An inside response of to the first days of Rampenlichter Tanz- und Theater Festival von Kindern und Jugendlichen
First and foremost: What is Rampenlichter?
First, Rampenlichter is a biennial dance and theatre festival for theatre and youth at Schwere Reiter Theater in Munich’s budding creative quarter.
Second, Rampenlicht is the German term for spotlight or limelight.
Rampenlichter offers its young participants the opportunity to stand in the limelight, front and centre in a society that so often dismisses them, pushes them to the side, and doesn’t take them seriously. Rampenlichter offers them the opportunity to be taken seriously, to share their thoughts and feelings about the past, present, and future, about the world they inhabit and will inherit. It offers them a space to speak and be heard.
Today marks the end of the fourth day of the fourteen-day festival (July 5 to 18, 2019): of hours spent adjusting nearly every light in the small theatre, of repeating the same gesture for hours on end, of nervous rehearsals, of early mornings, and eleventh-hour nerves in the hopes of creating something beautiful.
So, where am I in this festival?
I’m working as a stage manager, but not in the Canadian scene. In a different (maybe German, but probably specifically Rampenlichter) sense of helping in the theatre, helping the sound and lighting crew. This is now the third time I’ve done this job at this festival and my fifth time working at the festival in total.
So, I – sitting the theatre, waiting for the next opportunity to help – watch both the rehearsals and the performances. The festival’s Schirmherr – which roughly translates to patron (and not Umbrella Mister as I’ve been purposefully badly translating it) – Milo Rau stated in his video introduction to the festival that theatre (and dance… perhaps
performance in general) is what happens in the encounter between the performers and the audience. Yet as a “stage manager” at Rampenlichter, I find myself in a strange place to negotiate: I am there to help but am unable to do the actual technical work.
It is in the strangeness of this outsider position, where you are in the space but not as a part of the production or a spectator, that you see the transformative encounter of performer and spectator in its fullness. The forgotten lines, the imprecise movements, half-hearted gestures, the tepid line reads too quiet to be heard, and low (sometimes embarrassed) energy of young
people standing on a stage in an empty room that disappear and transform into a sort of perfection in the excitement of that encounter, of the togetherness of the performance with a laughing, living, breathing (responding) audience.
There is the additional encounter that hinges on the fact that at Rampenlichter a portion of the audience consists of the young artists from the other performances, who often seeing their festival colleagues in action for the first time. Leaning against the black metal rail of the audience, you hear and see these first excited responses to their fellow performers – whispers, giggles, that note-worthy and sudden shift between the starting half-interest and the mesmerized stares that follow those opening moments.
So, what is Rampenlichter?
Rampenlichter is an encounter, it is a moment to be heard.
It is young people critiquing the world they live in, the failures of past and present
generations, of the real issues in their lives.
It is a demand for change, because it is both their future and their present.
It is the extreme excitement of those first steps onto the stage.
It is the moment when the discomfort of standing in a small, sweltering hot theatre in the middle of summer, filled with over-heating stage lights and 165 people plus performers yet still giving into a suspension of disbelief, a moment of total engagement.
Rampenlichter is, for me, when the heat and stress of the day melt away (even if only for a second) to watch the magic that happens in this encounter, this mutual exchange of energy and ideas that emerge in the absolute potentiality of this single moment.
Rampenlichter is something I hold close to my heart, the festival team (Alexander Wenzlik, Elisabeth Hagl, and Sebastian Korp) have always taken me seriously despite – particularly in the early years – significant linguist (among other) struggles. They trusted me and my critical voice where others – even in English – have not. So, I, when it comes to Rampenlichter, have what I call festival amnesia, because every year there are inevitably days that are long and stressful, there are days when I’m exhausted and am just done. But still, after every performance, when I’m sitting at a table on the festival grounds the team (people I’ve known now for many years), when biking the 35 minutes back to my apartment, or lying in bed after drinking a far too strong cup of coffee, I think:
What is tragedy today? Where is it located? Can tragedy only be found on the peripheries? An analysis-review-response to Milo Rau’s “Orestes in Mosul”
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 thisbody 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
[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.
[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.
A critical response to Luk Perceval’s newest production “The Sorrows of Belgium I: Black”. How do we come to terms with our past? How to we represent horror? When is it time to apologize?
Luk Perceval’s The Sorrows of Belgium I: Black offers a performative exploration of Belgium’s troubling, unreconciled colonial past. The production uses the relatively unknown (and uncelebrated) figure of William Henry Sheppard – the oft-forgotten African-American missionary who spent around twenty years working in the Congo Free State and whose work was hugely influential in publicizing the atrocities being committed by the Belgians in the region – as the productions through line. Black explores this bloody colonial past as well as confronting the small nation’s
continued failure to acknowledge its “shared history with the DRC[i]” and the uncomfortable internalized racism underlying both Belgian and European[ii] society. The fragmented scenes of the play use bits and pieces of Sheppard’s texts and speeches as well as various other sources (Joseph Conrad, Jef Geeraerts, William Shakespeare, etc) and the actors themselves[iii]. Black is a complex production that presents its audience with the horrors unleashed by the Belgians onto the Congo in the name of empire and King Leopold II[iv] (1835-1909).
Black is a difficult production to unpack in its entirety.
It features a beautiful soundscape consisting of live music, various languages and dialects, breath, and sound. It features an impressive ensemble made up of Chris Thys, Peter Seynaeve, Tom Dewispelaere, Andie Dushime, Yolanda Mpelé, Aminata Demba, Nganji Mutiri, and Frank Focketyn. The production also features the extraordinary talent of musician Sam Gysel, who remains seated in the corner of the right side of the stage and provides the heartbeat of the production (drums, guitar, and instruments I couldn’t make up from the second balcony). The cast is neatly divided into half black actors – Andie Dushime, Yolanda Mpelé, Nganji Mutiri, and Aminata Demba – and half white actors – Chris Thys, Peter Seynaeve, Tom Dewispelaere, and Frank Focketyn – with each actor playing various roles throughout the production.
The evening has an undeniable pulse, with music, speech, and movement carefully intertwined. It jumps from utter madness – the actors dancing, singing, running, screaming, swinging from the ceiling, collapsing, crawling, hurtling themselves (or chairs) across the stage – to serious descriptions of murders, atrocities, and hands being chopped off. Languages and dialects fill the stage, overlapping, distracting and overpowering each other – it is noteworthy that the majority of the languages spoken onstage are the
languages of the colonizers (English, Dutch/Flemish, and French). Yet it also celebrates the necessity of silence. The silence that surrounds so much of Belgium history, particularly the colonial period. This silence is exemplified when, in the midst of the horror – in a stark break from the chaos that previously filled the stage – the eight actors huddle together for shelter from the rain on the pool table, for about one to two minutes, we listen to the pounding rain.
Isn’t that a beautiful metaphor for Belgium as colonizers?
A small pool table that barely takes up an eighth of the stage and yet somehow dominates it.
The production jumps at breakneck speed between scenes, but remains united through the figure of Sheppard (played with remarkable dexterity by both Yolanda Mpelé and Nganji Mutiri). It opens with the declaration “Ladies and Gentlemen!”, which recalls Sheppard’s cross continent speaking engagements about what was happening in the Congo. The early scenes of the performance inform the audience about the remarkable figure who carries them through the evening.
Sheppard – the cast tells us while singing a beautiful rendition of Fred McDowell’s blues classic, You Gotta Move[v] – was born in Waynesboro, Virginia in 1865 (the same year as the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment) and whose early life and education took place in the deeply segregated American South. He attended school in Alabama (Tuscaloosa Theological Institute) and preached in Atlanta, Georgia before leaving on a mission in the Congo with Samuel Lapsley (played by Seynaeve), a young white man from a wealthy
family. We are immediately aware that Sheppard’s experiences as a black man living in the South are vastly different than his fellow missionaries. The nickname given to Sheppard by the locals was Mudel Ndom (the Black white man) – indicative of his in-between-ness – and was more pragmatic than his white counterparts, he shot hippos to help feed those people he wanted to convert: “If I can save them from starvation, it will be easier to talk about Jesus”.
Sheppard was an outsider in the United States and when he left for the Congo (accompanied by primarily white missionaries) he remained an outsider: he did not fit into the conventional image of the white explorer or missionary. It is perhaps because of his experiences in the United States that he desperately wanted to escape from, that explains how while Lapsley and other missionaries give into despair, Sheppard is able to keep moving forward.
The play opens with a giant black curtain with a map of the Congo drawn on it in what looks like chalk and ropes snaking out towards the audience from underneath. This opening image is reminiscent of a blackboard in an old schoolhouse – which, within the context of colonialism holds its own nefarious implications. When Sheppard and Lapsley depart for the Congo, this curtain drops to the ground to reveal hundreds[vi] of ropes hanging from the ceiling and covering the stage. A lone pool table stands centre-stage and several wooden chairs.
The ropes are a powerful image. They evoke the image of vines in a jungle, but they also become whips with which the actors beat the ground. They recall the whips used by the Belgians (and by slave owners in the States). They recall scarred backs. And, they recall the terrible images of
lynchings in the American South: The beaten black bodies hanging from thick ropes[vii] like these ones, lynchings that happened in the very states where Sheppard grew up and worked as a young man. It is a powerful image when you consider Sheppard left the States to get away from the segregation and violence that these ropes represent only to enter a new forest filled with the same ropes and new cruelties.
The white actors provide an slice of the imperialistic brand of violent racial hatred as well as rhetoric and racial assumptions still heard today. Focketyn offers the most overtly brutal form of this racism. He fetishizes and violently eroticizing the black bodies he encounters. He explains the nickname given to him “Mbomo Fimbo” (which refers to his use of the whip), as part of the inherent laziness of the people
under him: “without a whip you couldn’t achieve anything at that time” (a direct quote from the Flemish author Jef Geeraerts). Although he offers the most overt and explicit example, each of other white characters eventually reveal themselves to be equally problematic: Seynaeve’s (as Lapsley) impassioned declaration that he will “civilize this place!” is revealed to mean that he wants to build a European city and just transplant European values into the Congo. Or Thys’ nun[viii] whose monologue about the finding a woman who’s been raped by a Belgian soldier that Dushime’s monologue counters with her own reflection on the callousness of these white women who worked with the church who – after she is raped her foot cut off – tell her, “you should be happy you are alive”.
The production does move slightly too close towards the white saviour[ix], but it always the good sense to swing back with a sudden striking blow of that good old-fashioned causal, everyday racism. Humour is key to the subversion that Perceval and his undertake of the comforting device of the white saviour. It serves as an entrance into the more
uncomfortable aspects of everyday racism, highlighting, without undercutting, them. Humour both breaks from the extreme tension and discomfort of previous moments –detailed descriptions rape, massacre, atrocity – but the joke is held just too long and shifts into the racist. It is extremely funny, until it is not.
Thys’s nun, who seemingly pulls the figure of Sheppard out of despair after his companion’s death, pulls the cast together encouraging them to join her in song and begins singing “Wimba Way” – which Fockeyn subsequently refuses to stop singing. The moment is condescending and steeped in a type of everyday racism (that this is “African Music”). But it was also just so typical – I actually laughed, covered my eyes, and audibly muttered “Jesus Christ!” from my seat.
Likewise, Lapsley’s energetic breakdown after finding the remnants of a terrible massacre is extremely funny. He sprints desperately around the stage crying screaming, throwing himself onto the stage, onto the pool table wearing nothing but in his underwear (and eventually with his underwear dragging around his ankles behind him). He declares that he will “civilize this place” and begins planning the new European city he will build here, naming parts of the stage: “This here will be Rue du Louise!” The hysteria cumulates in a call-and-response with the audience (“Rue du” points to audience “Louise”), but the absurdity takes sudden shift as Seynaeve screams a new call-and-response in Dushime’s and Demba’s faces, but this time screaming “I am a stupid black girl” (definitely more inflammatory) and making them yell it back before turning to the audience who this time do not respond (“Fine!”). Suddenly, the fundamentally good and positively represented Lapsley reveals his own racist assumptions and his underlying sense of superiority: Lapsley still believes that by bringing European society (language, religion, and institutions) to the Congo it will prevent such massacres and horrors. He fails to recognize that the party responsible for these “uncivilized” horrors are not the Congolese, but the Belgians, the Europeans, and their business partners.[x]
White characters always approach the Congolese as less than: not European and therefore quite human, the savage foil to the civilized Europeans, erotic and overly sexual women against prudish white women (“who could learn a thing or
two from these black girls”). The violence perpetrated by the Belgians is somehow always turned back around on the Congolese. It is never quite the Belgians’ or Europeans’ fault. They never really interact with the Dushime and Demba (who play the locals) and when they do it is condescending and unhelpful. Although it is harsh, it is in many ways an accurate portrayal of white society:
Although some of the characters may have good intentions, they are still part of the system and are therefore complicit in the atrocities that surround them.
It illustrates the relationship between Europe and its former colonies… between Europe and the DRC.
Dewispelaere[xi] yells “Rubber … Colbalt…” in the background of an early scene and Dushime stands on a chair and lists the terrible statistics of the transatlantic slave trade…
Congo has always had the misfortune of having those materials (Rubber, Labour, Colbalt) that Europeans wanted regardless of the cost in human life.
Dushime and Demba portray intelligent, self-aware characters. They respond logically to changing world around
them. They reflect on what is happening as the Belgians and Europeans enter their world. They feel the pain inflicted upon them. They reflect on the identity placed upon them: How the African identity was given to them by Europeans, how Africa and African is a word invented by Europeans. For each white saviour-esque monologue presented, these actors provide a counter-monologue that pushes against the colonizers’ insistence on black ignorance and instead reveal white ignorance.
Mpelé and Mutiri play Sheppard with a fantastic intensity. They are the ever-present figure that brings together the fragmented pieces of the production, who remain calm in the madness swirling around them. They are not unaffected, but they are calm (particularly in comparison to the white hysterics). Sheppard only loses control after the death of Lapsley. It is an incredible moment of anger, outrage – but
never the despair we have seen before. Something has to be done. When Sheppard finally breaks it is because he knows that something needs to happen, but it has to be about the visibility of horror. People need to know what is happening in the Congo and who is responsible. And, unlike Lapsley, Sheppard knows these atrocities being committed by the Belgians and King Leopold.
The final scene is arguably the most important part of the production and it is a natural progression from Sheppard’s story about shining a light onto the horrors of the Congo. Mpelé, Demba, Mutiri, and Dushime directly confront the audience about the past and the present. The actors talk to the audience about the racism that still exists today, the legacy of colonialism.
They ask: What has really changed?
The language has changed.
But the conversation that needs to happen still hasn’t.
Because Belgium and the Belgian monarchy has still not apologized to the Congo.
Sheppard has been cut out of most history books, only recently resurging. And while we cannot change history, and we might be ashamed of it, we still have to tell it.
Throughout the evening Black presents its audience with a detailed record of just some of crimes committed during the colonial period and while it is shocking, these stories are not just now emerging, they have been floating around for years – it’s just that people didn’t (and to an extent still don’t) want to listen.
The actors ask the audience: “Do you really see me?”
“As more than my skin?”
“As more than my hair?”
“As more than a symbol?”
The uncomfortable truth is that even the ensemble cast of Black is a political statement. It breaks away from the predominately white (i.e., homogenous) model of the European city-theatre ensemble. A structure that contains an undeniable systemic racism. All too often non-white actors are only brought on to play a specific role or to take part in specific projects. It is refreshing to see a diverse cast because European society as well as Belgian society is diverse. This is what Belgium and Europe actually looks like in 2019 and I’m really tired of watching old white men perform Shakespeare at city-theatres! Dushime, Mpelé, Mutiri, and Demba are phenomenal and are – as actors – a BIG win for the NTGent ensemble. On top of their talent, they mark the possibility of a younger, more vibrant ensemble that actually represents the society it is reflecting upon.
Isn’t that the whole point of theatre? To hold a mirror up to us as a society?
Black is – based on my understanding of theatre – good theatre. It is engaging and fun to watch, it makes you think, it says something, and it also does something – pushing against the existing ensemble-structure.
However, as is the case in so many of NTGent’s recent projects, the potential for a sustainable systemic shift is entirely dependent on the future – and NTGent has called itself The City-Theatre of the Future. On what happens next, on whether or not we get to keep seeing these actors in productions that aren’t not just about racism and blackness, but that feature these actors as actors. While white actors almost always perform and take on roles that are not about their whiteness, non-white actors aren’t given this option so much. As informed spectators, we also have to be weary of the segregation that happens in theatre, because as an institution and, therefore, susceptible to systemic racism. We have to be willing to engage with our theatre and with uncomfortable conversations to make sure we are not seeing the duplication of colonial discourse that we’ve been hearing for centuries years. As spectators, we are responsible for facilitating theatre that both says and does something:
Passivity on the side of the oppressors is still oppression (to poorly quote the production)!
Black is named after the first colour the Belgian flag (Black – Red – Yellow), but it is also a term riddled with colonial, imperialist rhetoric. Africa – a nation that, as the production itself points out, was given its name by European and whose own inhabitants had no say or control in the name given to their continent or themselves – was referred to as the “Dark Continent” (a foil to the “Enlightened” Europe). Black – as an outsider, an Other, a foil to European whiteness – is a European invention (just like, as the production states, the N-word was). Black is excluded, segregated, pushed out of sight, out of history, and off the stage. But Perceval’s Black places the very construction of blackness front and centre. Black is a fearless production and while it might not always go far enough in its confrontation, it is excellent starting point in a necessary and long overdue conversation.
