The Hidden Force

Reviewer’s Rating

It was raining when we entered the Grande halle de la Villette on a night of early April. Actually, it was pretty sunny outside, but it was raining inside. Water was pouring on the square wooden floor where Ivo Van Hove chose to set The Hidden Force. The spectators’ chatter was mixed with the continuing sound of water and the melody of Harry de Wit’s piano, playing on the dry part of the stage.

When the actors enter, the floor is divided in two distinct parts: the back of the stage is wet with artificial rain, and the front is completely dry. The dry part seems impermeable and that is where the white characters of Louis Couperus’s 1900 novel are safe. Safe from the rain and the untameable nature of Java, the island they colonised. However, exchanging and communicating with the other side is unavoidable for Otto (Gijs Scholten van Aschat) and his family. The characters move from one part of the stage to another, and the border between the two visibly dissolves with the wet footprints that invade the safe, dry space. After a tidal wave, the wooden floor is eventually fully covered in water.

Even though it is unsettling for a French audience that the main language is dutch, the subtitles, expressionist mise-en-scène, and acting make the plot quite easy to understand. The dramatic use of artificial rain and wind to show the characters’ troubled interiority also makes them seem small and powerless in front of the force of nature, just like heroes from 19th century gothic novels in the grip of meteorological sublime. The stage play also evokes a less occidental imagery : an over-the-top Bollywood style, with flashing lights and strident music that punctuates sentences. This mix of cultures found in the directing is interesting and quite unusual, but could be even better with an improved representation of the Javanese characters.

The Hidden Force seems to be about an irrational fear of the unknown that reveals itself physically, showing the vulnerability of bodies to the power of nature and to superstition. The people who thought they were strong find themselves crushed by an obscure power that is always there, but invisible, just like Otto’s rejected son (Bart Bijnens). The shower of blood that Leonie (Halina Reijn) suffers echoes with Van Hove’s mise-en-scène of Les Damnés, except in The Hidden Force the spectator’s bodies become affected by this power too : the audience can feel the rain and the wind touching their faces in this heavy, humid atmosphere.

Unfortunately, the experience, as spectacular and interesting as it could have been, lacks too much unity and authenticity, and seems to miss its target, leaving the spectators both cold and a bit weary.