A Review-Analysis Milo Rau’s Orestes in Mosul (premiere: April 17, 2019)
What is tragedy today? Where is it located?
Tragedy is certainly no longer found among great men… are there even any great men left?
No. Tragedy – at least according to the thesis put forth by Milo Rau and his team at NTGent – can only be found outside of its borders, on the peripheries, in those places torn apart by Western wars in the name of oil and power.
The West is blind to real tragedies.
This is precisely the thesis that brought Milo Rau and his team to Mosul, Iraq – a city torn apart by war, oil, and regimes – for their production Orestes in Mosul. Mosul has only recently liberated from ISIS forces and still lying in ruins and whose origins date back literally thousands of years (by 2025 BCE[i] the city was already an established metropolis), well before Greek society took its first shaky steps and over a millennium before the birth of Aeschylus (b. 523 BCE). This city becomes the stage for a drastic retelling of Aeschylus’s Oresteia trilogy. Oresteia – consisting of Agamemnon, Libation Bearers, and The Eumenides – deals with fate, revenge, family, and justice, Orestes in Mosul transplants these themes into the real world.
Much like Lam Gods, the play reframes the city using a piece of classic art, but whereas Lamb Gods uses the Van Ecke brothers’ famous altarpiece, Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, Orestes in Mosul uses one of the canonical pieces of theatre from the European theatre tradition. Orestes in Mosul is therefore more a production about a city and its people than it is a staging of Oresteia – only employing about 20% of the original text – but the classic text serves as a framework to explore how religion, beliefs, family, and even justice remain contentious themes within the daily lives of the city’s inhabitants.
The story of the city is intertwined with the story of its people.
Its ruined monuments representative of the sorrows and losses of its people.
Mosul is itself surrounded by a mythology – a story far away from NTGent’s audience, one only accessible in snapshots found in newspapers, online, and on the news. It is a city divorced from the humanity of its people, from the splendor of its history, and is instead marked only by its images of violence to the extent that violence seems to be an almost natural part of the city. The production searches for humanity, using its actors to show the city through the stories of its people told in their voices and their language (with English and Dutch subtitles).
The story of Mosul is the story of its people and it is a story of occupation, invasion, intervention, and resistance.
Orestes in Mosul explores:
How does real-world experience fit into mythic structures?
What does a production need to do to present this experience in absolutely concrete terms?
Orestes in Mosul breaks the three plays of Oresteia apart, it rewrites scenes, re-inscribes characters, and seeks to find a way to articulate the realities of modern horrors (war, occupation, liberation, legacies of fallen regimes and international power struggles) within ancient tragedy.
Select scenes from Agamemnon, Libation Bearers, and The Eumenides are enacted by the actors from Mosul, Ghent, and Bochum, as new scenes from the tragedy are created by Rau and his team. The adaptation works to show the heroic figures of the antique text in an almost uncomfortably human light. True to Rau’s mise-en-scene, Orestes in Mosul features actors both as themselves, in personal monologues about their experiences with the source material and in Mosul – as well as the figures from
Greek mythology. The production employs a mix of live and pre-recorded material. The live actors – meaning those physically present in the theatre for the performance – portray many of the central figures of the trilogy: Agamemnon (Johan Leysen), Clytemnestra (Elsie de Brauw), Aegisthus (Bert Luppes), Orestes (Risto Kübar), Pylades (Duraid Abbas Ghaieb), and Cassandra (Susana AbdulMajid) with Marijke Pinoy portraying a housekeeper (a sort of amalgamation of the many servants who are present in the trilogy). While pre-recorded scenes feature the Mosul actors: Iphigenia (student actor Baraa Ali), the watchman (photographer Khalid Rawi – split with Bert Luppes in Ghent), Athena (Khitam Idress), and the chorus (Ahmed Abdul Razzaq Hussein, Hatal Al-Hianey, Younis Anad Gabori, Mustafa Dargham, Abdallah Nawfal, Mohamed Sallim, Rayan Shihab Ahmed, and Hassan Taha).[ii] Because the Mosul actors were not physically present – a point I will return to below – the production engages in a complex intermediality that attempted to negotiate the absence of Mosul and the Mosulians (which became one of the major problems with the production). Mosul is therefore marked by the filmic and bolstered by the two Europe-based Iraqi actors in the production, Duraid Abbas Ghaieb (Pylades) – who has lived in Europe since 2007, but is was born and raised in Bagdad – and Susana AbdulMajid (Cassandra) – a German-Iraqi actress whose family is originally from Mosul but who was born in Europe.