The final act of Black asks its audience: “Do you really see me?”
And it’s about time that Belgium officially answered.
[i] I am borrowing “Belgium’s failure to acknowledge its shared history with the DRC” from the Congolese choreographer Faustin Linyekula
[ii] In many ways, as the heart of the European Union (Brussels is the capital of the EU and houses its headquarters) and with its three official languages and dark past, Belgium serves as an apt metaphor for Europe – serving as a miniaturized version of it.
[iii], Text by/from: Wiliam Shappard, Steven Heene, Fiston Mwanza Mujila, Luk Perceval, Nganji Mutiri, Aminata Demba, inspired by James Baldwin, Kate Tempest, Lucas Catherine, Gil Scott-Heron, Léonora Miano, Pagan Kennedy, Joseph Conrad, Jef Geeraerts, Giordano Bruno, William Shakespeare, Jean-Paul Sartre, Aimé Césaire and sister Adonia. (Program)
[iv] Yet Leopold himself is completely absent from the production.
[vi]This could be an exaggeration, but there are a lot of ropes.
[vii] I remember being shown these images very clearly in high school.
[viii] might not be a nun, might be a female missionary
[ix] White Saviour Complex: “The white savior is a self-confirming and narcissistic narrative pattern in which people of colour in or originating from non-Western societies are saved form the perilous situations by white people. It can be seen in such films as ‘Cry Freedom’, ‘Mississippi Burning’ and even ’12 Years a Slave’ (Brad Pitt saves the day!). Also in Instagram shots of white NGO volunteers surrounded by photogenic African children. Closer to home, we associate it with the fact that it is above all white men who tend to speak out against Muslim women’s headscarves, without knowing what the women themselves them.” (The fabulous definition in the program for Vooruit’s Same Same But Different festival)
[x] This scene parallels an earlier scene with another missionary played by Dewispelaere who chases the actors around the stage – hurtling chairs at them[x] – screaming “Fuck the Belgians!” Eventually turning his malice onto the audience, storming towards them yelling “Fuck the Belgians” (and I have to admit this made me laugh but I might have been the only one). Unlike Lapsley, Dewispelaere’s missionary understands the Belgians are responsible for these atrocities but accepts his inability to actually change things and instead gives into madness and despair.
[xi] If I have mixed up which actor did what in the ensemble – particularly the white, male actors – I apologize, there’s a lot happening in this show.
What is the effect of watching a live radio broadcast? What about a broadcast from Rwanda during the hottest day of the Genocide? A response to Milo Rau’s much celebrated 2011 production “Hate Radio”
I have an interesting relationship with Milo Rau and the International Institute of Political Murder’s 2011 production Hate Radio. I’ve given conference presentations and lectures about Hate Radio, read the text, watched the film version of the production, broken down the script, and read transcripts from the International Criminal Court of Radio-Télévision Libre des Mille Collines broadcasts to find specific passages quoted directly in the production. I’ve read the production dossier, performance reviews, and articles about the production. I’ve researched the genocide, the role of the media, and the radio station.
I know Hate Radio backward and forwards. I theoretically understand what it does and how it does it. But I’d never seen Hate Radio live.
But this week, as part of Ghent’s “Same Same But Different Festival” (a festival organized by CAMPO, Vooruit, NTGent, and Black Speaks Back) focused around the theme of decolonialism in Belgian theatre, Hate Radio returned to the stage.
For those who don’t know the production: Hate Radio examines the 1994 Rwandan Genocide through the lens of the pro-genocide radio station Radio-Télévision Libre des Mille Collines (RTLM). The production is what Rau calls a reenactment. It brings three of the station’s most infamous hosts – Kantano Habimana (played by Diogène Ntarindwa), Valérie Bemeriki (Bwanga Pilipili), and the Italian-Belgian (and only white) moderator Georges Riggiu (Sébastien Foucault) – and DJ Joseph Rudatsikira[i] (Afazli Dewaele) return to the airwaves for a single broadcast. The actors – the Rwandan actors in the production are survivors and exiles of the genocide – sit together in a sixteen-meter square glass box: a replica of RTLM’s Kigali studio based on sketches by Valérie Bemeriki. The actors wear headphones, speak into microphones, scribble down notes, take calls, laugh, make jokes, and play music. It has all the makings of a normal – at times boring[ii] – radio show, the sort of talk radio that could be heard anywhere with the token cynicism, sarcasm, and aggression of nineties’ pop culture. You are literally watching a live broadcast of a radio show, where – outside of the, at times, non-linear conversation – absolutely nothing happens. [iii]
However, you are immediately struck by the use of language. This was a radio station operating in the hottest days of the genocide. One that supported the mass killing and extreme violence, while also aiding and abetting[iv] in the murder of between 800,000 and 1,000,000.
It goes without saying that there is something fundamentally different in the experience of watching and reading a play or even watching a recording or a live performance.
That being said: After spending three years reading and writing about Hate Radio, I went into the performance on Tuesday thinking that I more or less understood it and knew what to expect.
Hate Radio opens and closes with a series of pre-taped monologues projected onto the sides of the on-stage studio. These composite monologues (monologues composed from various sources, largely from interviews conducted by Rau and his team while researching and rehearsing the production) discuss the days before the genocide, the genocide, and its aftermath. These monologues describe the ruthlessness of the genocide – the inexplicable nature of the atrocities committed between April 7 and July 15, 1994 – and the role played by RTLM. They describe the coolness of the station – moderators who swore (which was unheard of in the extremely Catholic nation), spoke easily and spontaneously, and played the best music. But, they also describe how moderators encouraged violence and dehumanized the Tutsis. The monologues set the scene for the atmosphere constructed by the live broadcast[v] that is the core reenactment of Hate Radio.
The blinds of the studio slowly raise and the lights in the studio flick on, revealing the three moderators and a soldier frozen in place. DJ Joseph sits alone in his booth, poised in front of a soundboard, tape player and phone. The booth is much grimier than visible in the film. There are small cracks in the wall, visible wires, a mess of dusty cables, a flashing neon Virgin Mary statue, a crudely drawn map of Rwanda on a whiteboard in the studio with notes stuck to it, and bottles of beer and coffee on a trolley in the corner. There is nothing spectacular about the studio, yet it undeniably a nineties-era studio: Boxes of old tapes, a Simon Bikindi tape leans against the glass wall on one side of the booth, Snoop Dogg and Tupac posters hang on the wall.
Watching Hate Radio live is an incredible experience.
You listen to the production through a small handheld radio, literally plugged into the performance you are watching. It is incredibly and strangely immersive.
In truth, you are watching nothing more than a live broadcast – sometimes captivating and other times utterly boring – in a glass box containing the studio.
Realistically, you don’t really need the headphones or radio to hear the actors. Although they are somewhat muffled by the glass box, if you take off your headphones they are still audible.
The theatre is filled with a soundscape of rain (April in Kigali is the rainiest month) and crickets that you can only hear if you take off your headphones. It is as if you were standing outside in Rwanda.
It is eery because, as a spectator, you are accessing the rhetorical medium of the genocide through the actual, physical medium – using the same device as the murderers.
Although Hate Radio is a reenactment, it is not a one-to-one recreation of the real RTLM. It is an entirely new broadcast, not the performance of an existing transcript (although Rau does pull parts of monologues and conversations verbatim from transcripts of broadcasts before and during the genocide[vi]). Reenactment in terms of Rau’s work refers to the recreation of atmosphere, which is a concept with a firm foundation in memory: i.e., How the radio station is remembered by those who heard it or listened to it rather than actual historical fact. Instead of a real (100% historically accurate) copy, Rau creates a popular radio station in line with what this station would look like in today’s world. This present-based reenactment reflects how people remember (or perhaps misremember) the station – the past is always remembered through the lens of the present. The production recalls the specific atmosphere of the genocide while illustrating in real time on an absolutely pragmatic and rhetorical level how racism functions.
It illustrates just how easily people can be “talked out of” their humanity[vii].
Hate Radio is extremely successful in both showing this racism and implicating its audience in it.
Even if you know the play…
Even if you know what it is trying to do…
Even if you understand the implication of the script in terms of real human life…
Even if you know about the Rwandan Genocide and the role the media played in it…
Even if you know all of this, it is almost impossible not to be carried away when you are sitting in the theatre with your radio.
The music is undeniably catchy and when songs like Nirvana’s “Rape Me”, Reel to Reel’s “I Like to Move It”, and Joe Dassin’s “Le Dernier Slow” switches from the radio to the theatre’s central sound system and fills the theatre it is hard not to tap your foot or bob slightly to the music. It is difficult not to forget – just for a second – what you are watching.
This is especially true when Ntarindwa’s Kantano Habimana and Foucault’s Georges Ruggiu are carried away by the music: When they dance along, pump their fists in the air, grab the microphones dramatically pretend to sing along, or sing (often badly) with the music.
On the first night that I watched the production when Ntarindwa started dancing, audience members laughed… and it is admittedly difficult not to smile at his enthusiastic dance moves or Foucault’s own chair dances and fist-pumping. When the music swelled up, and out of the radio you feel a palpable shift in the audience, a short-lived wave of relief that is then completely undone when the music ends and the talk returns to extermination, rape, and cockroaches [Inyenzi] (the moderators’ term for the Tutsi, which is used 24 times throughout the entire production[viii]). When the moderators continue their emphatic calls to action, encouraging their listeners to show the enemy no mercy, and revealing where Tutsis are hiding.
This shift between the light-hearted dancing and catchy music is enough to give you whiplash.
The Rwandan Genocide – as many of the themes that Rau and the IIPM explore in their productions and projects – is inexplicable, an incomprehensible level of hatred and violence. Hate Radio doesn’t really attempt to explain the genocide – because, in one hour and forty minutes, it just can’t – instead, it shows how easily the of violence and hatred seeds can be sown and normalized. Just how easy it is – even in a fictional, historically self-aware setting – to get carried away.
Milo Rau has often described how in reenactments like Hate Radio you need only remove five or six specific sentences and what you are listening could be found anywhere.
How by using the specific you find the universal.
And reading the text for Hate Radio and reviews I understood this.
A form of universalization that uses specific, concrete, historical examples was on an intellectual, theoretical level clear.
But, to actually be sitting in the thick of it and to see a reflection that you (on an utterly personal level) recognize… to finally understand in concrete terms what this universalization means is, in truth, terrifying, because it reveals how trivial and common this sort of violence can be. The rhetoric is also disturbingly familiar, closer than comfortable.
The hysteric and almost absurdly passionate monologues aren’t actually (even in language) that distant from commentators (a somewhat generous term here) who fill a distinct role in today’s world. Alex Jones’s red-faced racist
monologues in the States really aren’t that far at times from those constructed by Rau for the moderators, and the pseudo-intellectualism reeks of the rhetoric used by individuals like Jordan Peterson. Lies and mistruths are spoken with absolute confidence and claims to authority (the use of things that sound like facts).
And to a certain extent, you can’t help but understand how people start to buy into this sort of propaganda.
The broadcast creates a wall of language that crashes against you. You don’t even have time to process what’s been said before the moderators are already onto the next topic, the next sentence, the next line of their pseudo-intellectual logic. It’s the sort of racially charged discourse you hear from certain news outlets (Breitbart, Fox, Rebel Media). A pseudo-intellectualism that uses buzzwords as a way to justify both hatred and acts of violence.
Rau’s moderators speak with such fervor – grabbing desperately at their microphones, nearly talking over each other, giving passionate monologues and then dramatically pushing away from the table with fists curled tightly with anger – they are so sure in what they are saying that it sounds like it should make sense, like it’s supposed to make sense.
The moderators hate Hitler and the Nazis but in the same breath encourage their listeners to murder every Tutsi or moderate Hutu they meet. Valérie Bemeriki is wearing a free Mandela t-shirt and Georges Ruggiu (the only white moderator at RTLM) – amidst his own calls for violence – uses familiar post-colonial rhetoric and compares perpetrators to French freedom fighters during WWII.
The rants are long, passionate, at times intriguing, at times boring (they do ramble on), and often downright scary.
Yet, these were the right words and the right theories used at the right historical moment to play a pivotal role in something unspeakable.
I must admit, this familiarity shook me.
It is uncanny.
It highlights the theatricality of this sort of rhetoric through the moderators’ desperation to assure their listeners that their racism and hatred is absolutely justified…
Although we don’t see any of the images of the Genocide we know from news reports and history books – killing fields, church massacres, machetes, mass graves, and piles of bones – the production is oversaturated in not just memories of the genocide itself but the knowledge that only comes from temporal distance and a retrospective gaze. We can’t help but remember the violence and failures that contributed to the genocide: the tensions fanned during the colonial period, the UN’s failures to prevent the genocide, the Hutus who flooded to the Democratic Republic of the Congo after the Rwandan Genocide leading to yet another Genocide in the DRC.
We, as spectators, cannot help but remember all the horrors of those images we don’t see in performance…
The overarching aesthetic of Hate Radio can be summarized by the term oversaturation. It is oversaturated in history. There is an overwhelming wall of language throughout the performance: the play is performed in French and
Kinyarwanda with English subtitles, and the broadcast schedule is full of international news, history quizzes, incoming calls, drawn-out discussions of political ideology with almost no pauses. The onstage discussion of violence becomes so trivial and nonchalant. An entire group of people becomes less than human and their death becomes a joke for the moderators and listeners to laugh about.
It’s the echo chamber effect: You’re plugged into it, and it all surrounds you.
It’s nihilistic, cynical, and sarcastic and you can’t escape it.
This overwhelming fullness is something you can really only understand when you are sitting there, not something you can find in the script or film.
It’s strange, scary, and it’s just way too familiar.
And the production concluding statement – “When there’s been one genocide then there will be many more” – it stays with you because it’s all too close for comfort, too recognizable. There is no longer the safety of historical or geographical distance: it is directly and undeniably in front of you.
And it’s something I just can’t quite shake because it becomes a very real experience.
It was just like that…
It is just like that…
And it will always repeat itself in this way.
[i] The only fictional character (i.e., completely created by Rau) on the stage.
[ii] Rau has stated that “There is nothing more boring than watching a radio broadcast,” and he isn’t necessarily wrong. There is no action so to speak.
[iii] About five years ago my favourite terrible radio station in Edmonton (Now Radio) started live-streaming a show called “Now TV” where interested listeners could watch their radio shows online. It is the most banal thing you can watch on the internet, just a moderator or two sitting together at a desk playing music. Watching Hate Radio is extremely similar to watch “Now TV” in terms of what happens but with “Now TV” has slightly less movement, less enthusiastic conversation, and no inflammatory language. If you are interested in understanding what it is like to watch a radio station in the same way as Hate Radio, find a similar online streaming of radio stations.
[iv] The station reported to their listeners where Tutsis and moderate Hutus were hiding or living live on the airwaves.
[v] During the duration of Hate Radio, the show really is broadcast on a radio station for about 150 meters outside the theatre.
[vi] During my research on Hate Radio I found exact excerpts from broadcasts on April 22, May 28, May 29, June 10, June 20, July 2, and July 3 while digging through old transcripts from the station (I was limited to those transcripts translated into English).
[viii] I have used this statistic in many if not all of my talks about Hate Radio, but the truth is that when you hear this term so often in the performance it is actually absolutely overwhelming. It truly feels like you never go for more than 2 minutes without hearing at least one of the moderators use the word Inyenzi.
A look into the parallel uncanniness of watching “Mitleid. Die Geschichte des Maschinengewehrs” and “Compassie. De geschiedenis van het machinegeweer” side by side… two plays about white guilt and the dramaturgy of pity.
In December 2015, Mitleid. Die Geschichte des Maschinengewehrs, or Compassion: The History of the Machinegun, a new production by Milo Rau, premiered at Berlin’s Schaubühne am Lehniner Platz. The production starred Swiss starlet Ursina Lardi – an extremely well-known and critically acclaimed actress[i] – and the Burundi-born, Belgium-based actress Consolate Sipérius. On Wednesday, October 24, 2018, a new version of the production, again directed by Rau, premiered at NTGent[ii]. However, the new production, Compassie. De geschiedenis van het machinegeweer – which also translates to Compassion: The History of the Machinegun – starring the Belgian starlet Els Dottermans – another critically acclaimed and nationally famous[iii] actress – and the French actress Olga Mouak.
Both productions explore questions of white guilt, compassion culture, internalized racism, and the European theatre tradition through extended monologues. Although the productions stand alone and you certainly don’t need to watch one to understand the other, they are also closely connected (and I personally recommend watching both). Compassie acts as a sort of companion piece to Mitleid. Both are border products: theatrical essays exploring the European/Western cynical humanism – where we are all humanists, but only in our own backyards and only when it is convenient and visible – as it exists in and outside of the theatre.
Both plays question the nature of pity and the dramaturgy of suffering, asking its audience:
For whom do we feel more pity?
The productions use competing monologues constructed from a mixture of autobiographical and fictional experiences. The core monologue is performed by a
famous white starlet – Ursina Lardi in Mitleid and Els Dottermans in Compassie – and a prologue and epilogue performed by a black actress – Consolate Sipérius in Mitleid and Olga Mouak in Compassie. The prologue and epilogue – the only opportunity Sipérius and Mouak have to speak during the production – make up only about fifteen minutes of the total production time, while the core monologue – a purposefully and clearly white perspective – make up the remaining ninety minutes. Sipérius and Mouak play the role of the witness, remaining onstage throughout the production, watching and listening to their white counterpart’s extended monologues. They remain seated at a small black table throughout the production with a laptop, a small control board for the sound system, camera, and microphone. This well-organized table is placed on the back, left corner of the stage, overshadowed by the piles of garbage covering the stage – which is filled to the point of literal overflow. It is here, amid this empire of trash – discarded lawn furniture, full garbage bags, plastic, and pieces of dirty cardboard – that Lardi and Dottermans perform their monologue… free to move – with great difficulty – around the stage.
