannahs around the equator. In Congo, herders use the Nkenguégi shrubs as a natural barrier to protect their livestock from predators. The Nkenguégi functions as protection and as a prison, and therefore embodies an impossible situation. Niangouna asks, 'What safety are we really guaranteed? Is it safety as a result of frameworks, barriers, laws, codes, warnings, orders, commands, requirements, conventions or decisions? What freedom do we have? The freedom to live in the house of the tyrant, so that we aren't eaten up by the neighbouring tyrant? Do we have the choice to be eaten up by a lion or a leopard? The predators are inside and outside. What is our alternative?' 

According to Niangouna, theatrical language must have three different qualities. It must be written, spoken and heard. In his work, he therefore combines classical French, the popular and poetic use of language of the great Congolese writer Sony Labou Tansi, and the tribal language and oral story-telling traditions of the Lari people. The result is a new, enriched form of French. For Niangouna, the text is like the sculptor's chisel, which he uses to create a sculpture out of an amorphous lump of stone. In the performance, this text is projected as a film and propelled by the tom-tom rhythms of the music group Chikadora. The performance reflects the political confrontation between North and South, the political destruction of the future, and the generations that have been sacrificed for this. Nkenguégi is Niangouna's reflection on the state of the world: unsentimental, musical and driven by an unstoppable will to live.

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Biography

Dieudonné Niangouna (Brazzaville, 1976) is a Congolese actor, writer and director. In the early 1990s, he started his career on the streets, outside the ruins of the theatre buildings. It was there that he invented a new, provocative theatrical language. He is now one of the most 

prominent innovators in African theatre. In 1997, together with his brother Criss, he founded the theatre group Compagnie Les Bruits de la Rue, which aimed to articulate the violence and anger on the streets of the Republic of Congo. His work is characterised by a sense of urgency, born out of the civil war in his country and the history of French colonialism. As an actor, he has performed in Revisor by Nikolai Gogol, Die Ausnahme und die Regel (‘The exception and the rule’) by Bertold Brecht, and La Liberté des Autres (‘The liberty of others’) by Caya Mackhélé. His first own productions with Les Bruits de la Rue were Colère d'Afrique (‘Anger of Africa’), Bye Bye and Carré Blanc (‘White square’). In 2006, he directed and acted in Dans la Solitude des Champs de Cotton by Bernard Marie Koltès, a play that was performed in France, Western and Central Africa. Each year, Niangouna organised the Festival International de Théâtre Mantsina Sur Scène in Brazzaville, which showcased daring theatre, contemporary dance, performances, readings and debates. For a while now, Dieudonné has not been allowed to enter the country due to his no-holds-barred criticism of the regime and the threat of a civil war. In 2007, his monologue Attitude Clando left a big impression at the Festival d'Avignon. He returned to Avignon in 2009 with Les Inepties Volantes. In 2013, together with Stanislas Nordey, he was artiste associé in Avignon, and made his debut at the Holland Festival with the performance Shéda. In 2014, he presented a new production Le Kung-Fu at Laboratoire d'Aubervilliers. This performance travelled to the Francophonies en Limousin Festival, the Künstlerhaus Mousonturm in Frankfurt, the Bonlieu Scène Nationale in Annecy, and the Théatre Vidy in Lausanne. From 2014 to 2017, he is associate artist at the Künstlerhaus Monsonturm in Frankfurt. It is there that he produced his most recent work, Nkenguéngi

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Focus: democracy

This year several festival artists are looking at the problems faced by Western democracies. The French philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville admired democracy for its social equality. He saw its dangers too. Director Romeo Castellucci is making La Democrazia in America, based on De Tocqueville’s eponymous book 

(1835). In The Gabriels director Richard Nelson reflects on the recent American election year through the eyes of an ordinary family. Other artists focus on controversies in democracies, such as the issue of refugees in directors Dieudonné Niangouna and Thomas Bellinck’s performances. Others address the threat of violence (Demolishing Everything with Amazing Speed), tyranny (Octavia), or shaping activism (The Tempest Society). In Manifesto the film director Julian Rosefeldt examines the relation between art and society. 

We are presenting two national theatre production companies, each with its own state of the nation: My Country by the National Theatre in London, and The Nation by the Dutch National Theatre in The Hague. Both performances show divided countries in which no one, from politicians to citizens, seems to dare to take responsibility. We also believe that it is important to explore democracy of form. Members of the audience can get actively involved as a passer-by, participant, or activist, if they so wish. Our artists encourage you to question the old hierarchy between the audience and the artists.

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Credits

text, direction
Dieudonné Niangouna
artistic collaboration
Laetitia Ajanohun
technical director
Nicolas Barrot
video director
Wolfgang Korwin, Jérémie Scheidler
stage manager
Papythio Matoudidi
costume design
Velica Panduru
mask design
Ulrich N’Toyo
light design
Thomas Costerg
sound design
Félix Perdreau
creatie en uitvoering muziek
music created and performed by
cast
Laetitia Ajanohun, Marie-Charlotte Biais, Clara Chabalier, Pierre-Jean Etienne, Harvey Massamba, Papythio Matoudidi, Daddy Kamono Moanda, Ludovic Louppe, Mathieu Montanier, Criss Niangouna, Dieudonné Niangouna
production
Cie Les Bruits de la rue Cie Les Bruits de la rue is supported by the Ministry of Culture and Communication – DRAC Île-de-France Cie Les Bruits de la rue accompanies Cie La Contreverse (led by Jérémie Scheidler and Marie-Charlotte Biais) as part of the companion aid scheme supported by the DGDA
coproduction
Théâtre Vidy-Lausanne | MC93 – Maison de la Culture de Seine-Saint-Denis, Bobigny | Künstlerhaus Mousonturm Francfort | Le Grand T, théâtre de Loire-Atlantique | La Villette – Paris
with support by
Colline - théâtre national, assistance with the creation and distribution of the live performance by SPEDIDAM, the text was created with the support by Centre National du Théâtre