Intermedial interaction thus becomes key to how the actors speak and interact to their Mosul counterparts during the performance and is part of the piece’s internal choreography.
This intermediality results is some truly beautiful interactions marked by an almost undetectable shift from pre-recorded to live and back again – something I have come to expect from Rau. For example, in the Agamemnon section, the camera pans into the restaurant on the grounds of a hotel complex constructed by Saddam Hussein to house diplomats and guests, where Rau and the team from NTGent stayed[iii], to Agamemnon, Clytemnestra, Aegisthus, and Cassanda eating dinner together. The
video projected above the stage shifts to the actors live in the onstage recreation of the restaurant (switching to a live feed being filmed onstage) and shifting back again for Cassanda’s double (both live and pre-recorded) monologue and murder.
Almost all of the scenes from Oresteia where filmed in Mosul with minimal reenactment of the pre-filmed scenes on the European stage, which often employs doubling through live echoes of the pre-recorded monologues.
This careful shift between human and mediation also allows for a complex exploration of the trilogy’s central themes such as revenge and justice
The difference between revenge and justice are called into question, as are the simple classifications of heroes and villains. Clytemnestra is no longer the unfaithful monster and unnatural woman of so many productions, she is hurt. She is mourning the loss of her daughter, she hates her husband for killing Iphigenia, she is hurt by his relationship with Cassandra, and she finds comfort during her ten-year abandonment in the arms of Aegisthus. The murder of Agamemnon is both an act of justice and revenge. Similarly, Orestes, the great hero of the trilogy, becomes more complex and problematic: a young man filled with anger at the feeling of rejection, sent away from his home by his mother. Although the murder of Clytemnestra is a form of justice for his father, it is also an act of revenge for himself on the mother who rejected him. The actual murders – which in Aeschylus and all Greek tragedy occurred off-stage – always occur onto on stage, on screen, or on both simultaneously. But these murders are neither grand nor heroic. We watch the slow death of someone strangled to death (Iphigenia), someone left to bleed out (Agamemnon), and someone shot in the head (Cassandra).
Tragedy happening in real time is less monumental and more uncomfortable.
These more complex relationships are revealed through the new scenes created by Rau and his team – an awkward family dinner with Clytemnestra, Aegisthus, and Cassandra upon Agamemnon’s return home or an aged Aegisthus and Clytemnestra preparing for bed while Orestes and Pylades prepare their trap outside.
None of these characters are monsters and their motivations are never simple.
So, in this new complex adaptation:
What is the difference between justice and revenge?
Who gets to decide?
Who is responsible for implementing justice for the people?
Orestes in Mosul uses the murders of Agamemnon by Clytemnestra and the murder of Clytemnestra by Orestes to look at war and civil conflict. It is interesting to note that these characters whose actions create so much strife and suffering are played by European actors, while the Furies unleashed by the death of Clytemnestra, the chorus of Athenian judges, and the goddess Athena are the Iraqi actors from Mosul. The final judgement of Orestes is thus returned to the people of Mosul, a people whose nation has been torn apart by war and are ready for peace. Beyond the simple enactment of The Eumenides, the production asks what justice actually means within the context of modern-day Mosul and doesn’t attempt to offer a simple explanation, but rather reveals the impossibility of finding justice while standing in a city ruined by war. And although questions of justice are certainly present in the Global North, they don’t ever really effect and involve the entire society; whereas in Mosul they stand entirely and undeniably at the fore. These decisions are immediate and impact people across the society, because the crimes and atrocities committed affected the entire society.