“This,” Sipérius and Mouak say in their prologues, “is a play about witnessing.”
However, in sharp contrast to Sipérius, Mouak is not actually a genocide survivor – this aspect of her monologue is fictional. Here, I will briefly return to the question of pity: namely, do we feel more pity for the experiences of the black figure of Sipérius or Mouak (“black is always a statement” explains Lardi) or for the white starlet who has not faced any real struggle or tragedy in their lives.
The production plays with the publicly known of the celebrity. With Lardi and Dottermans, we know (or can easily determine) which experiences are fictional and which are reality-based. However, for Mouak and Sipérius, who are – in comparison to their white counterparts – relatively unknown, which makes it significantly more difficult to determine which aspects of the pro- and epilogue are real, fictional, or exaggerated. Why are we, as spectators, less interested in breaking down the prologue and epilogue than the core monologue? Why is it easier to accept Sipérius and Mouak’s monologues at face value than the Lardi/Dottermans monologue?
Unlike Lardi’s monologue – which is repeated almost word-for-word by Dottermans in Flemish rather than German – Mouak’s monologues (particularly the prologue) is unique. Rau and his team carefully construct two connected but still distinct monologues about the external atrocity and internal racism in Europe. Sipérius describes a linguistic/rhetoric-based racism of the everyday from her childhood – neighbours calling her Bambola, Big Mama, and “a buxom negro girl” – and an interest in her body. Mouak similarly describes similar experiences with rhetoric from her Italian neighbour and how her classmates would touch and mess up her hair to the point her mother had to talk to the teacher (to no avail).
Here already, a certain white European blindness to this insensitivity becomes apparent.
For both women, this was a world without compassion.
The distinctive survivor pro-/epilogues stand in stark contrast to the uncanny repetition of the Lardi-monologue – i.e., the monologue of the white, European starlet. It provides a commentary on the place of the refugee and survivor in the European theatre. Particularly in the wake of 2015, refugee theatre has become a mainstay of the Western European theatrical tradition. However, the danger of
this form of theatre is how reductive it can be, providing an ultimately feel-good evening for the white audience, which reduces the full complexity of the person (and their experiences) to their status as refugee/survivor[iv]. Both Mitleid and Compassie critique European theatre’s reductive obsession with the refugee/survivor, responding to the danger of creating a refugee caricature. The uniqueness of Sipérius and Mouak’s monologues is important because it differentiates among violences and survivor experiences. Looking at violence and tragedy on an individual level, rather than as the byproduct of non-European Otherness – i.e., as something normal and natural outside of Europe’s “enlightened” borders. All the monologues in both productions address violence and atrocity, but it also directly confronts the European audience with their own racism, lack of compassion, and externalization.
Why does the account of Lardi (or Dottermans) seem more tragic than that of Sipérius or Mouak?
Why does a massacre in Central Africa receive less media attention than one in Western Europe?
What are the roots of this inequality of pity and the uneven dramaturgy of suffering?
In stark contrast to the prologue and epilogue, the core monologue is essentially the same monologue in both productions, often a word-for-word translation of the German original (the only real discernible difference is the description of the role reversed Oedipus production – although the Oedipus anecdote is present in both Mitleid and Compassie).
For anyone who is familiar with the original, and this doubling is truly uncanny.
The Ursina Lardi monologue paints a fictional portrait of the eponymous Lardi character – a white, European starlet – who after completing school travels to the Congo in 1994 with “Teachers in Conflict” to teach the less fortunate. In comparison to Sipérius’s straight-forward monologue, Lardi’s long, complicated, and at times scattered monologue is mirrored in Anton Lukas’s stage design – a stage filled with broken furniture (particularly in the Belgian production as a way to mirror how Mouak survived her family’s murder by hiding behind a giant African-style couch), dirty clothes, garbage bags, and a half-burnt sofa. The Lardi-monologue is carefully constructed using a series of interviews that Rau and his production team conducted with NGO-workers and volunteers, in combination with Lardi’s own experiences from a year teaching in Bolivia.
Lardi is an essentially Oedipal figure, moving from blindness to understanding throughout the production. Her recognition of the fundamental failure to understand privilege and complicity of ignorance – a recognition that only emerges in a dream – that she is, in fact, the plague in the city. Itself a commentary on the place of the West and Western European corporations in continuing instances of violence in Africa and the Middle East.
Watching Compassie after having seen Mitleid, one cannot help but realize, it has all happened again: The screams of the raped and murdered are heard across the lake again, Beethoven is blared again, the Rwandan Patriotic Front marches into the refugee camp again, Christoph is saved again, the NGO volunteers are evacuated again, and Merci Bien is murdered again.
The only difference is that this time around we are being told about it from a different – but ultimately interchangeable – white woman.
And there it is…
It could be any white, European actress and it would make no difference.
Lardi’s monologue speaks to a white, Western European experience, the same experience shared by many audience members. We cannot help but recognize ourselves in Lardi and Dottermans: their experience and their blindness.
Even in its absolute specificity, what monologue describes is strangely, uncannily cookie cutter. It is the experience of a specific milieu of white, middle-class, European society, specifically that of the productions’ white, middle-classed audience: i.e., finish school, take time to travel between school and work by
volunteering with an NGO or charity, all while quelling that nagging white, middle-class guilt by building a few houses and helping the less fortunate in a developing country, and (of course) taking a week off to travel.
Within Dottermans’s performance in Compassie and the uncanniness of the repetition, is the revelation that this monologue – Lardi’s monologue or Dottermans’ monologue – could be performed by any white, European actress – regardless of whether she wears a green or blue dress, or whether she is a brunette or blond.
What would Ghent’s famous altarpiece look like if it were painted today? Who are the angels? The saints? Who are Adam and Eve? Who are Mary, John the Baptist, and even the Almighty? These are the questions that NTGent’s new artistic director Milo Rau looks at this question in his new production Lam Gods.
The stage lights are down… not just turned off, but the actual, physical grid the lights hang from have not yet been raised – a beautiful metaphor for a theatre re-opening after a year and a half of renovations. As the prologue concludes the lights are raised and the trappings of the theatre come into place. With a thick fog pouring over the audience, Lam Gods (The Ghent Altarpiece) – along with Milo Rau’s artistic directorship of NTGent – officially begins. And this production is – I will say right at the top – is a truly beautiful piece of theatre.
Lam Gods takes its inspiration and name from the Ghent altarpiece (a bona fide, certified masterpiece), painted by the brothers Hubert and Jan van Eyck and complicated in 1432 (just for scale, Columbus didn’t even land in the Americas until 1492, sixty years after the completion of altar). The painting marks a complete shift within the art world, and artistic paradigm shift of how the world was represented. The beginning of a completely new, style of painting and portraiture with a new focus on extreme detail in both the portrayal of nature and humans. It also brought the world outside the stories in the Bible into the world the painter himself inhabited.
The painting – as Nima Jebelli, who plays both a narrator/directorial role as well as Adam, points out in the opening – used real people from the world surrounding them as the models for figures included in the altarpiece. When we look at the redness of Adam’s lightly sunburnt hands in the original altarpiece, it is because the model came directly from working the fields to van Eyck’s studio. The panels are actually filled with familiar faces: popes and antipopes alongside the saints and martyrs… perhaps even a self-portrait of Jan or Hubert van Eyck on horseback in the “Just Judges” – maybe this is the reason why Rau choice to include a picture of himself (admittedly somewhat hidden among his actors) in the video double of this panel as it is projected onto the onstage altar.
In addition to casting real Belgians as the Biblical/religious figures in the altar, van Eyck (I am purposefully imprecise in specifying which van Eyck, because who painted what is unclear historically) also brought Belgium itself – specifically Ghent itself – into the iconography. When you look at the altarpiece you can clearly see Ghent streets through the windows behind Gabriel and Mary; in the adoration of the mystic lamb Belgian landscapes as well as the tops of European churches and cathedrals. The use of perspective is incredible, because even with the exquisite detail of each individual panel (and even each individual section of the panel) the key is drawn towards the lamb at the center, but when you look upwards you see an expansive world – not a Biblical world, but the Europe that both van Eycks knew and lived in. A visual intertwining of the religious world and natural environment representative of the complexity of the present moment. Not just a reflection, but an image representative of a moment that was absolutely present and contemporary for the van Eycks, the patron, and the subjects.
So, returning to Lam Gods…
How could this – i.e., what the van Eycks did with the Ghent altarpiece – be done today? In 2018 Ghent?
What would this altarpiece look like today?
Who is Ghent?
How do different sections of the population fit into the altarpiece’s panels?
The production is an exploration of the textures that make up the population of Ghent today: Who are the just judges? Who are the knights of Christ, still willing to fight for their beliefs? The pilgrims? The hermits? The mothers? The fathers? The angels?
The production looks at the city itself as a living, breathing, shifting, transforming entity – it looks at the city in connection with its politics, its past, its present, its future, and (most importantly) its people.
Lam Gods is a clear break from Rau’s earlier (pre-NTGent) work and while it still contains the hallmarks of a Milo Rau production: the presence of non-professional performers telling their stories as part of a larger narrative mural (this is a particular genre within Rau’s work that I define as recollection borrowing from Kierkegaard as well as placing a particular emphasis on the “collection” element of the term), the little nods to the audience, the inside jokes, etc. Throughout the evening, we, the audience, are led through both the altarpiece and Ghent – it is important to note that, for Rau, Ghent is more than the city, it is its people – by Frank Focketyn (the beloved star of the Belgian equivalent of The Office… according to the lovely Belgian couple sitting next to me in the theatre) and Chris Thys (also one Belgium’s most recognizable television/theatre stars according to the same couple). Music, images, and the sort of uncontrollability Rau loves are all there (this uncontrollability is in fuller force than normal with the co-presence of five sheep, a sheep dog, a children’s choir, and many lay-performers and people with various levels of experience and comfort on the stage).
Although the similarities and Rau-isms are easy to identify, the break from Rau’s earlier work is much more difficult to describe. It is very subtle, but still palpable.
Perhaps it is a sort of absence in violence… not an absence of violence, because there is violence – including a rather skittish sheep is sheered onstage while a video of a slaughter plays in the background. Maybe there is an abundance of hope, a connection to a rebirth of a city and a society rather than of violence begetting further violence. The specific form of violence we see on the stage – either live or via the projection – the slaughter or sheering of a sheep, birth (video), an old woman in a palliative care facility (video), an intimate dance stimulating sex (live) are jarring, but they are also closely connected to the thematic of death and life – underlined with the theme of water (the fountain of life in the mystic lamb panel) and a key geographical feature of the city itself. Life, death, and rebirth are also of course closely connected to the altar’s sacrificial lamb. The hope is located in the rebirth, specifically that the rebirth will not lead to more violence but to something else, to love and reconciliation (to something that unites rather than tears apart). While the city may continue to grow, demographics to shift, languages to appear and disappear (Flemish, according to Jebelli, will most likely disappear by the end of this century), but something new always, inevitably emerges. And even after humans disappear, the earth with continue – after all (to paraphrase) this world began without us and will continue on long after we are gone.
Unlike other Rau productions, which look at cycles of violence, Lam Gods looks at a different cycle – at cycles of migration, at coming and going, and life and death both of people and of communities. it is about how the city changes and how its people change, but how this change doesn’t mean destruction, it means metamorphosis and what that means is yet to be seen.
Here I finally come to my central point, Lam Gods is also different from Rau’s other pieces, because Lam Gods is a sort of love letter from Rau to the city of Ghent.
It is a celebration of a city in constant flux as much as it is a celebration of the theatre and community which has accepted Rau itself. A theatre that is itself in the grips of rebirth. It is about beginnings, endings, and what comes next, the new beginnings – the so-called future.
A mother recalls the death of her son (who joined the fight in Syria), stands in as Mother Mary, who tearfully chuckles that Mary’s son also always caused her grief.
A beaming new father watches the video of his son’s birth and stands in for John the Baptist.
A choir of children happily singing upbeat Sunday school songs are the choir of angels.
The children’s’ conductor, Wim Claeys (another fairly well-known public figure), is the Almighty – providing musical accompaniment from the screen above but never physically present on the stage.
Sheep, children, a dog, professional actors, and ordinary people – mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, believers, fighters, migrants, refugees – are all together a full stage.
But even more so, they are together with their audience in a room full of people.
About a week before I left for Belgium I had in an argument with my Canadian PhD supervisor about the altarpiece. He insisted that the Ghent Altarpiece was about innocence, but I saw it and still see it differently. I see an image about gathering. People
coming together from across Belgium and across the world that Hubert and Jan van Eyck knew in 1432. When I look at the centre panel (the adoration of the mystic lamb), I see people coming from all directions – processions extending out of sight but also moving closer together… towards the centre.
And I see Lam Gods as trying to do something similar, bringing people of Ghent from all different social, cultural, economic, and national backgrounds coming together – a reflection on what it means to be a city in a globalized world and a realization of what it means to create a global realism in theatre
A sort of performative, presentative convergence that proclaims:
“This – this thing you are seeing right here, right now – this is Ghent and this is the theatre of and for Ghent!”
Lam Gods is a play about roots, blood, water, love, and a city. It is celebration of sorts – of the highs and lows, of the triumphs and failures of a society. It is a play that says, you find history where you are born, but you also find it where you are. You are literally standing in history and you are in this history the subjects – whoever you are – that Jan and Hubert van Eyck would have used for their altarpiece.
But in additional all these things, the production also marks an entrance to a theatre that is – after a year and a half – once again open.
The production opens up not just the stage, but also the theatre. It invites actors and spectators alike to come and look at themselves, to see themselves as a part of a larger historical and cultural moment and as a part of a new beginning – as a part of the theatre’s new beginning. It proclaims, in line with Rau’s City of the Future and his Ghent Manifesto, that you – the spectator, both in- and outside of Ghent, even those beyond the perspective of the painting – are a part of this theatre and part of this future… We’re happy you’re here. We want you here. You are here. We are here together in this space in this moment.
And in the end – like in a painting – it’s all about perspective… isn’t it.
“The owl of Minerva spreads its wings only with the falling of the dusk.” -Hegel
The following post is about the controversy and actions surrounding the initially cancelled but now de-cancelled/upcoming production Kanata, a joint project between the internationally acclaimed Canadian theatre director Robert Lepage and Paris’s Théâtre du Soleil, an organization headed by the grand dame of French theatre Ariane Mnouchkine. The initial controversy surrounding the production began – or came to the fore in the Canadian press – in July. The production was to be about the history of Canada read through the lens of the troubled relationship between the Indigenous people and the white, European colonizers. The key issue that would eventually lead to the cancellation of the show was the exclusion of Indigenous actors and input, however, four days ago it was announced the show would indeed go forward in Paris with a premiere set for December 15, 2018 with no plans announced (as of yet) for performances in Canada.
In preparation for the production Indigenous peoples were consulted to document the show and video testimonies from interviews were to be integrated into the show, however, there would be no Indigenous actors in the production. Concerned Indigenous artists and activists voiced their apprehensions about how the production would deal with themes such as the residential school system and missing and murdered Indigenous women. These, and their other concerns, stemmed from the total absence of Indigenous performers to be involved in the production, which, when one takes into consideration precisely the history that Kanata proposes to investigate, is understandable. The intent of the artists and activists was, by all accounts[i], not to have the show cancelled, but to have at least a few Indigenous actors included in the cast: Give the community the opportunity to tell their own story and to have a (visible) place in their history.
In the aftermath of the cancellation a new question emerged:
Cultural appropriation or artistic censorship?
On the side of artistic censorship (also the line taken by much of the French press), Mnouchkine stated, “The art of the actor is precisely to become the other […] Hamlet does not need to be Danish […] theatre needs distance”, and cried censorship and intimidation in the wake of the cancellation. [ii]
On the side of cultural appropriation, the Montreal Urban Aboriginal Community Strategy Network said in a statement that “First Nations are the stewards and owners of their own stories and information” and the open letter to Lepage and Mnouchkine said, “What we want is for our talents to be recognized, to be celebrated today and in the future because WE ART” [“Ce que nous voulons, c’est que nos talents soient reconnus, qu’ils soient célébrés aujourd’hui et dans le futur, car NOUS SOMMES”].[iii]
Initially, I decided not to write about the Kanata controversy, not because I didn’t have
an opinion but because I was concerned what it meant to add yet another white voice to the argument. But as the story progressed, I was increasingly underwhelmed and disappointed by Mnouchkine and Théâtre du Soleil’s response to what was happening. It struck me as ignorant to 200 years of history and to a number of discursive shifts that have taken place over (particularly) the past ten years. The most significant of which being the concept of decolonization itself.
In the wake of the cancellation, amid cries of artistic censorship and the apparent threat to theatrical democracy, Mnouchkine swore “to respond, with the non-violent weapons of theatrical art, to this attempt of definitive intimidation of the theatre artists” [“de répondre, avec les armes non violentes de l’art théâtral, à cette tentative d’intimidation définitive des artistes de théâtre”].[iv] Two days ago, an article from La Presse announced that Kanata would indeed be presented at Paris’s Festival d’automne but under the new title Kanata – Episode I – La Controverse.
