Even though Isabella’s Room (伊莎蓓拉的房間) premiered in 2004, it continues to be Jan Lauwers’ calling card.
“It is part of the culture in Europe, though it is very stupid to say that myself,” said Lauwers, founder and director of Brussels-based Needcompany, in Taipei.
“We are always astonished that they always want us to play this, and it is always to a huge reaction from the public. We try to get rid of it, try to create new shows, but they always go back to Isabella,” he said.
That’s perhaps fitting: Isabella’s Room, a musical play, is Lauwers’ signature work in the sense that the majority of its props belong to him. They are real and valuable things — ancient artifacts passed on from his father.
The plot is also close to home.
“The performance itself is a very private, almost autobiographic story,” Lauwers said.
In Taipei this weekend, Needcompany presents three shows of Isabella’s Room, which has at its center an elderly blind woman named Isabella. Due to a computer chip lodged in her brain, Isabella (and the audience) can see her memories, lived at different points of the globe in the 20th century.
Story after story unfolds in loose linearity. Audiences see Isabella’s childhood in a lighthouse, unhappy parents who drank and her life in a nunnery.
The stories are true, said Lauwers. “I wrote [the play] at the moment my father died, and it’s about his life and my family’s life.”
Some of the stories are highly polarizing, said Lauwers.
“Isabella is a very subversive character. She does things where, when a man does it, we would say he is kinky. When a woman does it, we would say she is perverse,” he said.
For instance, in one episode Isabella sparks a romantic relationship with her grandson.
“In certain countries, the text was received as very controversial, because it is very controversial. For example, in the United States, the critics were against Isabella,” he said.
But Isabella’s Room doesn’t deliver a judgment on its protagonist, Lauwers said.
“I didn’t want to write a moral play. I wanted to write a play where you question morality,” he said.
“It is linked to all the ancient plays: the Greek tragedies — Medea, Oedipus — everything that is Shakespeare. When is somebody becoming a bad person? That is in fact the question,” he said.
Belgian actress Viviane De Muynck has played Isabella since 2004.
“You have to realize that in the Western drama tradition, there are not many roles for older women dealing with the bigger questions of life,” she said.
Isabella’s Room is performed in English and French, with Chinese subtitles.