Mosul was only liberated from the IS in July 2017. During the occupation, countless atrocities were committed by the IS: young women were kidnapped to be the fighters’ brides, public executions became commonplace, and people lost their rights and freedoms: music became illegal, women had their rights taken away, gay men were thrown from roofs[iv]. The story of Mosul is thus a story of survival and the necessary concessions, sacrifices, and uncomfortable collaborations its people made to survive.
Thus, the liberation of Mosul is inevitably accompanied by the judgment of the ISIS fighters –young men from the West as well as those from Iraq who joined them and committed these atrocities. But it is also marked by the dual impossibility of justice and forgiveness. It is about how do we judge those people responsible for deaths of thousands of people (many of which were also caused by the liberators)?
The people who collaborated?
So who do you punish and how do you decide? When everyone has been effected and everyone has lost someone, you are faced with an impossibility because tragedy on a singular basis is manageable, but tragedy en masse… well that’s another story.
One of the most powerful scenes of the production is when – following the performance of Orestes’ pardon by the goddess Athena and her Athenian judges in The Eumenides – Khitam Idress (who plays Athena) asks the members of the chorus what they think should be done with the former IS fighters: Punishment or pardon? The group’s opinion, like in Eumenides, is divided but only when it comes to the question of who should be responsible for completing the punishment: everyone wants justice, but no one wants the blood on their hands.
Orestes in Mosul is also a story of about witnessing. People like Khalid Rawi, the Mosul photographer who plays the Watchman (a figure wearily waiting for a signal for the fall of Troy), describes how he risked his life taking and sharing photographs of what the IS was doing in Mosul during the occupation. To a certain extent, the Western spectator is forced into the position of witness – although Rau is merciful to the extent we only see performative moments of violence enacted in Oresteia, and we do not see the video of the car bomb the actors watch on their cell phone at the end of the piece or anything too unbearable – looking at previously unseen images of the city.
Orestes in Mosul is scenically beautiful production it incorporates the careful interaction of live and pre-recorded action, including music played by a group of Iraqi musicians[v] that swells off the screen and into the theatre. Beautiful scenes of Mosul are projected onto the screen. It is o an incredibly ambitious project that seeks to close a gap that exists between Europe and the Middle East: Rau’s global ensemble. It embraces the long history of Mosul. It sees Rau and a team from NTGent travel to Mosul. I think it attempts to do something very important, particularly in a theatre that describes itself as a city-theatre of the globalized world, it attempts to extend outwards, outside of Belgium and Europe, and make actual contact with the people out there. However, in the case of Orestes in Mosul, I’m not sure that the production was entirely successful in what it attempted to do for an absolutely concrete reason:
I’ll begin with a quote from Rau:
“How can we consume the Iraqi oil and the media images, with the help of cheap
labour force, without creating a direct, human contact? A global economy also needs a global artistic solidarity, as problematic and questionable as it may be.”[vi]
Rau’s productions and his entire mise-en-scène are presence-based, this was precisely what worked so well in Lam Gods and what was so strikingly missing in Orestes in Mosul:
the presence of the actors… of the city.
Watching Orestes, I was immediately struck by this absence, by an overwhelming sense that something was missing, that something wasn’t quite right…
it didn’t feel complete…
it felt problematic.
Orestes in Mosul is a play about Mosul – about its history, its inheritance, and its people a city – but it is a play that had to negotiate the troubling absence of the city and its people. The problem is that, in Europe and the West, our primary experience with Mosul is through the media and, therefore, the vast majority of us only see Mosul on television and computer screens. The problem is that these medial representations are (largely) carefully controlled and moderated by Western journalists and expectations, and this production didn’t feel like it challenged or countered this. It still felt like Western theatre-makers controlling what was seen and it didn’t create that sudden striking reduction of distance that comes with the physical presence of people onstage – that confrontation on a very human, eye-to-eye level – which is what I think the dramaturgical concept demanded…
Or what I wanted…
The European actors thus had to take a more central role in the staging, which made the production almost too easy for European audiences to watch, because they – to an extent – become the heroes.