Mnouchkine has repeatedly referred to a baseless pre-judgement of the production: “after a deluge of trials of intent, each more insulting than the next, they cannot and must not accept to comply with the verdict of a multitudinous and self-proclaimed jury which, stubbornly refusing to examine the one and only piece of evidence that counts, that is to say the work itself”. So, I will make it clear here that I am not and cannot – for the very reason Mnouchkine says – judge or respond to the production itself. But, I am neither particularly interested in the production itself, nor am I responding to it, I am responding to Théâtre du Soleil’s (and to a lesser extent Ex Machina’s) dismal response to the controversy, because it signifies a fundamental failure to understand or try to understand the arguments of Indigenous artists and the continued discrimination of Indigenous persons. And in the spirit of this form of criticism and in response to the so-called “ideological intimidation in the form of guilt articles, or accusatory imprecations, most often anonymous, on social networks” [“d’intimidation idéologique en forme d’articles culpabilisants, ou d’imprécations accusatrices, le plus souvent anonymes, sur les réseaux sociaux”],[v] although I am certain no one from Théâtre du Soleil or Ex Machina (two companies whose work I do enjoy and two directors I have nothing but the deepest respect for) will read this, should they, I invite them and anyone else to contact me, I am more than happy to engage and discuss. And like the response from Canada’s Indigenous community, this is an attempt at discussion and dialogue, not an ideological attack.
The response by Mnouchkine, Théâtre du Soleil and Lepage is, in my opinion, based on a fundamental (and rather European) misunderstanding of colonialism. The thing that is very easy to ignore if you are living at a distance from former colonies and colonized (i.e., oppressed) people – although many Canadians and Americans also blind themselves from it – is that colonialism does not simply end when the colonizers leave or when we declare that we’ve entered a postcolonial age/world from within the walls of our ivory towers, it – much like a cockroach after a nuclear war – remains. But we have not entered a post-colonial age. Colonial structures and systems remain firmly in place, the insidious effects of colonial mindsets and concepts endure, and the accepted historical narrative and literature is still overwhelmingly white and colonial (although this is starting to shift and it is my firm belief that the future of Canadian literature and literary scholarship is Indigenous and queer led by Billy-Ray Belcourt). The fractures left by colonialism continue to be experienced not just in Canada, but across the globe – and this is to say nothing of the neo-colonial policies that serve as the foundation Western economies are built upon. By excluding Indigenous artists and by blatantly ignoring the chorus of Indigenous voices, Kanata cannot present a new rereading – as promised in the project description[vi] – instead, it will inevitably be just another white reading of our (Canadian) colonial past, placing the voices and experiences of the Indigenous population on the side.
As evidenced by the language in Théâtre du Soleil’s recent press release and with the cries of artistic censorship, victimhood has taken on a key aspect of their response. However, the claim of victimhood overlooks a fundamental power disbalance: first, funding. In the updated description of Kanata, it describes the production as “the framework for an encounter between two giants of today’s theatre”[vii] and they are not mistaken. Mnouchkine is a giant of the European and international theatrical landscape, as is the Canadian-born Lepage. Lepage, as a Canadian, has left an indelible mark on contemporary global theatre. It is impossible to work as a Canadian theatre-maker in
Europe without having an opinion about Lepage’s work. Both artists have received and will continue for the foreseeable future numerous multi-million dollar and euro government and other grants to produce their work. This relative wealth of funding stands in stark contrast to the much smaller pool available to Canadian Indigenous artists creating and producing work about their communities or just producing any sort of work.
The narrative of victimization is interesting is that it situates two people in a position of power as the victims of an oppressed and unrepresented group of people – a strikingly shortsighted analysis of events. It ignores the privilege afforded to these theatre-makers, which is precisely what allows them the freedom to create this and other shows. It ignores that both Mnouchkine and Lepage have had multi-million dollar careers that spread across decades and are afforded massive amounts of freedom both financially and creatively. These are all privileges that have not been given to most Indigenous artists. But something beautiful also emerges from the conflict it signals that for the first-time a (relatively) large united community of Canadian Indigenous artists are standing and working together and – and this is the important part – being heard and gaining some support from the wider community.
We witness two powerful white directors crying “Help! Help! We’re being oppressed!” completely void of irony. It is problematic because it ignores the question of agency. Although Mnouchkine/Lepage do see this as an issue of representation, they refuse to see it also as an issue of historiography. They hear the request of a group of people but do not listen to their struggle and situation – a community who have been denied the opportunity and right to write their own history, to tell their own stories. Instead, Mnouchkine and Lepage (at times with cringingly colonial language) look at the situation with a stubbornly European gaze demanding, “Why can’t they understand we can tell it better?!” It cries censorship without recognizing by refusing to listen and integrate Indigenous performers they are in fact guilty of censorship. This is about narrative agency and narrative representation – the right to tell your own story and be present in it – and the privilege extended to one group – white European theatre-makers – to once again take away this narrative agency from a group who have never truly been afforded this agency.
We must ask in the context of theatre:
Who has the right to tell and represent a community’s history?
Returning to Mnouchkine’s earlier quote about Hamlet not necessarily needing to be portrayed a Dane: In the case of Hamlet I am apt to agree, but we are not talking about Hamlet or Danish actors. We are talking about a group of people still very much oppressed and subject to systemic racism. People who were the object of a century-long campaign attempting to destroy them, their language, their culture, and their lives. We are talking about a history that exceeds the 200 years of Canada, we are talking about a cultural genocide that tore families apart (and continues to do so), we are talking about residential schools that existed well into the 90s in Canada, we are talking about a reserve system that denies people the right to live with access to clean water, we are talking about the systemic racism that remains extremely and explicitly prevalent in Canada today, we are talking about a history dominated by white voices, white words, and white representations.
The overwhelming sentiment from Indigenous artists and activists across Canada highlight that this as an issue of representation (and the letter published in Le Devoir explains this better than I ever could[viii]). their story should finally be told by them and not by another white person in a position of power. Kevin Loring, the Nlaka’pamux playwright, actor and director who wrote an open letter regarding Kanata, explains Indigenous people have endured decades of oppression, which includes representation in film, television, and novels, representations written by people with no or little understanding of the Indigenous realities and histories: “Now, at this time when there are resources for us to tell our own story and we have the capacity, the ability, the desire and the passion to tell our own story […] There are people still trying to tell our story for us. And I think we’re just at a point where we are done with that.”[ix]
The response from Mnouchkine has unfortunately overwhelming reeked of that old colonial (at times racist) rhetoric: one that is particularly troubling relates to a show her company did in Cambodia similar to the proposed Kanata about their history and the Cambodians “recognized its truth”[x]. The overlaying argument from the two artists is that theatre requires distance and watching someone else tell your story can provide a sense of catharsis – a sentiment that ignores the fact Indigenous people have not been given the opportunity to tell their own story. However, the argument for this particular form of colorblind casting is that it just ignores so much of what we know about privilege and the politics of representation, because representation is so important. This is also a me too of sorts, but in the sense that we too deserve our voice to be heard, we too have a story and we demand the right to tell our story. We are living in a 2018 world – whatever that might mean – and our theatre must respond to this, because theatre is about responding to the world around us, taking into consideration those changes – political, social, and ideological – to take part in the existing and shifting discourse.
In the conflict surrounding Kanata, there is a strange refusal to take part in a dialogue about the politics of representation in the slow beginning of decolonialism in Canada (although I want to point out that Canada is at a very shaky start of this process and it is, of course, riddled with uncertainty about what comes next). Mnouchkine and Lepage have taken a hardline approach to what theatre is and refused to budge in spite of everything.
The new description for Kanata states that “it is the duty of the artist to bear witness to the times he or she lives in,” yet the actions of the artistic direction has thus far illustrated a troublingly stubborn blindness to our time: To the slow, imperfect, shaky steps taken towards decolonialism not just in Canada, but across the globe. At the end of the day, we are (often harshly) judged by history and the hard truth is that we seldom end up the heroes of this history. It is difficult for me to understand what I see as a hard-headed and at times almost childish refusal to acknowledge one’s own position of privilege, by the seeming unwillingness to listen, look, and feel what is happening around them and ask why is it happening and what can we do. The sands of time are shifting, we either move with them or are buried beneath them.
As already stated, Kanata is rooted in this fatal misunderstanding of colonialism, because colonialism doesn’t simply “go away” and it hasn’t gone away in either Canada or France. It continues to shape cultural, political, and social relations, but if you refuse to really look at what is happening, to look at and learn from recent history, to listen to what the numerous Indigenous artists and activists have already said so much better than me, it becomes impossible. Oversimplified or even more dangerous a simiplification of the story of another – specifically the story of the Indigenous other placed in the background in yet another white savior story (and I am talking about the process and not the production). To quote Billy-Ray Belcourt, “Today, the world is just beginning,” and there is potential here for better representation, which provides a perspective that has been cut out and excluded for too long. Kanata could be unique in that it had the opportunity to listen to those voices who have carefully stated their concern and create a space for presence. And while the production will almost certainly be a grand spectacle – as Lepage and Mnouchkine always produce grand spectacles – the question is, how will we remember Kanata and what will it be? Will we remember the production as something great or will it be remembered for the artistic direction’s refusal to listen and acknowledge there is power and importance in representation? And I don’t know the answer, because I have not yet seen the “one and only piece of evidence that counts, that is to say the work itself”[xi], and so I – and everyone else – will just have to wait and see.
After much consideration about what I am saying and my argument, I realize the last word cannot belong to me in this argument. I am instead going to use another quote from Billy-Ray Belcourt, an amazing scholar and author and just one of so many examples of the incredible critical and artistic output of Canada’s diverse Indigenous population, specifically from his article “Fatal Naming Rituals” from July 2018 (link to full article at bottom):
“To tell a story of the possibility that swells up even where it is negated requires a sociological eye, an epistemological standpoint, that is borne out of experience, of knowing what it is to be a map to everywhere and nowhere. What’s more, to hear this story of compromised living, of joy against the odds, of the repeatability of a history that lives in the bodies of those who reap the spoils of colonialism, as something more than a “simple” account of a singular life, is to undergo a process of resubjectification, one that requires the abolition of the position of the enemy, the vampire, the one who describes, the settler. You need to read, to listen, and to write from someplace else, from another social locus, a less sovereign one, a less hungry one.“[xii]
Articles about Indigenous Representation by People Much Smarter and Informed than Myself:
Rau and his team bring a very real, still fresh tragedy onto stage, the murder of Ihsane Jarfi in April 22, 2012. In doing so, the inescapably real comes into contact with the implied contract of fictionality of the theatrical space and the spectator is forced to consider the very nature of tragedy, because classic tragedy (and many more recent tragic dramas) have a very specific form, which spectators implicitly understand because of the established canon and the continued use of these tropes.
Histoire(s) du Théâtre (I) – La Reprise [The Repetition]
May 4 (and 9), 2018
What is the most important part of the tragedy?
Is it in the beginning, the foundations that the plot builds itself upon, leading the character, the actor, and inevitable the spectator towards the (long-awaited) tragic event?
Is it the death of the tragic hero in the final moments of the play? When he finally suffers and perishes alone on the stage?
Or is it when the production ends? The sixth act: when the actors return (seemingly) from the dead for their curtain calls, when they disrobe from their blood-soaked costumes and return not as the tragic prince Hamlet, but as themselves as the actor?
But what happens when the tragedy isn’t Hamlet or some long established classic?
When it isn’t fictional? When it extends beyond the stage? What happens when the tragedy is a real event that remains an open wound within a community’s recent collective memory?
What happens when the tragedy is the real murder of Ihsane Jarfi?
Milo Rau’s most recent production Histoire(s) du Théâtre – La Reprise [History(s) of Theatre – The Repetition][i], the first installation of the Histoire(s) du Théâtre series curated by Rau and NTGent as well as the final installation of Rau’s Trilogy of Representation, premiered on May 4, 2018 at Brussels Kunstenfestivaldesarts. The production looked at the 2012 homophobia-motivated murder of Ihsane Jarfi, a young, gay, Muslim man from the Belgian city of Liège[ii][iii]. The production uses this real-life tragedy as an entrance into a sophisticated analysis of the tragic form, the conflicting nature of the theatrical tragedy.
Rau and his team bring a very real, still fresh tragedy on stage. In doing so, the inescapably real comes into contact with the implied contract of fictionality of the theatrical space and the spectator is forced to consider the very nature of tragedy, because classic tragedy (and many more recent tragic dramas) have a very specific form, which spectators implicitly understand because of the established canon and the continued use of these tropes.
In La Reprise, it is not Hamlet (which Johan Leysen performs a monologue from in the play’s prologue) whom we watch die for the thousandth time and whose tragedy was inscribed by his very maker into the play’s title. Rather, it is – as the very title La Reprise or The Repetition suggests – both the repetition and the repeated performance/witnessing of the brutal, unexplainable, and unnecessary death of Ihsane Jarfi. The production provides insight into the temporality and liminality of theatre: i.e., we will at the end of the performance leave this space and this act, however uncomfortably long this beat or this action is held, will eventually end. This stands in contrast to the temporality with the absolute permanence of its real-world counterpart – the rainy first hours of a morning in late April of 2012. Rau engages in this discussion through a highly self-aware form of theatre. La Reprise acknowledges it this (what we are watching) is theatre, that these people on the stage are actors or – as is the case with the amateur actors Fabian Leenders and Suzy Cocco – not actors,
and what happens in the theatre during the performance is (at least in part) a fiction: when an actor dies in the performance he is not actually dead, and when an actor is punched, kicked, and beaten, he has not actually been hurt. We spectators know that when at the performance ends, the actor will return and stand before us again.
Yet when Ihsane Jarfi returns to the stage, he is given a strange sort of uncanny afterlife.
He is both undeniably not there and there.
Both dead and alive.
We know that this person now on the stage is not really Ihsane Jarfi.
This is Tom Adjibi, who were introduced to in the prologue.
Yet, even though we know this is not Ihsane, even though the prologue introduced us to the mechanics of theatre – How do you hit someone in a way that it looks and sounds realistic? How do you kiss someone? – even though we know that this is only theatre, there is still affect. The production is of course a study in violence and voyeurism – audience’s response to the violence they witness – the stunted catharsis contained in the impotency of compassion for an event that, even when explored from all sides, is ultimately unexplainable.
We understand, because we see ourselves in these figures – not just Ihsane, his boyfriend, and his parents, but also his strikingly unextraordinary murderers – but we cannot understand why: the act of violence and the extent of the violence is ultimately unintelligible.
La Reprise provides a case study of the complexities of staging a real-life tragedy: a young man beaten and murdered because of his sexuality, whose loss is felt by his family and friends, and which extends beyond the stage, the liminality of the production, and the inevitable temporal nature of theatrical performance.
Employing the strong research-based process one comes to expect from Rau, the production engages with the materials collected throughout the creation process – newspaper articles, new programs, interviews with lawyers, Ihsane’s parents, partner, friends, and even one of his murderers – all in service of the production of three mini-reenactments leading up to the largescale fourth act reenactment of the murder. Rau and six actors (Johan Leysens, Sébastien Foucoult, Sara De Bosschere, Tom Adjibi, Suzy Cocco, and Fabian Leenders) explore both the case of Ihsane Jarfi through these interviews (the first- and second-hand recollections of Ihsane), as well as the actors’ own memories about the murder. The entire project originated from actor Sébastien Foucault’s obsession with the murder, which occurred during his time at the university of Liège. The production also takes pain to illustrate the striking normality of the murderers prior to the actual murder, paralleling lay-actor Fabian Leenders’s life with one of murderers, Jérémy Wintgens: both suffered back injuries that put them out of work, both struggled under the shifting economic conditions in Liège (factories shutting down and large-scale unemployment), and they even have the same model and color of car (a grey VW polo).
The production is a masterclass in Kierkegaard’s concepts of the reenactment and recollection.
(“Repetition and recollection are the same movement, just in opposite directions,
because what is recollected has already been and is thus repeated backwards, whereas genuine repetition is recollected forwards”)
The production through its use of diverse sources and memories jumps between reenactment of those events leading towards the murder and discovery of the murder and the recollection of how the different figures got there. The actors re-enacting a mother and father waking up to find their son has not yet remained home (Chapter 1), Ihsane Jarfi and his partner talking to each other in a loud, crowded bar (Chapter 2), or Jérémy Wintgens drunkenly kisses his girlfriend as she pushes him away (Chapter 3) all take place forwards (doubly re-enacted, once onstage and simultaneously on the screen above onscreen), juxtapose the passivity surrounding monologues, which are both inescapably past tense and without answer:
“Why did he do this?”
“Why didn’t I stay home?”
“What did he feel in that moment?”
The different perspectives show the beginnings of tragedy, but they do not serve to provide a cohesive narrative rather they illustrate the overwhelming banality of the crime. There is no real suspense built, because we already know the inevitable outcome, but unlike in the classic five act tragedies we know and love the motivations (except for Ihsane’s sexuality) remain unclear. Questions like why Jérémy Wintgens and his friends drove to L’Open Bar that night, why Ihsane Jarfi left the bar, or why he got into the car, even when approached from every possible angle, are left unanswered. Because in truth (unlike in Hamlet or Oedipus) the roots of the murder are not only unclear but also unexplainable and unrepresentable. There are no plainly written narrative threads leading towards Ihsane’s death, no clearly stated motives for his murderers in the emotional build to the fourth chapter reenactment. Unlike the scenes and acts of dramas, the mini-reenactments and testimonies that make up the prologue and first three chapters provide no rhythm and no reason, they do not lay the grounds for a tragedy, there is no Oedipus-like figure unwittingly moving towards their tragedy by sowing the seeds for their fate. These scenes reveal the mundanity and pointlessness of this murder. Someone acting normally, people moving around as they always do in their everyday life and it ends in an act of extreme violence.
