A Transformation That Transforms

22 04 2023

Olivier de Sagazan, "Transfiguration". Photo: Didier Carluccio

Author: Dorija Lilion

Olivier de Sagazan's play “Transfiguration”, performed at the Festival LUTKE 2022, touched something in us that we were afraid to touch ourselves, and now that it is out there, we have something to work with or experience our own transformation.

Of all the shows I have seen at the Festival LUTKE 2022 in Ljubljana, one has made a particularly strong impression on me, and I do not believe that I will soon forget it. The play in question is Olivier de Sagazan's Transfiguration, performed twice on 26 September 2022, even though one performance is quite enough to leave an impression that lasts a lifetime. The first association we have when met with the concept of “transformation” is the world of Kafka, whose atmosphere is not far from the atmosphere we witnessed at the performance. However, the transformation in de Sagazan’s Transfiguration was entirely his and ours.

Although I had some idea of what the performance itself would look like, all my conceptions and ideas fell apart at the very beginning. The performance began with the arrival of the performer, who greeted us and sat in his seat, surrounded by pots with clay, straw, colors, powder and water. Behind him, there was a wall, which unbeknown to me, was movable and made of metal. This fact is quite important for some parts of the performance. De Sagazan then began to mumble a mantra and gently rock back and forth, like a shaman, followed by molding the clay, making drawings on it, and applying new layers of mask.

Since the whole performance was of a ritual nature, the removal of previous masks and the creation and application of new ones symbolized the masks we wear in our own lives, changing them as needed and throwing them away after they have fulfilled their purpose. At the same time, it also represented a struggle with internal demons that the author exorcised by molding the clay and drawing on it. Why demons? Primarily because the visual aspect of the masks seemed scary, heartless, haunting. Even now, when I close my eyes, I can clearly see that image in front of my eyes, as if I had just witnessed it. Clay itself is gray, smooth and easily moldable, and the demons take the shape as needed to get under our skin and ingratiate themselves with our fears. The gray color of clay is inhuman and terrifying, especially when combined with black, lackluster round eyes and blood-red lips, similar to a monster spawned from the most terrifying nightmare.

After (re-)covering his face with the clay several times, the author decides to cleanse himself and slams his head and hands repeatedly against the back wall. These blows are accompanied by an extremely loud sound of metal against metal and the rocking of walls. It is an understatement to say that I did not expect to hear those sounds or see the slamming against the wall. The entire image is visually impressive and remains in our memory because we do not frequently have the opportunity to see and hear such things. Later in the performance, the author molds the faces of animals on his face, and after that, he takes his clothes off and transforms his body into a female one, using straw, which he burns on his head in a cleansing ritual.

The overall impression that the performance has left on me is neither bad nor good. I have never seen a performance that fascinated me and intimidated me so much at the same time. There was not a single moment where I felt relaxed, and I was anticipating what was going to happen next all the time. De Sagazan skillfully caught my attention and repeatedly got me out of my head precisely when I started to form thoughts. On the one hand, the atmosphere that pervaded the space, the events on the stage and the people in the audience seemed Kafkaesque, dark, strange and terrifying, and yet quite normal, as if nothing strange was happening. Like Kafka’s Metamorphosis, I think that de Sagazan’s Transfiguration successfully touched this dark and wondrous nature of man.

This was the first performance I had left without being completely sure of my feelings and attitude toward it. I find it hard to believe that it has been performed over 300 times in 25 different countries and that people still want to see it, but I also find myself repeatedly returning to the play. In the end, after the game on the stage was completed – and ended as it began, with the man – no one remained unchanged. Perhaps that is the beauty of it, for it touched something in us that we were afraid to touch ourselves, and now that it is out there, we have something to work with or experience our own transformation.

This publication is written in the context of the project "European Contemporary Puppetry Critical Platform"