This critique is difficult for me because the idea of Orestes in Mosul is so filled with potential and promise. This difficultly comes from having seen seen what Rau’s work can do when it’s functioning at top capacity. How effective and jarring the revelatory dramaturgy of the productions are when you, as a spectator, are suddenly confronted in absolutely concrete and undeniable terms by the actor. So much of Rau’s mise-en-scène centers around the question: What does this body mean in this role at this moment? Why this actor? Why this scene? Why now? So much emerges from this convergence of time, place, and situation, and it subverts our expectations. Rau’s work always deals with absence (missing images) but it does so by finding a way to fill in the gap in material terms, by creating a materiality to fill in the void[vii]. However, this sort of convergence can only exist under certain conditions and it just wasn’t possible for Orestes in Mosul because of the impossibility of acquiring visas for the Mosul actors (“So great is the governments’ fear that they might apply for asylum or go underground”[viii]).
After the production, I had a long discussion with Mahdieh Fahimi, a freelance reviewer and writer in Ghent, who also felt this frustration. She made an excellent point: Any production about Mosul (or anywhere outside Europe for that matter) created for and produced by a city-theatre in Europe is in some way about Europe and its European audience.
So, what does Orestes in Mosul tell us about Western Europe?
What does it say about its audience?
What about Mosul?
I’m not entirely sure. I’m resistant to say that the figure of Orestes represents IS fighters and his love affair with Pylades representative of disenfranchised young men in Western Europe’s infatuation with the acceptance promised by extremist ideology and Clytemnestra the West, overthrowing the previous regime and taking power for themselves… this analysis kind of works but it just feels too easy, because, in my experience, Rau is never easy, his mise-en-scène is always layered and merits a second viewing.
Then we come to the problem of the centrality of the white, European actors:
Maybe in telling the tragedy of Mosul, you have to have people representative of the beginnings of the ISIS tragedy: i.e., white Europeans… Belgians. Because in one of the first videos from ISIS – the one where they beheaded a European journalist, British I think – you can hear Flemish in the background. In Oresteia, the tragedy begins with a war between Greece and Troy, a foreign invader who sacrificed his own daughter for the destruction of a city. The European actors are the murderers, they enact their justice-revenge, tearing cities apart, killing each other and bystanders (the chorus) in the process: a desperate pursuit of power (and oil).
The chorus of Iraqi actors remain silent throughout the enactments until the final Eumenides enactment, when the chorus (the art students from Mosul University) and Ahitam Idress’s Athena (who was herself a part of ISIS for six months and now works in the camps where the ISIS wives are being kept) decide to pardon (but not unanimously) Orestes. Agency is thus apparently returned to the people of Mosul, but I’m not sure… You have to be aware that at the end of the day it’s still a European theatre going to Mosul and inserting a European structure and a beloved classic of the European theatre into a city that’s past twenty years have been marked (and I mean the city has been physically scarred) by the attempted insertion (and continuous failure) of Western structures through Western intervention[ix]. (I think it’s important when we discuss this sort of theatre to be aware of and engage with this kind of issue, because too often we as critics and spectators don’t look past the good intention of this sort of art to see how it could be problematic and can potentially uphold a colonial/Eurocentric system.)
But maybe that’s the point?
Maybe it’s the point that Agamemnon (played by Leysen, a white actor) is killed by another white actor (de Brauw’s Clytemnestra), while AbdulMajid’s Cassandra and several chorus members are mere causalities in their feud. Perhaps the point is that Risto Kübar’s – who was born in Estonia, who suffers from chronic pain, and who felt like an outsider in Estonia because of his sexuality – Orestes returns from his exile to kill Clytemnestra both for his father but also in the hopes of alleviating a personal pain – a hurt, a rejection. Maybe it’s the point that the European actors play characters who kill each other and bystanders with little regard, while Mosul actors are just witnesses to the violence brought onto them.
Perhaps all these perhapses are part the problem, it just wasn’t quite concrete enough.
Perhaps the finger wasn’t being pointed back on the audience quiet enough.
Perhaps it felt too much like a group of white actors going to over the “teach” Iraqi actors how to act? (which inevitably falls into the uncomfortable colonial and neo-colonial rhetoric)
Perhaps it was.
I don’t know…
Maybe the tragedy of a progressive and globalized theatre is the impossibility to represent these issues and performatively engage in this discussion without – at least in some way –falling back into the system it tries to critique.