The fourth chapter (“The Anatomy of the Crime”) is a reenactment – ala Rau (i.e., as
close to reality as possible) – of the murder from the moment Ihsane first meet the men in the parking lot of L’Open to the discovery of his body. The scene is – to put it lightly – uncomfortable to watch. It is in truth, almost unbearable. The beat held just slightly too long for the spectator – for proof we need look no further than those people who chose to leave the production (at least on the two nights I was there) abandoned the theatre during this scene. It pushes up against the limits of moral acceptability. It is intolerable because we have come to understand and identify with Ihsane Jarfi, who is a very normal 32-year-old. We understand his parents – who love their son so much and whose death sent an irreparable tremor through their lives. We even understand the murderers, who are so much a part of their social and economic conditions.
Yet it is this understanding and association that then makes the violence so unintelligible. In a civilized bourgeois, European, society how is such violence possible without real reason,
without clear motivations,
How in a modern European society can such a crime occur?
How can anyone keep beat a person to death who they don’t even know?
Keep beating someone even when they can barely breathe?
How do you keep beating someone for 75 minutes?
How do you leave them, blooded and dying alone in the cold morning rain to die?
How can we watch this?
And by watching this repetition, this reprise, are we also consenting to the act and the violence as Jérémy Wintgens did when he sat in the car as his friends stripped, kicked, punched, spit and pissed on Jarfi?
It is this incomprehensible, performance-abandoning violence (despite having been shown the devices used in theatre to simulate this violence) and the impossible
position of the spectator, which brings us to the young actor Tom Adjibi’s assertion in the prologue that the most important part of the tragedy and, indeed, one of the most difficult aspects of theatre is when a character (the tragic figure) dies (inevitably alone) on the stage. And while this is certainly the most difficult part of the tragedy to watch, in La Reprise in its simultaneous problematic realness and contemporaneity – i.e., the still very open wound left by this murder – creates a paradox.
A real-life death has a temporal permanence, it can only happen once, this person cannot die again… not really. It is a moment (which those of us who have experienced tragedy in our lives know too well) when the world both stops turning, freezes in time, while spinning, out of control, at a dizzying speed around you.
Unlike Hamlet, who dies every night and will continue to die every night for the foreseeable future, the murder victim dies only once. Each subsequent medial or performative death inscribed on his image can occur only retrospectively. But now, Ihsane – whose death was witnessed by so few people (his murderers) and has remained relatively unknown outside Belgium – is relocated from the Tinlot region (about thirty kilometers outside of Liège) onto stages across Europe.
The conditions that may or may not have contributed to his death revealed, the pain it caused and continues to cause his parents revealed, and the regret felt Jérémy Wintgens heard (“I should have stayed home with my girlfriend”), and yet despite all this, we the audience are met with the confusing emotional impact as absolute oversaturation clashes with total void. There is both everything and nothing here: Catharsis is not really possible because despite what we are shown the act remains unintelligible.
And this brings me to the Wislawa Szymborska’s “Theatre Impressions” as recited by Sara de Bosschere at the opening of chapter five:
“For me the tragedy’s most important act is the sixth: the raising of the dead from the stage’s battlegrounds.”
Szymborska suggests the most important element of the tragedy is not the hero’s final death or the dramatic build towards his inevitable death, but the miraculous return of he and his fallen comrades to the stage for the curtain call. The spectator’s return to reality. The catharsis of a satisfactorily concluded production: a play where we watch the tragedy unfold and can understand how and why, the motivations and causes of the tragedy. How do we now – as an audience – come to terms with what we have witnessed?
And now what?
The production reveals the striking banality of the murder – perhaps a drunken act of toxic masculinity and homophobia, perhaps the result of unemployment and frustration, or perhaps something more or less – it’s horrifying violence (and although we understand the violence we see on the stage is fictional, it is still in part unbearable to watch) and a trial (as was only briefly mentioned in the production) where Ihsane’s name was dragged through the mud again and again and again, and left three of the four young men involved with life sentences and one with thirty years in prison.
La Reprise offers us (and in truth can only provide) a stunted catharsis when the actors return to the stage, because we become aware that we are only watching a repetition. With each repetition, we come no closer to understanding why, but still we watch Ihsane die again and again. He is called back to life, to the stage, for the short period of an evening for us to relive his murder. To watch an event no one saw the first time. To watch an event where the most published pictures of the crime scene reenactment. To watch an event that is in its essence unrepresentable and unrepeatable. The suffering of Ihsane is unimaginable, the pictures of the body unavailable, the true horror of the crime cannot really be understood, and the depth of the loss immeasurable.
What does it then mean for we as spectators to watch this death again and again and again – trapped within the theatre’s performative loop of repertoire and international tours. What does it mean for us as spectators to become a part of the spectacle of pain and suffering. In our role as passive spectators we – to borrow from Purcell’s “The Cold Song”[iv] (in which the spirit of winter is unwillingly brought back from the dead) and which Adjibi sings so beautifully in the final moments of chapter five (before the prologue) – we let (a verb that subtly implicates us) Ihsane Jarfi die again.
And it is here – for me at least – in the aftermath of his death, where the tragedy as we know it begins. It is here we must begin reckoning with what this murder means to us, to Liège, to Belgium, to Europe, and what it means to watch it happen, to watch Ihsane Jarfi be beaten and kicked and punched and murdered again, and again, and again…[v]
Notes (for the three people and a cat who make it to the end):
[i] This production will be touring for the next two years
[ii] On April 22, 2012, 32- year old Ihsane Jarfi was picked up at L’Open Bar, a gay bar in Liége, by four men, driven about 30 km outside the city and beaten, stripped naked, and murdered. His body was not found until nine days later. The incident marked the first official homophobic murder (although it is certainly not the first, changes in police protocol in 2006 meant police had to record motive) in Belgium and a traumatic moment what is historically a very liberal and open nation for the LGBTQ+ community.
[iii] I struggle somewhat finding a description for Ihsane Jarfi, because he was clearly so much more than just “a young, gay, Muslim man from Liège” as the production succeeds (in part) in illustrating was much more than gay or Muslim, but a complex human being who meant different things to different people and had a much greater impact than these limited adjectives could ever contain. Writing them I am struck only by how little they say about the actual human being and how strangely the don’t fit within this analysis, because Ihsane Jarfi was more than gay and Muslim he was and yet how at least one of these terms served a role in motivating his murderers.
[v] This blog comes so much later than normal, because I struggled to understand both this production – which was so beautifully complicated and I so enjoyed watching and would so strongly recommend watching if you have the chance – and my own reaction to this production, I think my borders of unbearability have expanded.
Milo Rau is holding auditions for his new show Lam Gods (starting today) at NTGent and everyone freaked out (details inside). Everyone’s been really good at freaking out, but no one has really asked why all this freaking out (by politicians, newspapers, etc.) beyond the superficial level… so here we go…
(Also called, why I can’t leave Europe for even a minute!)
Writing a dissertation is hard, because sometimes you decide to take two weeks “off” to go home, visit your family, give a few lectures, and enjoy some peace and
quiet when the person you are writing your dissertation decides to start a major scandal. So, upon landing in Iceland you realize that you underestimated the scope of what you initially dismissed as just being the normal harrumphs of the media as in truth being a larger, (apparently) morally-outraged harrumph by the media and the local government (and some guy at The Guardian in the UK).
So here’s the kicker… it’s a scandal about something that hasn’t even happened! A literal non– or not yet event!
I am (of course) talking about Swiss theatre director (the subject of my in-progress dissertation) Milo Rau and his call for lay-actors (i.e., non-professional actors and regular people) for his upcoming play Lam Gods (to premiere at Nederlands Toneel Gent [NTGent] at the end of September). And, while this technically falls outside the time range of my dissertation (which is about Rau’s time as a freelance director with his production company the International Institute of Political Murder), I just can’t seem to get this incident out of my head (I’ve been talking about this with pretty much anyone who would listen in Canada because the response truly baffled me) and can’t resist the temptation of writing something about it from my perspective. And, while I’m a about a week late and several dollars short, this little media circus has caught my attention and I am therefore going to throw in my opinion on the situation today, on today… the first day of auditions for Lam Gods.
So, first off what is the scandal?
Lam Gods, Rau’s first show at NTGent is based on this:
The famous Ghent Altarpiece and its long, sorted history of being painted, stolen (repeatedly), returned, stolen again, hidden in a salt mine by Nazis, found again, returned again, and so forth (here’s the Wikipedia for the whole story: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ghent_Altarpiece it is a really interesting story). The altarpiece is important because it is (of course) very old (finished around 1432) and also because it brings together a number of images from throughout the history of Christendom and a number of new painting techniques that brought the story into the present.
About a week ago Milo Rau and his team at NTGent put up a series of ads in the help-wanted sections of a free local newspapers asking:
“Have you seriously hurt your brother (or sister)? Maybe metaphorically? Do
you want to talk about it?” – Cain and Abel
“Do you fight for your beliefs? For God? Did you fight for ISIS, for another religion?” – the Crusaders
“Do you find it good to go on stage naked? Do you like apples and snakes? Do you, like the first people, have roots in Africa?” – Adam and Eve
Now, none of these are, to say the very least, unproblematic. That said, it is undeniably very clever marketing for the production (which will, without a doubt, be sold out… which is potentially bad news for me trying to get a ticket). The entire ad is provocative and problematic on a number of levels, BUT I’m not responding to the ad, because I’m not particularly interested in the ad (if I’m honest, it doesn’t bother me that much), I’m interested in the public and media response to it.
Because, here’s the thing: no one has really cared that much about a modern-day Cain (someone who has hurt or murdered their brother either literally or metaphorically), there has been no media response (that I have found at least) to the call for an Adam and an Eve (with roots in Africa). He is also looking for butchers and retired judges. There nothing too scandalous in that. In fact, in 2012 the Polish artist Pawel Alhamer also created a large-scale, slow-motion live-replica of the altar at the 2012 S.M.A.K. festival in Ghent using laypeople in their real-world jobs (judges, firemen, police officers, politicians, tourists, and a lamb). But I digress, the central focus of the entire discussion about Rau’s Lam Gods has thus far been about the call for religious extremists – specifically former ISIS fighters.
Yet still, the politicians of Belgian did what politicians do best: revert to the knee-jerk response of anger, rage, and collective hysterics. Politician Elke Slurs called for a meeting of the theatre’s board of directors stating,”That artists shock and provoke, and that this goes against good taste or common sense, until now. But I am counting on the board of directors to send a clear signal quickly to both the artistic direction and the public at large”; the extreme right-wing party Vlaams Belang said on their Facebook page, “Terrorists not on stage, but in the cell. […] NTGent wants to put Syrian fighters on stage, sponsored by Flemish taxpayers’ money. Time to stop their subsidies?” (rightwing party Vlaams Belang) (quotes from Schelstraete). Flander’s current culture minister Sven Gatz has stated, “artistic freedom has its limits,” as well as “They will be thrown in jail before they reach the stage” (quotes from Schelstraete and DeMorgen).
A very big response elicited by a rather small ad.
The response by Rau and NTGent is a public apology and the explanation that they’re advertisement was addressed to all forms of religious extremism: Islamic, Catholic, and Protestant extremists. To which my response was simply, of course it was. I think in Europe ISIS represents an obvious example of religious extremism, but groups like the KKK in the United States and Canada also represent a form of what could be called religious extremism. However, it is largely recognized that the KKK is a response to other social and political beliefs that have then been connected to religion as a sort of justification for the acts of violence associated with it. Groups that use religion as a justification are seldom reacting to or with the religion, but to something else on a societal level. Rau is seeking to create what I call a Theatre of Self, which uses people and their experiences to explore the larger issues on a collective level (moving from specific to universal):
What does it mean to be Belgium today? What collage of experience pieces together Ghent in 2018?
For me, the response to the ad signals something much bigger than outrage at the thought of former ISIS fighters onstage. I’m not delegitimizing the cries about thesurviving victims and families of the victims of the Brussels Terror Attack in 2016 which resulted in the death of 32 civilians and injured over 300 people, but this is what trigger warnings are for and Rau has clearly not attempted to keep his search for former ISIS or jihadists a secret from the public (or anyone else for that matter). The is the age-old cry “Think of children! Won’t someone please think of the children!”, here transposed as “Think of victims!”, is not really about the victims and I am always skeptical of such statements. Because It is not about the families, but about our own (and here I mean the majority white, Christian population’s) discomfort with the subject matter, because of what could be said and its deeper implications. What I see is an inability within Flanders, and by-and-large Europe, to be able to come to terms with one’s own past (both in recent and the larger history).
Sidebar: I am part of the first generation of Canadians to grow up learning about Canada’s Residential Schools (for anyone who doesn’t know about this part of Canada’s history here’s a link: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Canadian_Indian_residential_school_system) and am therefore part of the first generation to have to start coming to terms with a cultural genocide enacted by our government for over a hundred years, and we aren’t doing a bang-up job of coming to terms with it – we’re doing pretty terribly at it. The thing about taking responsibility for the past, and looking at one’s systemic (often unconscious) participation in the present is difficult, uncomfortable, and often uncharted territory marked by screw-ups and steps backwards. I say this because this is also part of the lens throughout which I view the world around me. When you look at issues like homelessness and incarceration of Indigenous persons in Canada, you therefore have to at the systemic abuse and colonial past, but this isn’t a comfortable thing to do and Canada continues to struggle with it.
Much of Europe struggles with its colonial past in a uniquely European way, which is largely summed up by the feeling colonialism is past. What I mean here is for many, since Europe left the colonies in Africa colonialism we are now post-colonial. And while this sentiment is certainly shifting, it is still not dealt with or really acknowledged on a governmental level. The thing with colonialism is, the more you look at it the less you are able to believe in post-colonialism and the more you see we are still very much in the grips of colonialism, and Europe continues to benefit from it. Issues of colonialism and coloniality are not part of the political agenda in
European nations as it is in Canada (however devastatingly poorly it is and has been represented on this political agenda), but in much of the world the continued legacy of colonialism remains clearly visible or systemically embedded in governmental or social practice. I have taken a detour here, so I return to my central point: I position that the response in Flanders is (at least in part) a result of an unwillingness and discomfort with one’s own past and one’s own responsibility within this past. A discomfort with looking at potential systemic motivations for a group of young European and, specifically for Belgium, young Belgium men to go fight in Syria and/or join extremist groups. One cannot look at ISIS without recognizing its ties to colonialism and the continuing legacy (and policy) of colonialism (and this also means acknowledging the invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq as an essentially colonial undertaking, going into these nations because they had something the West wanted).
My point is, when looking at issues of ISIS or any sort of religious extremism you have to take the long view and try to see more of the picture than just what is directly in front of you. Look at the issue in its full complexity, even if it means looking at our own failings.
So – again having taken a long route to get to a short point – when we look at the outrage caused by an ad placed in the classified section of a free newspaper for people who have fought for their religion, like members of ISIS, we must look at the larger past. And we must ask: Why?
Why has this made so many people so uncomfortable and outraged that it has led to a public apology (according to the Guardian) by the theatre?
As stated, I don’t think it is because people are particularly worried about the potential trauma for survivors watching the production in the coming September, nor do I think it is for fear of them spreading hate. I think it ties back into a certain discomfort with a past that is deeply embedded in Western colonialism, as indeed the entire “War against the West” by various extremist groups is. Since 2013, about 400 Belgians have gone to fight with ISIS, and while it is not alone in exportingthese largely, young, male jihadists/foreign fighters, it has certainly produced some of the most. Rau’s earlier production The Civil Wars also dealt with this thematic and the question, “What inspires young men to go fight in a war that is not their own?” (A question that also ushered back to WWII and questions of collaboration)
And there it is:
What has caused a group of young, disenfranchised men to join ISIS and like groups?
What has pushed them to the edges and marginalized them so much that these extremist groups seem to be the only place they can find something?
I see theatre and performance as a way to temporarily pull away the veil and reveal what we do not want to see and this has over the past 10 years certainly been a guiding philosophy for Rau and the IIPM. And, in an almost poetic turn of life
mirroring art, this incident mirrors almost too beautifully Rau’s reinterpretation of the Brechtian Good Person thesis as presented in many of his theatre pieces: It is not possible to live in Europe and not share a part of the responsibility. To say “It isn’t in my backyard, so it isn’t my problem,” just doesn’t quite work in an increasingly globalized and mobilized world (as Rau himself explores in both The Congo Tribunal and Mitleid. Die Geschichte des Maschinengewehr).
It makes sense that in Lam Gods, which looks to re-create the Ghent Altarpiece as a modern image – imbuing the beautiful and perfect images painted by Hubert and Jan van Eyck with voices that fracture and problematize its outward perfection – would also look at the problematic and shifting relation between perpetrator and victim in the relation of Western Europe with the Middle East. Relations that stretch back into the Middle Ages (crusaders, wars, invasions, bombs, planes, drones, and
so-forth). The reality is, at least I believe, this scandal is, at least in part, motivated by a fear of having to recognize a part of the past that contains a certain responsibility or culpability. Because it means looking closer at a social and political system that has marginalized a group of Belgian-born, young, Muslim men, which apparently they are not ready to do.
Now, I don’t want this to be read as being apologist in any way, those people who chose to fight in Syria or elsewhere, to take part in attacks are completely responsible for their actions. What I am suggesting is that we not look at these events in isolation, as some sort of outlier, but look at the events, situation, and circumstance surrounding it (within the full complexity of the moment they occurred within). Because when this sort of outcry occurs (especially on such a high level), one must always ask why.
