To watch "The Damned" is to endure a test of cerebral fortitude: the live performance is simultaneously filmed, projected onto an enormous LED screen, the camera crew fully visible to the audience (intriguing background characters in their own right), the entire thing in spoken French with English subtitles floating overhead. The kaleidoscopic splitting of language and image, via translation as well as electronic rendition, feels like a formalist rending at the fabric of reality itself, inducing a kind of mad vertigo in both the audience and the characters, who seem to struggle against their role as pawns in a bizarre reality show game whose rules they are unaware of and over which they have no control.
The family slowly crumbles before our eyes as ownership of the factory is disputed, moments of overwrought sexuality enacted, and characters killed off for influence and politics—a tightly wound ballet that, like the steam whistle that goes off throughout the performance, boils over with pent-up pressure: midway we are witness to a brilliant moment where the two soldiers being filmed are joined, on the LED screen only, by a crowd of other digitally rendered men who become progressively drunker and rowdier to the point that they strip until fully nude—as do the real men on stage, the shock of their real world nudity tempered by the inclusion of the prequel of the digitized soldiers.
These moments of full, unadulterated nudity are important in the piece. They are accompanied by tactile materials: liquids (beer, blood, tar), powder, feathers—the body has become steel, the only thing left for these devolved creatures to cling to. Van Hove cleverly compares the machinery of a wilting aristocracy to digital culture—but only visually—and ends this torturous contemplation of past and present with a very real-looking gun pointed directly at the audience by the insane inheritor of the family fortune who has just tarred and feathered his own mother (the white feathers become, by visual metaphor, her wedding gown, the tar her funeral gown), and is covered in the ashes of the collective dead of those who have been escorted offstage to their own caskets, which are carefully lined up stage right.
How beautifully macabre and obliquely topical this conclusion was, not to mention inducing a very literal sense of physical terror. After the actors took their bows, many audience members sat in stunned silence, finding it difficult to stand and leave. You may hear more than one dreary-eyed patron mutter to their friend or to themselves, “What did I just watch?” in the same way they might say, “What have we done?”