The physical absence of both Mosul and its people was just a huge obstacle for Rau and his team, because watching the production
I wanted to hear more from the Iraqi participants.
I wanted to learn more about Mosul and the people there.
I really longed for something outside mediality.
Film was the only way to show the actors and the city, but it meant that, in a production about Mosul, we could – as always – only access Mosul and its people through video. Therefore, there remains a very real and problematic wall between the play’s intended European audience and those people it tries to represent that even the time spent filming in Mosul couldn’t overcome. But, in all fairness, it really couldn’t.
And this isn’t to say that there weren’t some absolutely beautiful interactions between screen and stage: the watchman’s monologue as it jumps, is shared, is doubled, and echoes between Luppes live on stage and Rawi in the video, or Cassandra’s execution (again a doubled monologue between AbdulMajid live on the stage and in the video) in which she collapses on the stage, blood trickling down her chest, after she is shot in the video.
I mean, when it worked it really worked, but when it didn’t, it was frustrating because I wanted it to so badly.
Daniel Demoustier and Johan Leysen; Photo Credit: Daniel Demoustier
Orestes in Mosul is an image-based production. It is about creating images of a real-world tragedy and showing its audiences images that stretch beyond what they expect and what they have seen before.
And in this creation of images, I would say the production is extremely successful.
We do see a city that – despite its destruction – is still very much alive,
And still fighting to survive.
Returning to the question about what this production does for Western Europe, Orestes shows its audience the story of Mosul is far from over.
Just because the city has been freed from ISIS doesn’t mean we’ve reached the end of the story.
The city is still very much alive and moving forward.
We become witnesses to its perseverance.
The most powerful moments of the production are not the enactments of the source text[x], but the stories we hear from the actors in Mosul and the images of the city itself: Images that by-and-large do not exist outside of the occasional sensational snapshot. We see image upon image of the ruined city: bombed out shells of buildings, ruins of historical sites. But just as scenes from Oresteia are performed in these crumbling buildings and rubble-filled streets (art seems to find a way), we also see people continuing to exist and trying to negotiate their existence within the city.
The strongest scene is, in my opinion, a direct plea to witness from the recording of a conversation with an ISIS bride – the kidnapped friend of Baraa Ali mentioned in the first interview of the show. Ghaieb and Kübar listen to the audio of a talk recorded while visiting a camp far outside Mosul, where former ISIS women are being held. She talks about what happened after she was taken, her husband, and how she’s sent her two children away. In the recording, she tearfully pleads her visitors to tell people what is happening in the camp, about people like her “without a future”, about the inhuman conditions she faces in the camp, she sobs “When will this end? […] Please help us. Tell others what happens.”
Her words echo through the audience.
“Suffer and learn, that’s what Aeschylus writes. But what can we learn?” says the production.
The final section of the play is titled Exodos and it is, to a certain extent, a rather surprising reflection on the nature of the production: Namely, at the end of the day, while the Ghent team left Mosul, Mosul keeps happening.
In the final moments of the production, Ghaieb and Kübar watch a video of a car bomb on their cell phone. One of the two actors – Kübar I think – comments that when watching the video, it doesn’t feel like he’s watching something that really happened: “It’s so immense that it doesn’t reach me.” Perhaps this is the message that needs to be taken from the production and also the main critique of the production: the immenseness of the destruction, of the loss of life, of the sheer scale of tragedy surrounding Iraq and Mosul in everything that has happened since Saddam Hussein, the American Invasion, and most recently ISIS is just so immense that video and medial documents – the medium through which we access it – becomes utterly insufficient.
We become numb to it, because it feels so far away, so immense, and so unrelenting that when we watch it, it just doesn’t feel real.
We are disconnected.
We accept it and become blind to it.
But we have to see it.
We have to understand it in its immenseness.