What is the root cause of the fear creating this anger?
What don’t we want to hear that is being said?
Or in this case, what could be said that we aren’t ready to hear?
The answer to these questions often proves to be far more complex than first thought.
As the first act of Lam Gods winds to a close, Milo Rau has succeeded – for only the meagre cost of a few ads in the classified section in a free local newspaper – produced and performed his first production as artistic director at NT Gent
I must lament that Milo Rau doesn’t allow me to enjoy vacations or time off before starting scandals.
I also lament that it is never as easy to write a dissertation as it is a long-winded blog post.
 Also, no one has even mentioned the marketing side of the ad, because it seems much Flanders (particularly politicians) collectively had a nervous breakdown once they saw it.
 I really appreciate Rau’s statement of looking at Belgium as a small Europe. I find that very interesting and very helpful.
 Please note, crusaders, wars, invasions, bombs, planes, and drones are much, much, more than a “so forth” and an endnote, but in the hopes of not turning this into a second dissertation I will not go further into this.
But, in truth, at the centre of it all is that I’m just so damn tired of impotent men and their cardboard wives and daughters.
Now, I know I haven’t written anything in a while… but this seems as good a place as any to pick up again…
Central Thesis: I hate Arthur Miller plays…
Backpedal: I get it. I get why his plays are so important, I get why he was so largely produced, and get his popularity in the early American theatre. He wrote about the American tragedy rather than the European one. And I get he was one of the first ones doing this.
That being said… I have incredible difficulty sitting through even the best productions of Miller’s plays.
I have in the past year seen two absolutely beautiful productions of Arthur Miller
plays, The Tod eines Handlungsreisenden [Death of a Salesman] directed by Rafael Sanchez at Schauspiel Köln and Vu de Pont [A View from the Bridge] directed by Ivo Van Hove last year in Hamburg. Both productions were beautiful and I would highly
recommend both of these productions to anyone who like Arthur Miller plays, or even if you are neutral on them because they are both stunning. Both used the space both plainly and simply, both found ways to play with light (or lack thereof), to play with water (or lack thereof), both (mercifully) edited down the original texts significantly, both beautifully translated the American English into German and French respectively, and both had incredibly strong ensembles. But still, while watching both of these productions I still felt the familiar tinge of dislike for the plays and by the final act was relieved to see the male protagonist get on with it and shuffle off his mortal coil.
I really do want to like Miller’s work…
He’s one of the great American dramatists.
Hell, if you work in North American theatre you might have to like him…
But, I just don’t like his work.
So, why can’t I sit through an Arthur Miller play without awkwardly shifting in my seat while trying to subtly roll up my sleeve, scratching my wrist at the thirty-minute mark (inevitably out of a two-hour production) peering down at my watch to see how much time has passed… how long until I get to go home?
Despite my best efforts to read, watch, engage, and enjoy his work, I cannot get into Arthur Miller. I tell myself, maybe it’s the residual effects of being forced to read and
watch The Crucible in grade 11, or maybe it’s that he’s been so overdone and you can hardly throw a stone without hitting a “brand new” production of Death of a Salesman.
But, in truth, at the centre of it all is that I’m just so damn tired of impotent men and their cardboard wives and daughters.
Miller’s plays are all about the failure of the American Dream (except maybe The Crucible, which is a not-so-veiled critique of the McCarthy Era witch hunt for the “reds”) and the tragedy of middle America. Male-driven plots about fathers trying desperately to provide for their wives, sons, and daughters in a Capitalist system that continuously rejects their best efforts. Reaching for the happy ending they think they deserve and have worked for at the expense of their families and happiness only to receive nothing (of which they receive in abundance).
(Hell, I can even get behind the anti-Capitalist sentiment)
For me, Miller writes plays where, to borrow from MacKinnon’s, man (subject) fucks (verb) woman (object), the women are object (often with little to no personality to speak of) and when their husband has no longer able to satisfy and take care of them – when he no longer comes to bed – he no longer holds his position as subject and it is passed off to his son or other male relative. So, for Miller, man (subject) fails to fuck (compound verb) woman (still the object). And in the end man (notice he’s still the subject here) is fucked over by system he is very much a part of.
I understand the importance of Miller and his plays, he heralded in a new genre of tragedy: the American kleinbürger, bourgeois tragedy. But this genre assumes attaining the American Dream should be the norm and the goal of all upstanding American men. The failure of the common man to attain the Dream and lifestyle is
the tragedy of Miller’s plays. Once this failure happens, well there is nothing left to do but for Willy Loman to kill himself and life will go on just as it did before he was dead. Fathers can’t provide, women are essentially cardboard cut-outs, the sons are doomed to fail just like their impotent fathers. And just as the cherry on top, the characters are unlikeable and irredeemable – as in the process of being fucked over, man fucks over his entire family (note that the family is in the object position). The son or some other poor male relative takes over the position now left vacant by the dead patriarch only to inevitably fall into the same pattern and eventually kill himself as well.
Here’s the thing, there are so many plays out there that better reflect the complexities of the American tragedy – of the complex set of divisions within society that serve to benefit the system they operate within – than Arthur Miller’s white, male tragedy.
I think that in the fifties and sixties, and perhaps once again in the Regan years, Miller did have something to offer. An important critique of Capitalism and a system that benefits and is strengthened by the failures of schmucks like Willy Loman and Eddie Carbone, who keep working as if at the end of the day America were a meritocracy. A critique of the American Dream is in many ways still very relevant today (perhaps more relevant in some ways), but the American tragedy has become something very different. One genre of this tragedy (because there must now be many because America is made up of many people) is still a tragedy about impotent men (one might even go so far as to say, impotent white men). However, this tragedy does not end in the classical sense with a death, but in everything that accompanies just having to keep on living… and working… and the anger that goes with it all… where Willy Loman doesn’t die, but continues working, continues failing, and grows more and more bitter and angry about his inevitable failure and the former potency that was “stolen” by someone else… I mean, isn’t that the tragedy we see in the newspaper every day.
The tragedy has shifted… So, can’t we finally just bury Willy Loman and call it a day?
I know I’m ready to.
 “Sexual objectification is the primary process of the subjection of women. It unites act with word, construction with expression, perception with enforcement, myth with reality. Man fucks woman; subject verb object.” (MacKinnon 124)
MacKinnon, Catharine A. Towards a Feminist Theory of the State. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1989.
The Swiss-German art collective Zentrum für politische Schönheit (ZPS) – Centre for Political Beauty – is known across Germany for the creation of provocative, controversial, and highly political artistic actions.
“Here it is not theatre, it is the reality” – Stefan Pelzer (ZPS)
The collective’s most recent action has constructed a replicate of Berlin’s Holocaust Memorial (the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, designed by Peter Eisenman) next door to AfD politician Björn Höcke’s home. Höcke’s politics are nationalist, (right-wing) populistic, and identitarian – stringent border control, limits to asylum laws, anti-gay marriage, and an advocate of abolishing sections 86 and 130 of the German Criminal Code. There is also significant evidence that Björn Höcke has been writing under the pseudonym Landolf Ladig in support of the alt-right(er) party, the NPD (even more far right than the already far right AfD).
The ZPS’s mini-memorial is a direction response to a speech by Höcke given in January 2017 where, in reference to the Holocaust Memorial, he stated, “we Germans are the only people in the world who have planted a memorial of shame in the heart of their capital” (a statement even controversial among members of AfD, leading him to be called “a burden to the party”). So, ZPS constructed Höcke his very own personal “Memorial of Shame” – sein eigenes Denkmal der Schande – located right next door to his house in Bornhagen, a small village (some 270 people) located on the border of Hesse and Thuringia.
After ten long months of preparation, the action has succeeded in being highly provocative and extremely effective in getting under the skin of Höcke, who recently called the artists “terrorists”. The mini-memorial does provoke – particularly members of the alt-right (the group has received numerous death threats over the past week – but what does this provocation mean in the long term? For me, there is something troubling located within this political performance. The more I watch the event as it unfolds, read media responses, and think about it, the more I must ask: what does this do in the end? What will be the end result?
I, personally, think theatre and art has the ability to change the world, or to instigate real change in the world through a ripple effect, but I am wary of these highly cynical actions.
Provocation is a short game – inescapably and undeniably temporary. A provocation does not remain a provocation, but inevitably eventually slips into something different, such as an expectation or a tourist attraction. Once the audience knows that they will be sworn at every night in a perfomrance they will prepare a response to the performer or enter the theatre with the expectation of being sworn at (as happened with Peter Handke’s Publikumsbeschimpfung in the sixties). Much more difficult is the long game, finding a way to create a sustainable systemic change.
Höcke is indicative of something very – almost unashamedly – broken in the political system, but he is – like Trumpism in the USA and like the AfD’s entry into the German parliament – is a symptom and not the cause. And I do not say this not to reduce
the dangerous stupidity attached to these symptoms, the symptom is also extremely dangerous – death is also a symptom, but it being a symptom does not make you any less dead once you have it. For the long game, the action must not just fight against the symptom but look directly at the root cause.
And, as was the case with Flüchtlings Fressen – which promised to feed refugees to the tigers on Unter den Linden in a Roman style colosseum in a reflection on refugee politics in Germany – there is a clear limit to this form of art: the refugees will never be eaten by the tigers.
We must be careful not to be reductionist and must therefore be careful with the wider implications of political action pieces such as this one. If the 2016 US Presidential has taught us anything, it is that we must take people like Trump – loud, right-wing politicians who speak to the base fears of a specific portion of society – seriously. We must take politicians like Höcke seriously, because they serve to legitimize a specific ideology: a nationalistic, populistic, dangerously nostalgic political ideology (nostalgic as in reaching back for the idyllic, but ultimately unreachable past – a past unreachable, because it never existed as imagined).
Politically active art is undeniably important, and there is certainly something contained within the piece by ZPS – any art that solicits a strong response, positive or negative, has succeeded in something. However, as spectators and participants it comes down to us to ask certain questions about the art/performance.
What does the performance say about the real Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe? The entire action is a response against Höcke’s statements about it, but doesn’t building a new, mini memorial risk reduce the meaning of the original? What does this re-politicization of the image of the memorial through an ideological transplantation mean?
The entire event can be summarized as a debate about memory politics, specifically the place of memory in the public space. But when we repurpose a monument dedicated to the millions of Jewish victims of National Socialism to agitate and provoke, it runs the risk of reducing the significance of the original, potentially saying something unintendedly dangerous about the original – if the constructino of the reproduction is an unwanted intrusion pushed onto Höcke, doesn’t the action (which is a response to Höcke’s speech against the original) just serve to support what he said about the original?
The ZPS, in preparation, spent ten months watching Höcke and, according to the founding member of the ZPS Phillipp Ruch, they know everything about him: they know when Höcke chops wood, who sends him brochures, where he goes on vacation, and how he sleeps at night. It is precisely this long period of observation that has led Höcke to referring to the ZPS as a terrorist organization (“Whoever does such things is, in my eyes, a terrorist”). There is no shortage of articles from media sources recording Höcke’s statements about the harassment he is undergoing and his victimhood at the hands of the ZPS.
There is no small irony in Höcke – a cis, white, male, conservative – declaring himself to be the victim. There is just a touch of humor that the man now claiming he’s living in fear as the target of “terrorists”, is the mouthpiece of a political discourse that has made life considerably more difficult for millions and encouraged strong anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim, anti-refugees, and anti-LGTBQ+ sentiments across Germany. His ideology, his words, and his actions have actively contributed to a massive group of people to have more fear and face real discrimination.
And he demands pity? Pity for twenty-four concrete-blocks next door to his house? Pity for the ten months that the collective watched him in preparation for the event? Pity that his words have come back to haunt him?
Shockingly, my bleeding-liberal heart does not bleed for this man. Why? Because he is not a victim. And I cannot help but find it immensely funny that he would claim to be the victim – the entire event makes me chuckle. If nothing else, ZPS has succeeded on creating a spectacle of Schadenfreude for leftist artists and intellectuals.
But this does not change the overarching question: What, when the humor subsides, will this event actually do? What does it fundamentally change? And, unfortunately, I am skeptical, because I do not think this Schadenfreude is enough.
I wonder, if, when the laughter dies down, has Höcke simply won the inevitable political gain of increased media attention? (I certainly didn’t know his name until this incident) And as was already made all too clear in the 2016 American presidential election, media attention is its own form of political capital – a little name recognition goes a very long way.
Phillipp Ruch has said: “Art must hurt, aggravate, resist. We aren’t a comfortable space. If people only clap, that’s our nightmare. We make aggressive humanism.” But if art only succeeds in creating a temporary space of discomfort and not long-term change then this aggressive humanism is troublingly impotent. I believe art can foster change and I also believe art needs to be aggressive, but I don’t think I can buy into aggressive humanism.
Too often we become trapped within our own leftist microcosm as artists and left-wing thinkers. For an artistic political intervention to succeed, it must do something that outlives the event itself and escape its self-imposed boundaries. It must
reverberate beyond the temporal present and extend its message beyond its spatial eviction (ZPS will likely have to leave the Bornhagen location on December 31, 2017), not be limited to its own liminal spectacle.
For those interested here is a list of articles (mostly in German) about the project as well as a link to the ZPS’s own website:
How do you create a world parliament? A transnational organization to deal with global problems? In an increasingly globalized and interconnected world, why is there no effective organization in dealing with the problems that extend beyond national borders?
This is the ambitious goal of Milo Rau’s latest political action, General Assembly. Over the three days of November 3, 4, and 5, Rau and the IIPM brought together experts, activists, and eye-witnesses for roughly twenty-one hours of arbitration and political debate about issues such as
migration, climate change, international conflict, economy, and culture. The action looks at the systemic problems of the EU, UN, and other transnational organizations and asks: how do you find an answer when there are differing perspectives and opposing views? How do we arbitrate the many issues that accompany globalization without getting bogged down in the quagmire that is international politics and governance?
General Assembly brought together people from across the globe with 60 delegates from nations in Europe, North America, South America, Africa, and Asia and in five sessions looked at a wide variety of themes as they impact us on a global level. Those audience members who sat through the entire event were given access to the various perspectives of delegates, but also the clashes of opinion, heated debates, and high-tension disagreements that inevitably accompany political movements.
General Assembly follows the logic of the Rau’s political action pieces, “what cannot be represented, cannot be imagined” (“was nicht darstellbar ist, ist nicht denkbar”). General Assembly works to create a framework for a transnational institution that does not yet exist. An institution to deal with the issues that extend beyond the local, regional, or national level; that is better equipped to explore the needs of an increasingly globalized world; and to look out for those most often forgotten and abused – those in the contemporary third estate.
The project is problematic, but it has to be.
It is very easy to criticize national and transnational institutions. It is easy to say these institutions are fundamentally broken, that many of their decisions are influenced by lobbyists and the promise of personal gain rather than the good of those they represent. It is harder to suggest an alternative, to propose, create, and perform something with the potential to be better. Even if this initial attempt does not entirely succeed, it sets up the possibility for something better to follow. The difficulties and obstacles faced during General Assembly is actually incredibly important to its broader real-world application. General Assembly was a laboratory for democracy, revealing the paradox of democracy as both intensely inspiring and deeply disappointing.
To look at General Assembly as just a performative event or just a piece of political theatre is to do the project a great injustice. It highlights the potential difficulties to be faced by future transnational institutions following in its footsteps: the challenge of selecting delegates (how do you choose delegates in a democratic way and how do you organize a democratic assembly without slipping into something inherently undemocratic), organization of time (how do you discuss important issues and potentially life-and-death situations in-depth, and variety of opinions present in a global democracy.
The lofty aspirations of the project clashed with the real world organizational realities of the event. The classically authoritarian figure of the director: delegates, political observers, and stenographers are invited by Rau and his team and not democratically elected. As well as the realities of the Schaubühne audience, a largely white, European (specifically German), bourgeois, politically left-leaning audience. Additionally, Rau and Rau’s own politics (which are at this point reasonably well known) also play an important role, both in who is invited and who is willing to accept this invitation.
Despite the overwhelming diversity among the delegates – with representatives from the DRC, Poland, Germany, America, Brazil, Equator, and more – there was a definite tilt towards left (particularly among European participants), which created a potentially damaging (and overly simplistic) dynamic of protagonists versus antagonists. Democracy functions because of differences of opinions. It is frustrating and sometimes uncomfortable to hear, but having these opinions present is still important.
The more time you spend thinking about democracy and grappling with the questions General Assembly raises – how do you create a forum where multiple voices and opinions are heard, but simultaneously is able actually create a charter for the twenty-first century and find concrete solutions instead of getting trapped in the endless cycle of discussion and disagreement that so often accompanies politics), the more difficult it becomes to define what a global democracy is or should be, and how to create it – is, to quote the political observer bishop Jo Seoka, more difficult than we thought. Even under what should be ideal conditions – the specifically dramaturgically arranged conditions at the Schaubühne – consensus may not be possible.
If we want to create the transnational institution Rau proposes – an institution that should already exist – it is so important to see these difficulties and challenges.
The General Assembly only succeeds if it is taken seriously.
