The 51st HK Arts Festival

Water, Water Everywhere

Text / Richard Lord

With The Book of Water, Dutch composer-director Michel van der Aa brings together music, theatre and film to tell a tale of dementia and loss that stars a father-son acting duo.

A haunting examination of dissolution and disintegration, of both the human mind and the natural landscape, The Book of Water also represents a dazzling example of formal innovation, splicing together theatre, film and music, both chamber and electronic. Composed and directed by the Netherlands' Michel van der Aa, it will be making its Asian premiere at the 2023 Hong Kong Arts Festival, after making its global debut at the Venice Biennale in September 2022.

Based on Man in the Holocene, a novella by Max Frisch, one of Switzerland's most celebrated 20th-century writers, The Book of Water revolves around an elderly man, Geiser, who sits inside his home while incessant rain lashes down outside, cutting him off from the world. Suffering from dementia, he contemplates his past and present, trying to make sense of both, and desperately struggles to hold on to both factual information and his memories, especially of his marriage to his late wife.

"He describes different types of weather, landslides happening, new lakes forming due to heavy rainfall," Van der Aa tells FestMag. "It's a metaphor for the way a lot of us undergo climate change risks. We know it's there, but there aren't so many actions."

A family affair

A medium-busting mash-up of play, film and opera, adapted from a work of literature, The Book of Water ingeniously portrays Geiser's mental decline by splitting the role in two: an older actor (Timothy West) plays Geiser as he is now in a film projection, while a younger actor (Samuel West) appears on stage, playing him at the age he thinks he is. They're accompanied by string quartet the Esmé Quartet, which appears live on stage, while British soprano Mary Bevan appears in the film, playing Geiser's daughter.

Using two actors to portray the same character, says Van der Aa, "gave me a theatrical tool to show the audience an internal dialogue". But it could also have made it quite a challenge to cast the show. Fortunately, Van der Aa had an ace up his sleeve, having previously worked with British actor Samuel West, known for TV and film roles from Howard's End (1992) to All Creatures Great and Small (2020), who also has a long history in the theatre, including as a director. West's father, Timothy, aged 88, happens to also be a star of stage and screen, long ubiquitous in his native UK.

Samuel West found it a challenge to play the same character as an immediate family member. "The difficult thing about working with my father on this is not to think 'That's my dad'," he tells FestMag. "In the piece, it's me."

Both his and his father's performances were influenced by the experience of seeing his mother suffer from dementia in recent years, he says. "My mother at one point said, 'I don't always know where I'm going but I always enjoy getting there'. It's a good philosophy for anyone, whether they have dementia or not. Geiser has things that matter to him: an attentive daughter, the smell of lavender, the warmth of the sun."

Van der Aa says he had wanted to do something with Frisch's novel for some time, but recent events brought it to the forefront. "Someone gifted me the book about 10 to 15 years ago and it really struck a nerve. I decided I'd use it for a piece, but I didn't have a concrete idea. Then a couple of years ago I found myself locked down in the Netherlands, isolated from friends, and it felt like very much the same atmosphere as the book."

Spirit of innovation

The orchestration of the piece reflects its changing moods, Van der Aa adds, varying from expansive to intensely domestic and personal. "I knew I wanted to use a string quartet. It's quite intimate. Adding the electronics makes it much more orchestral; it's always extending the string quartet's sound."

Van der Aa has explored the use of film and using recorded music alongside a live orchestra in his several of previous works. "I started with pure concert music," he says. "Gradually I found I wanted to communicate things that I couldn't communicate through music alone. Sometimes I have an idea that I can project to the audience with one violin; sometimes it calls for 13 screens. How I am going to bring it to the audience depends on the idea, never the other way round."

Michel van der Aa: The Book of Water

Detail:  https://www.hk.artsfestival.org/en/programme/book_of_water