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Leuven troupe performs British theatre classics in English
We often hear how difficult it is for expats and Belgians to meet and mingle, but there is one organisation that has had no problem bringing them together. Under the curious moniker Trivial Muffins, a theatre group in Leuven is performing beloved standards of the British stage.
The amateur troupe performs Pygmalion (otherwise known as My Fair Lady) in Brussels this week, following up on a sold-out weekend in Leuven last month. They are a mix of local Flemish people and internationals, performing every production in its original English.
Which in a play like Pygmalion is not exactly easy. “Pygmalion has been a big challenge for us,” admits Trivial Muffins founder Hadrien Baudot. “We knew from the beginning that it would be ambitious because of the accents and the whole evolution of Eliza, the common flower girl who speaks awful cockney, to a distinguished lady. We also had to have a Henry Higgins, who speaks proper English perfectly.”
Having a few native speakers on board is always a plus, but even then, there is work to be done. An expat from Leeds, for instance, is not necessarily an expert in early 20th-century London dialects.
“Despite the challenges, “I absolutely love this play,” says Baudot, who is directing as well as playing Eliza’s father, Alfred Doolittle. “There is a kind of subtle humour, and it’s also a bit cynical. It’s sort of on its own: It’s not 100% comedy, not 100% drama. It’s bittersweet.”
Baudot trained in theatre at university and missed it once he graduated. In 2015, he and his friends decided to stage a production of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest.
“We had planned to translate it into Dutch, but we were already stuck trying to translate the title. So we decided to just do the whole thing in English. Otherwise, you lose a lot of the humour and the atmosphere.”
This attitude persisted into the following productions, and Trivial Muffins was born. It fulfils, says Baudot, a gap in Flanders’ theatre scene. Almost all professional theatre is contemporary or avant-garde. “We wanted to play authentic theatre,” he explains, “meaning putting on the classics according to the intention of the original productions.”
And so they have taken on Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None, Robert Bolt’s A Man for All Seasons, Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet and back to Wilde for An Ideal Husband. They also adapted Jane Austen’s Emma into a play. “And we are considering doing 1984,” says Baudot. “But we do mainly existing plays that are classics, that people know and love.”
Last year they forayed into American accents for Joseph Kesselring’s Arsenic and Old Lace – this after seeing the brilliant screen adaptation starring Cary Grant. “We saw the movie, and we loved it,” says Baudot. “It’s also not that well known in Europe.”
While the company does not make a profit, they generally earn back expenses through ticket sales. It’s strictly volunteer, but the set can run up costs quite a bit.
“We always try to do an authentic set, a rich set. Opulence, like it used to be. It’s easier to be more minimalistic, but that’s not in keeping with our mission.”
Besides the dialects, Pygmalion is also ambitious when it comes to the set. It includes several set changes, which the company has constructed inside huge columns that turn to the audience when needed. “One side is the library, for instance,” explains Baudot, “and when you clap it back, you have the ball scene or the church at Covent Garden.”
For serious people
As if they don’t have enough to do, the team of Trivial Muffins also writes their own surtitles, in both Dutch and French, which are displayed at every performance.
As for the name, anyone familiar with The Importance of Being Earnest will know where it comes from. The exchange between Jack (“How you can sit there calmly eating muffins when we are in this horrible trouble”) and Algernon (“Well, I can’t eat muffins in an agitated manner”) includes a rare moment of physical comedy from Wilde that is unforgettable.
“The tagline for Earnest is ‘a trivial comedy for serious people’,” says Baudot. “We wanted to bring that element to our productions, of escaping from the real world to enter the theatre world, a world in which you can immerse yourself. We want to provide entertainment that is not too critical, not too intellectual.”
Pygmalion, 22-23 November, Bronks, Varkensmarkt 15, Brussels. Tickets can be purchased online up to the day before the performance or at the door
Photos: Trivial Muffins' Pygmalion (top), Arsenic and Old Lace (centre)