Throughout the event there was a lot of discussion about legitimation or, more specifically, lack thereof. General Assembly was a performative event, carefully and thoughtfully planned. But, on several occasions it broke out of the purely performative and into the real. Moments of frustration, when there simply wasn’t enough time to talk about the issue or to properly revise the motion; when the entire structure collapsed on itself as both delegates and spectators could no longer tolerate what was being said by the delegate who actively supported the AKP and the group became split between whether he should be thrown out or allowed to stay. When the group demanded to know why he was allowed to speak three times when many delegates only got to speak once? When both delegates and spectators demanded that Milo Rau come onto the stage and explain; when several participants explain, “this is theatre and I am only playing a role here!” In the moment when one delegate yells across the floor, “THEATRE! THEATRE!” and another delegate responds, “This is not theatre!”, then this is the moment the performative has collapsed into the real and the real has come hurdling forward with the confused, forceful, conflicting, angry tenacity of the political, social, and emotional actuality of the plurality of reality.
Watching General Assembly and now writing about it, I have become increasingly distressed and frustrated with my own failure to find the correct words and terms to describe and explain what happened. This is combined with frustration that a transnational institution like Rau’s global parliament doesn’t yet exist. And the frustration at the end of the project, at the end of three days invested in this project that everything outside the theatre remains the same as it was, but it is also fundamentally different.
Robert Misik, one of the stenographers for the project, read a tweet in his closing statement that said it was impossible to watch General Assembly without becoming incredibly depressed and overcome with the feeling that the world was a terrible place and would never get better. I disagree. Yes, the world can be a dark, dismal place, but we can do something, even if that is only something small!
The triumph of General Assembly is that it succeeded in creating something. Yes, this something was flawed, trapped within its own intellectual trappings, sometimes at odds with the very democratic principles it sought to create, but it was there. For three days, there was a world parliament and a framework slowly started to emerge. It pointed to what worked and what didn’t work, and created a dialogue among the delegates about the issues and about the clash of issues presented to the delegates.
However – as was repeated throughout the closing statements – General Assembly was only the first step. General Assembly must be continued. It must extend outwards to reach more people and become a legitimate institution. Only through repetition, through adjustment, through improvement, and through continuation can the General Assembly – the first world parliament – succeed. This must be the first meeting of the General Assembly and not the last.
To quote the Belgium dramaturg Ivo Kuyl, Rau’s work does not work to represent [representeren] but to present [presenteren]. It is not about representing an institution that is already in place, but presenting an institution that is not yet there. To present how it could be and create this “could be”. It is about creating rather than copying. Milo Rau works in the concrete, and while it may seem utopian to believe that theatre can change the world and be a part of this change. To create something that is, even just for a moment, real. Bringing people from across the globe together to discuss, disagree, and create a charter for the twenty-first century to be presented to the Bundestag and other governmental institutions across the globe. To create a moment of solidarity. Solidarity marked in the meeting of about 200 people in front of the historical government building in Berlin on Tuesday (November 7) to as a group storm the Reichstag.
The only way to properly conclude is with the final statement of General Assembly’s manifesto:
“The world is a community of fate, beyond all nationalities, periods, and forms of existence. We finally need an instrument that can regulate the world market and direct ecological developments into the right channels. Let’s escape the spiral of exploitation, destruction and violence! Let’s enter the ‘General Assembly’!”
 For the representative from the DRC Prince Kihangi it was unimaginable to talk about the rights of Great Apes or animal rights when hundreds if not thousands of people are dying in the Congo alone every day in a Civil War that has been going on for more than 20 years.
*Because I am writing my dissertation about Milo Rau (and I am more than a little overly thorough/slightly obsessive/highly enthusiastic), I engaged in extensive research in preparation for LENIN and have included a few pages of this research underneath the post
*Please also note there is so much more that could be said about this production
“Every beginning is difficult, holds in all sciences.” –Karl Marx
In Milo Rau’s new production LENIN, at Berlin’s Schaubühne, Rau, his team at the IIPM [International Institute of Political Murder], and the Schaubühne Ensemble explore one of history’s most controversial figures: Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov, better known as Lenin. LENIN, as is the case in many of Rau’s productions, works to represent the unrepresentable. The figure of Lenin is completely intertwined and inseparable from his political theory and the subsequent hundred years after the
1917 Revolution: the rise and fall of the Soviet Union, the Cold War, and the demonization of Communism. Lenin is an icon, a plasticine idol sleeping in a crystal crypt. With hundreds of biographies and thousands of analyses written about Lenin, his image has been used and reused to serve the political and ideological purposes of both communism and capitalism. Yet the real Lenin, separate from the interpretation of his work and politics – the man who was according to sources shockingly uncharismatic and underwhelming normal – is notably absent from the clashing historical representations of Lenin. On one level the production engages with this complicated historiography, asking: Who is Lenin?A monster? An enemy of democracy? A hero? A mass murderer? An intellectual? A man of the common people?
“During the life of great revolutionaries, the oppressing classes constantly hounded them, received their theories with the most furious hatred and the most unscrupulous campaigns of lies and slander. After their death, attempts are made to convert them into harmless icons, to canonize them, so say, and to hallow their names to a certain extent for the ‘consolation’ of the oppressed class and with the object of duping the latter, while at the same time robbing the revolutionary theory of its substance, blunting its revolutionary edge and vulgarizing it.” – Lenin, The State and Revolution (1917)
The Palimpsestic Iconography of a Revolution:
LENIN breaks apart the icon that is Vladimir Lenin – the man whose image was placed alongside Marx and Engels, and whose likeness decorated businesses across the Soviet Union. Instead of looking at the heroic agitator and revolutionary, the production looks at a frail, ageing, dying, post-stroke Lenin hidden away from the Soviet people and the world in his Gorki villa.
The Kammerspiele structure of LENIN breaks up the production into four acts: morning, afternoon, evening, and night. This final day in Lenin’s life illustrates the construction of the Lenin-icon. This transformation from man to icon is mirrored in actor Ursina Lardi’s transformation into Lenin. The choice cast a woman in the role of Lenin has several fascinating implications such as the sexualisation of the figure and adds to the illustration of Stalin’s lust for power in actor Damir Avdic’s interactions with Lardi – cumulating in a passionate kiss. It also allows for an extreme transformation into Lenin. Lardi begins the production with long blond hair and modern clothing – quasi-out of costume – but with the steady addition of costume and makeup throughout, the eventual addition of a bald cap and Lenin’s moustache and beard, Lardi becomes the easily recognizable iconic image of Lenin.
The other actors also continue to add to their costumes, adding wigs and makeup – becoming more and more the historical figures (Lunacharsky, Krupskaya , Stalin, Trotsky, and Lenin’s household staff). As the historical figures become increasingly concrete and outwardly identifiable, the documentary realism established in “Morning” (the first act) becomes gradually surreal and dreamlike as the play progresses – like the memory of a stroke victim, which blurs and runs together, confusing itself.
When Lardi resembles Lenin the most in “Night”, Lenin is the least himself. Lardi no longer speaks clearly or moves easily. Rather, the words slur with the difficulty of someone who has had a stroke and Lenin is unable to move by his own volition, but
is carried and forced into the wheelchair he so bitterly rejected in the first act. Lenin has been reduced, his control lost. Overtaken by his own iconography, he becomes a picture alongside Marx and Engels, his voice is now weak and distorted by illness and age. His theories, his stark critique of his comrades, and the overwhelming awareness of the failings of his revolutionary ideals catch in his throat and his power is overtaken. Lenin is rewritten by the imposing figure of Stalin.
The revolution has failed.
A Choreography of Stage and Screen:
One of the most striking features of the production is the stunning visual dramaturgy and careful choreography between cinematography and onstage action. The production plays with an extreme level of intermediality and intertextuality, a live film unfolding simultaneously on stage and screen. The steady movement from documentary naturalistic realism to surrealist horror – a powerful man trapped
within both a body and political mechanism he can no longer control. His image – his face, his hair, his beard – becomes synonymous with the misappropriated ideals of a failed revolution in a rotting, corrupt system. The shift in language (German to Russian), music (the increased distortion of Bach), and color (from color film to black and white) all indicate a movement away from the realism established in the “Morning” into the dark surrealist atmosphere of “Night”. What began as hope has shifted towards a darker future.
Anton Lukas’ truly stunning stage design – a replica of Lenin’s villa on a revolving stage – creates a self-contained, closed off world, isolating Lardi’s Lenin from the outside. Parts of the villa are inaccessible to the audience, meaning certain spaces are only visible via the livestream from the two onstage cameras (manned by the two hardest working cameramen in the German theatre). One of the greatest strengths of the production is the seemingly seamless choreography between camera and actor: the effortless transitions between cameras (fades to black using dimly lit areas of the stage, movement from actors to set, and the steady camerawork of the cameramen), the brilliant use of sound throughout to highlight and compliment the visuals, and the contained, understated but simultaneously absolute fullness of the acting.
This filmic aesthetic carries throughout the performance, with an opening sequence introducing the actors and production crew and closing with end credits as the actors take their bows. Rau’s careful direction and the hard work of the entire team create what could exist solely as either a theatre performance or film, but together produce something truly exceptional. The dance between these two elements defies description, in no small part because just I don’t have the vocabulary to describe it. LENIN, on a performative and cinematic level, is a seamless, effortless visual triumph. Dark, contained, pessimistic, and beautiful.
Was tun? – What is to be done?
Throughout Milo Rau’s theatre, the past reverberates into the present. “The revolution is dying,” Trotsky (Felix Römer) asserts, “don’t you see that?” LENIN describes a starving and dying nation, its old hierarchy replaced by a new even more ruthless regime. The once young, idealistic revolutionaries have become greedy, old men and the lofty ideals of the revolution are dead and replaced by a new hierarchy. Lenin has been reduced to likeness next to Marx and Engels in a painting, his theory “robbed of its substance”. The image of a time and hope past. The revolution failed to create any real change – people are still starving and the wealth is still in the hands of the few.
How it is, Rau asserts, is not sustainable and it is cannot remain. We are also heading towards a disaster; collapse is inevitable if we – and this statement is directed to Schaubühne audience – do not change. “What is happening?” asks Lenin. “I don’t know,” replies Krupskaya and, with a fittingly beautiful cruelty, Leonard Cohen’s Who by Fire (derived from the Hebrew prayer sung on the Day of Atonement) brings LENIN to a close as the fates of the revolutionaries is revealed and the credits roll – the revolution turned and devoured itself.
“In a revolution, as in a novel, the most difficult part to invent is the end.” –Alexis de Tocqueville
LENIN is a beautiful piece of theatre and not to be missed. It is a pessimistic, but powerful ending and demands action from its audience. However, the audience is offered a refuge in the curtain-call. It is an exceptionally strong piece of theatre and I would have loved to see it break with the German curtain-call tradition, because this moment allows the audience to excuse themselves from the piece’s socio-political implications and wash their hands of their own – our own – failure.
That said, LENIN is the first act of a much larger project by Rau and the IIPM. Whereas LENIN offers a pessimistic view on the revolution, the forthcoming General Assembly (November 3-5, 2017) will look to provide a concrete example of how change is possible, because “so wie es ist, kann es nicht bleiben” (“As it is, it cannot remain”). Perhaps this moment of catharsis in LENIN is acceptable, as it is during the next act is when the real work begins.
Stay tuned for more on General Assembly in November…
“History is not like some individual person, which uses men to achieve its ends. History is nothing but the actions of men in pursuit of their ends.” –Marx
Creative Team: Milo Rau (Director); Anton Luka and Silvie Naunheim (Stage and Costume Design); Kevin Graber (Video); Stefan Bläske, Florian Borchmeyer, Nils Haarmann (Dramaturgy); Gleb J. Albert (Research); Erich Schneider (Light)
 Anatoly Lunacharsky (1875-1933), Soviet People’s Commissar of Education (responsible for education and culture)
 Nadezhda Krupskaya (1869-1939), Lenin’s wife and deputy minister of education
“I want to burn with the spirit of times. I want all servants of the stage to recognize their lofty destiny. […] Yes, the theatre can play an enormous part in the transformation of the whole of existence.”
The real trick behind really fantastic provocation is to make sure the medium doesn’t outshine the message… that the message doesn’t get muddled in the violence.
Balkan macht frei
October 11, 2017
Oliver Frljić’s 2015 production Balkan macht frei is an interesting interrogation of what it means to be European, while questioning the German theatrical institution itself. Frljić is known for his highly antagonistic and violently provocative aesthetic, and Balkan macht frei – whose title is a play on the infamous inscription on the gates of Auschwitz’s “Arbeit macht frei” – is no exception.
I will say right at the top, I understand antagonism as a means of provocation. There are certainly interesting things that antagonism can do in theatre and Frljić uses it in an undeniably interesting and thought-provoking way. BUT, there is, in my opinion, an expiration date of sorts on productions that use antagonism. Eventually the audience, through reviews, media coverage, and word of mouth, will come to know what to expect and how to react. The antagonism starts to lose some of its punch as the audience learns what to expect. The real trick behind really fantastic provocation is to make sure the medium doesn’t outshine the message… that the message doesn’t get muddled in the violence.
The play questions what is Europe and is it sustainable? Exploring what a changing Europe means for (Western) Europe’s social and political (i.e., capitalist) landscape. However, it also asks what does it mean from the perspective of the outsider – specifically as an Eastern European, as Frljić is Bosnian and works in Croatia – to enter into the hierarchic, capitalistic landscape of Western Europe (which one sees very clearly in theatre) and to become a part of it. Frljić understands the tension between his own precarious position as the artistic director of the National Theatre in Rijeka and guest director at Munich’s Residenztheater. To be both a critic of capitalism but also be dependent on it (and profit from it). To work for a large paycheck – “25,000 Euros, 5000 more than expected” – and with an even larger budget, but to be placed under the constraints of the theatrical institution and the tastes and sensibilities of the audience. How do you produce something that is critical of the society without being overcome by it? It is a fatalistic (or at the very least a cynical and pessimistic) view of a European society that is unsustainable and heading towards a disaster – “There will be,” promises the Oliver Frljić character, “a war here within the next two years.”
Antagonism is without question the central mechanism carefully employed to present the production’s central theses. It is precisely this antagonism and violence against the audience that serves to produce some absolutely unforgettable, not to mention uncomfortable, images. The red neon phrase “Balkan Macht Frei”, the interview with Feljić and the heads of the Residenztheater, the train made up of three connected animal cages with a billowing smoke stack pulled to center stage while the three (German) chorus sing from within the cages, a German song played loudly as the cast chants “Deutsch-land, Deutsch-land, Deutsch-land”, a family dinner periodically interrupted by the question “What if Germany was made up of forty million Germans and forty million Turkish people?” and the increasingly grim answers provided are all incredibly strong, cynical images that, as an audience member, stay with you when you leave the theatre and re-enter the real world.
That said, the pièce-de-résistance of the production, the scene which has caused audiences members to break the divide between themselves and the stage since the production’s original premiere in 2015, is the infamous waterboarding scene. The three chorus members – Leonard Hohm, Alfred Kleinheinz, and Jörg Lichtenstein – tape Franz Pätzold, who plays a version of Frljić, to a chair, place a burlap sack over his head, and proceed to pour over his face. The waterboarding goes on for an uncomfortable amount of time (what seems like hours), while Lichtenstein performs a monologue, simultaneously waterboarding his cast mate. This is, without a doubt, incredibly difficult to watch: A few older gentlemen in the audience angrily protested, a young man went onstage and tried to stop the two actors (but, interestingly, not going so far as to take the water away from the actors and thus not actually hindering the action), a chorus of young women loudly announced they understood the message, demanding the actors stop, and one of the older gentlemen loudly announced this was not Regietheater, but all to no avail.
I want to look at the audience reaction (a half-mobilization) specifically on October 11, 2017.
Publikumsfolter, – Torturing the Audience
Balkan macht frei premiered on May 22, 2015, about two and a half years ago. Because of audience outrage and reaction, it is a very well-known production in Munich. Throughout the course of the evening the audience is yelled at, sworn at, invited and even provoked to leave the theatre – there are undeniably strong similarities to Peter Handke’s 1966 play Publikumsbeschimpfung – translated as Insulting the Audience or Offending the Audience – where the audience is also sworn at, insulted, and generally offended. The key difference is the highly political nature of Frljić’s production (and don’t mistake me, this is a vital difference as Handke’s play has very little in the way of plot outside of insulting or offending the audience, while Frljić has a very clear point of view that he presents his audience). The original production of Publikumsbeschimpfung was a shock for its audience, a scandal, but in later productions the audience knew what would happen and how they could respond to the provocation presented to them by Handke.
Now jump to Balkan macht frei:
This play has been at the Residenztheater for over two years
There have been a lot of reviews about this play
Frljić is known for his antagonism and provocation – this is in part why he was invited to the Residenztheater
This is a well-known play in Munich because it has a scandal attached to it
I went into this play knowing very little about it, but I did know that there was waterboarding in the play, as did the person I saw the play with. One of the biggest points in the initial production was that two spectators went onstage and took the water and pitcher away from the actors thus stopping the waterboarding action (which in mentioned in most reviews). I am not saying it is impossible to go into this production without knowing what is about or what happens during ninety minutes of the show, but at this point it is difficult not to know at least a little. Therefore, it is safe to assume some, if not most, of the audience knew at least on a surface level what to expect going into this production. The protest, outrage, and annoyance of the audience thus becomes performative. They are not reacting because what they are seeing is unexpected and therefore shocking, but because the onstage and their own response as spectators is expected. Protests by the audience become a rehearsed part of the performance. But these protests are neither real nor spontaneous, rather they become half-hearted and rehearsed. The actors know how the spectators will react just as the spectators know how to react, and I would argue a certain part of the experience of Balkan macht frei is dependent on precisely this dynamic, because no one takes the water away from the actors anymore.