So, maybe in response to the question, “What does tragedy look like today,” the only answer is that real, non-theatrical tragedy is like Kübar’s chronic pain. Just a constant hurt that never really lets up. It is not a single easily definable act, but a chain of many moments with many actors. It is the sorrow of a destroyed city that doesn’t dissipate. Today’s tragedy is largely out of sight for us in the West (despite our role in it): It is easy to ignore because it seems so very far away.[xi]
The production is undeniably important in that it attempts break down this blindness and this emotional blockage that surrounds this sort of massive tragedy and destruction[xii], but it also inevitably falls short of its lofty goals. It is in this way clever that the production is staged as a making-of (about the staging in Mosul). The distance between Ghent and Mosul is extremely difficult to overcome when its Mosul actors remain so far away and trapped in the video. I applaud the actors and the entire team for what they accomplished both in Ghent and in Mosul. This is a fine piece of theatre that is worth watching, but we owe it to the lofty aspirations of the production to be critical of it.
I think my concern with Orestes in Mosul is: Without the actual actors what do we learn?
Is it too easy to watch and then leave behind as theatre?
I’m not sure, but I am – by nature – optimistic. I am optimistic that this production is more than just a gesture and will lead to future collaborations and creations between Ghent and its Mosul actors, that this single act will lead to more acts. It may not be perfect, but it is something and it is certainly a place to start.
But then again, maybe I just have too much faith in the theatre to start the conversation…
Orestes in Mosul Credits:
Onstage: Duraid Abbas Ghaieb, Susana AbdulMajid, Elsie de Brauw, Risto Kübar, Johan Leysen, Bert Luppes, Marijke Pinoy
Musicians on video: Suleik Salim Al-Khabbaz, Saif Al-Taee, Firas Atraqchi, Nabeel Atraqchi, Zaidun Haitham
Actors on video: Araa Ali, Khitam Idress, Khalid Rawi
Chorus: Ahmed Abdul Razzaq Hussein, Hatal Al-Hianey, Younis Anad Gabori, Mustafa Dargham, Abdallah Nawfal, Mohamed Saalim, Rayan Shihab Ahmed, Hassan Taha
Text: Milo Rau and ensemble
Direction: Milo Rau
Dramaturgy: Stefan Bläske
Costume: An De Mol
Licht: Dennis Diels
Film: Moritz von Dungern, Daniel Demoustier, Joris Vertenten
[i] According to Wikipedia, so… take with grain of historically inaccurate salt
[ii] It is interesting that Rau and his team chose to cut the character of Electra in favour of the addition of Iphigenia, who isn’t present in the original source text (she’s sacrificed prior to Agamemnon’s opening and therefore only discussed and never seen). Although Electra is one of the most beloved of all tragic characters, you don’t miss her in the production as her dialogue is partially combined with Pylades and only a small portion of the original text is actually used (about 20%).
[iii] Again, there is technically lots to be unpacked there but not enough time to do so…
[iv] This is a specific example mentioned in the production where a group of gay men were killed being thrown from the roof of a former luxury mall that used to be where the people of Mosul could buy all the goods available in the West.
[v] Suleik Salim Al-Khabbaz, Saif Al-Taee, Firas Atraqchi, Nabeel Atraqchi, and Zaidun Haitham
[vi] Milo Rau, “Why Orestes in Mosul?” Program.
[vii] Think La Reprise, where the void surrounding the actual murder of Ihsane Jarfi is examined and then reconstructed using physical evidence, witness statements, and fictionalization of certain impossible elements.
[viii] Rau, “Why Orestes in Mosul”.
[ix] And this applies to not only to the American invasion, but also to the powers that put Saddam in power as well as ISIS itself (many of whose fighters came from Europe and the wider West).
[x] Although I must admit – as someone who has also worked with Oresteia – I am not actually a great fan of the source text.
[xi] Shameless plug of my ideas: there is certainly something to be said about the idea of “global tragedy” (which I think I heard Rau recently used somewhere, but I maintain is my term) that counters the form of tragedy that exceptionalizes tragedy within Western spaces and approaches tragedy as normal and somehow less tragic in “non-Western spaces” (again… think Notre Dame).
[xii] I mean really this is the fundamental question as to why the Notre Dame fire is a considered a great tragedy and within hours hundreds of millions of euros collected for its rebuilding, while the steady destruction of an entire city like Mosul (literally thousands upon thousands of years of human history) is just accepted and shrugged off.