12 April 2006, Radio Netherlands

Revenge Festival

Azalee Shirwa singing.

Do you agree with Mohammed B., the killer of Dutch journalist and film director Theo van Gogh? This was one of the controversial questions accompanying fierce portraits of politicians and murderers advertising the Revenge Festival - a weekend-long art marathon aiming to provoke public discussion about this ancient sentiment.

"There is a family with kids. Do the kids first and make the mother watch. Tell them you'll stop if she can hold back the tears. I owe her that."

Famous quotations from relevant films, such as this one from Lars von Triers's Dogville poured from the loudspeakers, as DJs, rappers, opera singers, actors, filmmakers and even debate clubs gathered at Amsterdam's central stage Stadsschouwburg to express their understanding of the ultimate revenge. Some of their larger audience had already expressed theirs the night before, says the organizer of the event Jorgen Tjon A Fong.

Jorgen Tjon A Fong: "We had a poster with the murderer of Theo van Gogh. We had his picture up on the poster and the question "Do you agree with his way of revenge?" To inspire people to think about it, to define the attitude towards his actions. And it's too easy to say "No, I don't like it and I don't want to have anything to do with it." No, we want to force people to think about it. What happened was that one night an action group took cans of red paint and went through the city, and threw red paint over the posters. I did think it would raise some controversy, but I did not think people would actually take red paint to spoil the posters."

In your ads you say you challenged every artist to reflect the extremes of vengeance.

Jorgen Tjon A Fong: "Yes, we are taking it to the extreme, because we really wanted to see what happens if you pursue the "eye for an eye" concept. If you really pursue that, what are the consequences - our whole weekend is based around that, what happens if you pay somebody back. Maybe if you see the extremes, maybe you can decide that yes, this is the way to do it. We raise a question, not a statement. And the question is: What if?"

Apart from the arts, Revenge Festival also turned to a number of prominent Dutch psychologists for their expert opinion on the nature of revenge. The complex phenomenon of revenge appears to be one of the least researched emotions. It has been proven, however, that the mere fantasy about revenge results in no less, and at times greater, satisfaction that the actual taking of revenge. When will revenge fully withdraw to the fantasy realm remains a question. Jorgen Tjon A Fong sees little difference between today's war operations and the conflicts in Ancient Greece, where revenge was a socially acceptable norm.

Jorgen Tjon A Fong: "Every war is like a revenge. What we did is we went back to the Ancient Greek society, where there was a whole different attitude towards revenge. Revenge was almost something you had to do. If you did not take revenge, the gods came and pursued you. And they were pursuing you until you came and took the revenge because you had to do that. The play we are performing is about two brothers that are in a competition for the throne of Mycenae. Eventually one brother becomes king, but that is not enough. He wants to pay back what his brother did to him. So he kills his own nephews, the children of his brother, and he invites his brother to a nice diner to talk about everything that had happened. And at the end of the dinner he reveals that the father just ate his own children. And that was the ultimate revenge for everything the other brother has done to him.

Why did you choose this particular story of Thyestes, the uncle of Agamemnon?

Jorgen Tjon A Fong: The question we raise with the play is "What's a kingdom worth?" In the case of the myth, the original cause was lost. It was all about a reaction, about a vendetta."

A musical excerpt from Electronic Music to Thyestes by Jeroen van Olffen, It Won't Stop Productions.

Jorgen Tjon A Fong and his theater production company Urban Myth presented their one-man play Thyestes as a multidimensional spectacle in order to provide the audience with a side view of themselves. As the story reached its culmination, Jorgen Tjon A Fong produced a tiny replica of a theater stage with a photograph of himself on it and projected it to the audience with the help of a web-cam. As the next step, the stage, on the contrary, expanded to engulf the audience and the spectacle went interactive. Throwing aside his funny-fur coat, Jorgen turns from king to narrator. In a playful manner, imitating Santa Claus, he inquires whether there are any viewers among the audience who, just like the characters of Thyestes, have a brother. Yes, replies a young man lying on a cushion in the first row. How enthusiastic of you, says the narrator. What is his name? Marc? So, what is the worst thing that Marc has ever done to you? Were you the stronger one? Did you hit him? Why don't we give him a call?! Marc answers the phone and his voice fills the theater. The narrator continues - Marc, I just want to ask you a question, what was the worst thing that your brother ever did to you?

Urban Myth had already organized earlier shows on fear, wrath and rebellion. Of all human emotions, however, it is the desire for revenge that seems to have become the most pressing issue in The Netherlands today, claims the maker of the Revenge Festival.

Jorgen Tjon A Fong: "Well, the attitude towards revenge is changing in Holland. The deal we had a few years ago is that if you had a problem you complained to the police, they researched it and eventually put it through to the judge. And what happened last year was that a few supermarket employees here in Holland saw a shoplifter. They followed him to the street and bashed him. He was really, really wounded. And the public reacted very positively towards that case. That was a kind of revenge and the attitude towards that revenge was really positive.

There was also an incident in the East of Amsterdam in which a thief was killed on the spot.

Jorgen Tjon A Fong: There was also a thief in Amsterdam who took a lady's purse from a car, and she backed her car up and killed the thief. And that was an unfortunate accident, but people everywhere were enthusiastic about it, that "finally somebody did something against it". And that is what surprised me, because people were actually applauding revenge. And that's what confuses me, because if you follow that concept, you get a very strange atmosphere and a very strange society. Because you can't always pay back what the other did to you. Because that only leads to a confrontation and escalation as well."

As the lights went up, I asked a viewer sitting next to me whether her opinion about revenge had changed after the Revenge Festival.

"Whether my opinion about revenge has changed? No, it has not changed. Because it already was very complicated to me. It sounds very easy - "revenge is bad", but revenge can also be very subtle."

Azalee Shirwa singing:

Either way, I've got to say, every story has two ways. Let's Listen to both. Lets' give them a chance.

In the background: Music by Armando Ruiz Martinez and Azalee Shirwa from the film Olifant (2006) by Hidde Simons.

Separate quality musical files to diffuse through the story (Kornienko Revenge Festival Thyestes Orchestral Music and Kornienko Revenge Festival Thyestes Electrobic Music) are by Jeroen van Olffen, It Won't Stop Productions.