Speaking only for myself, I did not intervene. I watched the entire waterboarding action, uncomfortable as it may have been, and just white-knuckled through it without looking away. Something was being said and something was happening and I wanted to hear and see it. I cannot say if this was the right or the wrong reaction, all I can say is that I choose to trust the actors to look out for each other, Pätzold to know his limits, and that the water in the red mop bucket that was being poured in the crystal pitcher would eventually run out of water and the action would eventually end.
But was this just an image like all the others in the production? A theatre trick? Was the actor in danger or was it something else, like the prop gun fired at the opening of the performance in the summary executions of the main figures of the German theatrical tradition from Lessing to the Residenztheater’s own Martin Kušej?
Regietheater – Staatstheater – Performance Art
I want to look at one audience comment that stuck with me: “this is not Regietheater!” But, I counter, this is a Staatstheater (i.e., state-funded theatre), a part of the Bayerisches Staatstheater, arguably one of the most prodigious theatrical institutions in Germany. Frljić wrote this text specifically for this theatre and rehearsed with their actors and produced it in their space. This is a Residenztheater production written and directed by Oliver Frljić, provocateur, for the Residenztheater. What appeared on the stage at the Marstall was what we as audience members paid to see. If this is not Regietheater, or a part of the tradition of Regietheater, what can we call it?
Frljić’s production tapes into a sore nerve in the German state-funded theatres (an institution unimaginably for many non-German theatre artists), if a production appears on the stage of a Staatstheater as a part of the repertoire, it must be something different from performance art. So why it is one thing for a performance artist like Marina Abramović to cut herself or administer other forms of self-harm in a production, but something else when an actor in a Staatstheater (an employee of the theatre) consents an scene (such as the waterboarding scene) production? What is the difference? That Pätzold has for the past two and a half years continued to perform on a regular basis in Balkan macht frei, and that the Residenztheater continues to have the show in its repertoire is certainly indicative of something. Realistically, Pätzold, and the other three actors, all consented to this troubling scene. They could stop it, as actors do – and this should come to a shock to no one – have a certain level of agency in their actions.
Perhaps one of the reasons this is so troubling to people is because Frljić’s production does blur the line between theatre and performance art, as the burning question of how much of what we are seeing is real and how much illusion is left largely unanswered as the actors take their bows. It becomes exceedingly clear that simplistic definitions of performance art as real or authentic in its one-time performance in binary opposition to theatre’s rehearsed and repeatable productions are not accurate. Between these definitions, as is visible in Balkan macht frei, there is overlap, or at the very least the potential for overlap. With the ongoing struggle between performance art and theatre (here meaning a scripted, repeatable production) in the German theatrical institution, Frljić adds yet another layer to an already multilayered production.
Balkan macht frei is extremely challenging and highly problematic, but it is very smart and does say something. It may not be to everyone’s taste, nor should it be, but it offers a unique take on the future of Germany as a whole.
Do I personally think it always succeeds in what it attempts to do? No. But I think it succeeds in a number of places. The production is only ninety minutes and dense, there is not a single minute wasted. There are a lot of subtle comments made throughout the production that cut a lot deeper, I think, than many of the larger mainstage moments in the production, but they succeed because of the jagged edge of their subtlety, while in the more central moments (the prime example being the waterboarding) there is the tendency to lose what is actually being said because the image is so powerful and violent it overshadows the rhetoric. Yet, despite the cries “we understand!” “we’ve got what you’re saying!” I actually find it difficult to recall what was being said.
I did enjoy the show in a sense, because it was unique and violently different from what I am used to seeing at the Residenztheater and I would see another production by Oliver Frljić. And while Balkan macht frei is not for everyone, it is certainly for some and for those I would certainly recommend it.
What is the responsibility of Europe and North America (and the wider West) in the ongoing civil war in the Congo? An early analysis of Milo Rau’s new documentary film about the 2015 tribunal by the same name. Milo Rau’s Das Kongo Tribunal
Das Kongo Tribunal*
Dir. Milo Rau
August 7, 2017
Again, this is a long post, but for this I make no apologies. The film Das Kongo Tribunal explores an issue that does not have nearly enough words dedicated to it. I don’t have enough words to properly explore this issue in full, but here are a few words about the film and the issue at the heart of both the original tribunal and the subsequent documentary.
I am going to start this post with the final words of this post: see this film! If nothing else see this film! If you don’t get through this entry entirely than watch Das Kongo Tribunal when it comes to theatres, because what it says is so so so important.
Two years after the highly ambitious political-action and theatrical trial Das Kongo Tribunal (The Congo Tribunal), Milo Rau has released the documentary film by the same title. The film shortens the massive six-day trial Rau staged in Bukavu – the Democratic Republic of the Congo [DRC], and Berlin, Germany to a 100 minutes. The initial project was, praised as one of the most ambitious theatre projects of its time by the Guardian and its subsequent filmic translation was invited to the world-renowned Locarno Film Festival in Locarno, Switzerland.
I, unfortunately, did not have the opportunity to see any the original trial in 2015, so it is only fair to state, my interpretation of the trial in this post is built entirely (or almost entirely) on the documentary film as well as reviews, video clips, twitter feeds, and accounts of the original project (the official IIPM [Rau’s production company: International Institute of Political Murder] book on Das Kongo Tribunal is not released until August 8, 2017 and not available at the moment I am writing this – also August 8, 2017).
After nearly seven hours of buses and trains the morning of August 7, 2017, I along with many others filed into the unair-conditioned L’altra Sala on the outer edges of the festival grounds in Locarno. The room was sweltering hot as the final guests packed into the theatre. Opening words introduced the film in French and English, one of the members of the film team joked in English that the sweltering temperature in the stall provided an authentic viewing experience. A few words were said in French and English – some I understood and others I did not. The lights blinked off and the crowd fell silent as film opened to the aftermath of a massacre at a school in the East Congo, the victims were mostly children.
The safe distance of words I had read in preparation (academic books and articles about the DRC) rapidly dissolved and my beloved cool academic distance drastically reduced. The opening credits rolled and I felt a knot in my throat.
A Tribunal for the Congo:
The DRC is in resources one of the richest and most valuable countries in the world.
How is it then, that Congo is also one of the most poverty-stricken nations in the world with some of the poorest people?
Congo, to paraphrase Rau, has always had the misfortune of having exactly what the West wanted: gold, diamonds, and – most recently – Coltan, a substance necessary for smart phones, tablets, and computers. The continued mining of these resources is therefore highly beneficial for the West and providing for our daily comforts and conveniences. I cannot help but reflect I am writing this post on a laptop that certainly contains the aforementioned mineral and is, without a doubt, the direct result of this conflict in the Congo).
Das Kongo Tribunal explores the ongoing conflict (really the ongoing civil war) in the DRC and place of the West and Western corporations in the creation and proliferation of violence and poverty. The film looks at the complexities of the conflict, exploring the influence of foreign corporations such as the Canadian mining giant BANRO that mine the land until there are no minerals left, forcing people off their land, pumping poison into the water, and profiting from the continued unrest. The documentary also looks at the role of the cooperation of the Congolese government with these corporations and the government’s inability/unwillingness to intervene and prevent further massacres and violence.
Much like Rau’s two other trial dramas, Die Moskauer Prozesse and Die Zürcher Prozess, Das Kongo Tribunal attempts to look at the argument from various perspectives to provide an even understanding of the issue at the heart of the trial. Members of the government and militia speak alongside farmers and miners. Witnesses and experts provide their diverse perspectives on the situation in the DRC. Even the Canadian Mining Firm BANRO (a company out of Saskatchewan) is shown to have built schools and hospitals in the regions it mines.
Rau, true to form, is not interested painting a simplistic black and white picture, but rather works to show a full picture (or as full as is possible in the span of six days or 100 minutes) inclusive of the complexities and shades of gray. Rau looks at the complexities of the situation, at the political, economic, and moral sides of the issue. The film jumps between the initial three-day tribunal in Bukavu and the subsequent three-day tribunal in Berlin, although there is, understandably, a larger focus on the days in Bukavu in the documentary. This directorial choice places the perspective largely in the hands of those people on the ground – those directly involved and affected by the mines and conflict.
A Moral Argument:
At the heart of the film is the threefold economic, political, and moral argument. As Rau presents this argument it becomes clear, while they are inseparably intertwined, it is both easy and dangerous to conflate these three elements. The moral argument is, understandably, the moral argument the most slippery of the three. The West inherently benefits from Coltan and gold mines and the destruction and conflict spread by this booming industry. A minority of the Congolese, such as those in the upper echelons of government, benefit on a small financial scale while the vast majority suffers for to the benefit of these few.
Thus the problematic and uncomfortable truth reveals itself: How can we in the West consider ourselves a moral and enlightened society (and indeed this concept of “enlightenment” remains central to our concept of self), when we
have built our everyday on the poverty and exploitation of others? Economics ties into the political and the political into the moral, because isn’t it the purpose of government to look out for the best interests of its people? Simply: moral economics (more broadly moral capitalism) cannot exist and as politicians are involved in this economic process neither can moral politics. For the West the question of morality becomes geographic – i.e., as long as I can’t see it than it isn’t really my problem (not in my backyard) or what Rau calls cynical humanism.
The problematic truth of the matter is in the end when the resources are gone, the West will leave but Congo will still be there and left without resources.
What is the cost of a laptop or cellphone in terms of human life? Yet it is naïve to think there is a way back – to rewind. The movement forward is now situated in the question of what do we as spectators do with this new knowledge? As Rau in his closing statement asserts: while the tribunal is fictional, it will be legitimated in the changes brought about through the awareness it brings.
A Canadian Perspective on a Swiss Perspective:
For me, one of the most problematic elements of the film was the centrality, the physical presence, of Milo Rau in the film. It initially appeared to be a white, cis man coming to save the poor oppressed Africans unable to save or help themselves. However, this opening from a white perspective actually serves as an entrance into an extremely nuanced critique of a system built largely around the perspective of white, cis-gendered men.
The film rapidly shifts from Rau to the people – the witnesses, the survivors, the experts, the generals, the government officials, and all those in between. In the opening moment at the site of the school
massacre, the camera is focused on Rau, but as the young student activist comes into frame showing Rau what has happened, Rau pushes the cameraman forward and steps out of frame. The focus is no longer Rau – the white, cis-gender, Swiss man – but instead this individual, seething with anger and outrage about what is happening to his people and that no one knows. Thus, Rau becomes as much a spectator as the viewing audience, undergoing a similar journey from ignorance to comprehension. Here we the viewer see what can be done with this new knowledge (Rau made a performance and documentary) and that something can indeed be done.
Certainly something that has always bothered me – not bothered but always remained at the back of my mind – is closely connected to this problem of perspective.
We are inevitably and inescapably shaped by our cultural, social, political, economic contexts. I can say with great certainty that part of the reason why Das Kongo Tribunal shook me. It challenged a certain part of my core conception of what it meant to be Canadian. My basic education taught me Canadians are peacekeepers, an assumption I have held in small part onto. Yet BANRO, a Canadian corporation, is clearly involved in creating conflict, which the government has done little to prevent and little to reveal, and I, as a consumer, have benefited from this profiteering. I am forced to come face to face with my own ignorance about the entire situation. A quick look at BANRO’s website reveals smiling faces of employees with no trace of the conflict raging in DRC or the cost of the minerals it mines (in the case of BANRO, gold).
How did I not know this? How is this new? How hard have I worked to keep the blindfold on and my eyes closed?
A mixture of horror, anger, and sadness marked this realization of complicity through ignorance: It was so easy not to know and not to question. The name BANRO has certainly floated in the background of my life (particularly since starting to research Milo Rau) and was always associated with the occasional scandal, but never seemed quiet important enough to dig a little deeper. Even with a PhD supervisor whose worked extensively with the history of the DRC and my own preliminary research in preparation for this documentary – all of which perhaps gave me the false impression I was not ignorant – the carefully windexed walls of my own glass house are all of a sudden painfully visible.
Returning to Rau, the nagging question for me has always been why is a Swiss director making theatre and political actions about these issues that seem so far outside himself? I am product of a Canadian social, political and economic understanding of the world and Rau is invariably a product of his Swiss
understanding of the world, an essentially Swiss artist. Why does he choose to re-write history? And why does he get to re-write history? This is a question so inseparable from privilege and the privilege of being a white European with the disproportionate power that this allows us. Isn’t it just colonialism in another form or classic revisionist history? Rewriting the history of another people to better suit me?
Isn’t this just more of the same old same old?
But it isn’t.
It is privilege repurposed for the sake of something good – or at least something better.
Maybe I’m wrong and maybe Rau is wrong, but only history will be able to judge that. But privilege and a deep-rooted fear of this privilege has always dissuaded me from taking action, because who am I to tell someone else’s story? Who am I to take action? (And admittedly this is in itself a show of my privilege that I have the luxury of not having to take action) Yet Rau takes on this role with an absolute self-awareness. He is the white man in the crowd at the political rally in Bukavu who is going to create a tribunal for the people. He is privileged, but he is not paralyzed by a fear of this privilege or afraid it will somehow denigrate his work. Instead, Rau repurposes his power and privilege providing a megaphone for the voiceless. This does not
make the issue of power and privilege any less problematic, but it attempts to do something and create a palpable change in the world.
And while I continue to struggle with the implications this certainly entails, I nevertheless respect Rau greatly for what he does and the risks he takes in his work. It is an incredibly brave undertaking and the effectiveness of the work speaks for itself, what started out as a 600-word blog quickly turned into over 2000 words and I have barely scratched the surface of the film let alone the actual tribunal. To open oneself up to critique, while recognizing there is a highly problematic element present in what you do, but do it anyway because it needs to be done. And if not by Milo Rau, or you or I for that matter, than who? To be a passive observer is not enough and, to quote one of the judges at the tribunal Jean-Louis Gilissen, “it will never be enough.”
Final Thoughts (for now):
To quote Rau’s 2015 production Mitleid, “Here, amid these million dead and raped, to cry, that would be the very last,” and yet, as Rau’s dramaturg Stefan Bläske says in an interview about Mitleid, there is nothing left to do but that.
The tribunal closes with a moment of immense dissatisfaction: The tribunal is fictional and has not yet become real. In the moment of the verdict what Rau calls the rapid Entdramatisierung, or de-dramatization, takes place. The tribunal was fictional, but the testimonies real. The freedom of the performance space (its implied fictionality) allowed for a reality realer than any real (in this sense proper legal) tribunal. As the theatricality falls away the crushing reality comes crashing down onto the head of the spectator: as I leave the theatre nothing outside has changed, but I am now awake to the reality and gravity of the situation. Rau asserts in his final statement that in knowing and spreading this knowledge change becomes possible, thus the tribunal will eventually legitimate itself.
In this spirit my final word (and first word) is see this film! If nothing else see this film!
*Please note, having only watched the film once and the film is extremely full. I have certainly missed at least one major theme present and will most definitely have to amend this post after reading the publication and seeing the film again. This review/analysis of the production is best described as a first response to the film and is in no way definitive or complete.
About a month ago I entered an the University of Alberta Department of Library’s Images of Research contest with an image about my work and work process. Turns out I won something. Since I can’t be there today to accept whatever award I won (I assume honourable mention or something) or to even find out which I won (I just know I got something). I’m going to post both the picture and my short speech here… I don’t know… ego reasons? To feel heard? The usual!
I would first like to thank everyone involved in Images of Research! When I submitted this image, I never imagined it would go further than that. Thank you. I’m very sorry that I can’t be here, in person, today.
“Re-Packing my Suitcase: A Collection in Understanding” is a visual depiction of my process of writing a dissertation, which is marked – like I think for all students – by a need to understand. I am writing about the theatre work of Swiss director Milo Rau, whose picture is visible in my image and whose highly political theatre has carried him across the globe – most recently to Mosul in Northern Iraq. Rau’s obsessive, international search for understanding has undeniably both informed and inspired my own. Throughout this degree, I have undertaken more research trips than I can count, travelling to strange cities in foreign countries for various productions, lectures, festivals, discussions, conferences, rehearsals, and interviews. Because of this methodology, I often feel that I am always engaged in some form of packing or unpacking. These trips are evidenced by a collection of programs, ticket stubs, books, and notebooks – all visible in my image – all of which serve as physical reminders of not only what I have learned for my dissertation but also the friends I’ve made, the places I’ve been, and the experiences I’ve had along the way.
The title of this image is inspired by Walter Benjamin’s essay “Unpacking my Library.” An essay about collecting and about the relationship between a collector and their possessions. Collections tell not only the story of the object, but also the story of the collector. The process of writing a thesis or a dissertation is inevitably a process of collection. Every student here amasses knowledge throughout their degree. When I first read the call for Images of Research, I wondered what it would look like to put all the physical artifacts of this acquisition of knowledge into a single place. I took the battered old suitcase that has accompanied me on so many of my journeys, that has carried so many of these documents home, and began packing my research about Rau back into it. But – unexpectedly – handling these scraps brought back so many memories: memories of each journey, each destination, each acquisition. This is an image of a process: a writing process, a collection process, a curation process, and a process of remembering that took place while trying to arrange the documents for the photograph. It contains so many memories, so many hidden meanings, so many remnants of long-past conversations and late-night adventures. “Re-Packing my Suitcase” gestures to the connection between research and self. It explores the writing process on a deeply individual and personal level that I hope speaks to the experiences of my fellow graduate students. It asks:
What are the scraps we collect during our time as students?
What does it look like trying to fit all these scraps into a suitcase?
What does it feel like to handle each one of these documents again?
About a week ago I did an interview with the Mitch Dexter’s Edmonton-based podcast Wenghtalk Radio about theatre, controversy, and the theatre of Milo Rau. Follow the link here, or available on Spotify and I-Tunes.