Form and Politics: An Introduction to the Theatre of Milo Rau

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Form and Politics: An Introduction to the Theatre of Milo Rau

Lorenzo Mango

When he was in his twenties, Milo Rau left Berne, where he was born, to study in Berlin, Paris and Zurich. He focused on Sociology, and German and Romance Literature. At the same time, he developed an interest in political and social problems around the world and began writing about them, especially humanitarian tragedies, war crimes and the related genocides. So the young student became an activist as well.Today we are in an era that spans the end of the twentieth century and the beginning of the new century. Many things are changing. The face of Europe has transformed since the fall of communist regimes, but the process is still on going. In 1990 the reunification of Germany was achieved. Between 2004 and 2007, countries like Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic were admitted into European Union. In the 1990s there was the Balkan War, whose consequences persisted until 2001. Outside of Europe, especially in Africa, but also in Afghanistan, from day to day the situation becomes more explosive.

Milo Rau became involved in this dramatic scene, working to shed light on it and to denounce crimes and genocides. At same time, he turned his attention to post-communist Europe and to wars around the world. He was not active in theatre in those early years. Milo Rau was above all a young writer and an activist. He was not even interested in theatre from the point of view of the spectator. Instead he focused on cinema, especially the Berlin School, a group of young filmmakers, like Christian Petzold, Thomas Arslan and Angela Schanelec, who, during the 1990s, produced movies portraying the hard social conditions of the ‘new’ Germany in a very realistic way.

Realism and a personal mission to communicate reality are what pushed Milo Rau into a theatre not conceived as an aesthetic production, but as a way to re-enact History into the present. When, in the following interview, Rau speaks about the reasons that induced him to turn to theatre, he cites its ‘liveness’, the chance of storytelling, the synergy of a work made in collaboration among different creative persons and the establishment of a sense of community with the audience. He gives reasons that appear on the one hand to touch the theatre’s ‘heart’ as posed by the Avant-Gardes of the last century, while on the other hand, considering theatre as a ‘medium’ more than an art in itself. Using Grotowski’s famous definition (but in a totally different way), we could talk about Milo Rau’s poetics of ‘art as a vehicle’, which doesn’t mean indifference to theatre’s artistic dimension but means considering theatre as a medium able to create an extremely strong impact to achieve a high level of communication.

As Rau states, in theatre events that have historical relevance can live again. Theatre is the ideal space for re-enacting, something that comes from the past can become present. But the acts Milo Rau is interested in are the real acts of real History, which find a new life on stage. This goes beyond characters in a play. But what does ‘re-enactment’ mean, for Rau, and how does he realise it? This is the problem he poses with his theatre and therein lies its relevance. We will explore this more later, when we discuss what Rau means by ‘realism’ and analyse some of his productions. For the moment I will simply say that Rau doesn’t conceive realism as imitation or re-enactment as a hypothetical mimesis. Realism is not a style.

But let’s go back to the facts. When in 2007, Milo Rau decided to have a structure for his productions (after some performances made as a freelance director), he created the International Institute of Political Murder (IIPM). Not a standard or avant-gardist theatre ensemble, but a project that included theatre, movie-making, books and lectures addressing current social and political violence. The IIPM, as they themselves write, focuses ‘on the multimedia treatment of historical and socio-political conflicts’.1 IIPM’s aim is to address History as place of conflicts through different media that can produce different effects in different contexts. But theatre is the point from which everything starts, creating around the performance a very rich and complex process of research. As Rau often says, his theatre is a process that produces, of course, a product, but the product does not fully explain the whole work. It is part of a process and not the reverse, as is normally believed.

Another statement likens Milo Rau’s way of working to some of the most renown twentieth-century theatre groups – notably Grotowski, Living Theatre and Odin Teatret – but with fundamental differences. If these groups considered the ‘process’ as a way to destroy the ‘product’ as a ‘work of art’, transforming theatre into a living experience (at least in a certain period of their work), Milo Rau’s performances are the result of the working process taking on a value in itself. The audience is in relationship with a work of art that is self-reliant, that communicates to the public what it is, as a socio-political event but an aesthetic event as well. From this point of view, the construction of a play as ‘project and process’ is similar to the work of the visual artist Christo. When he does his large ‘packages’ or other complex projects (for example, The Floating Piers, on Lake Iseo), he considers the organisational process an integral part of the work, even if people see only the result. Therefore, the dialectics between process and product are extremely relevant in Milo Rau’s theatre, which nonetheless retains a specificity that distinguishes it from what was theorized and practiced in the last century. Rau’s approach to theatre is closer to conceptual art, starting with the first production he did for the IIPM: The Last Days of the Ceausescus (2009).

The project started from the idea of re-enacting the documentary film of the trial that condemned to death Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu and his wife Elena on December 25, 1989. Milo Rau literally recreated the set, the actions and the words of the trial, so the facts seemed to be reproduced exactly. Realism, in this production, seems to coincide with representation. In some ways this is true but in a problematic manner. There is a ‘forcing’ of the traditional idea of realism, in the direction of a kind of verbatim theatre, but also in a way that recalls ‘hyperrealism’ in the visual arts, a pictorial reproduction of reality that is so extreme it contradicts both the artificiality of art and the concreteness of reality.

What is ‘real’? is the question behind The Last Days of the Ceausescus. We have at least two levels of reality: the facts and their filmed reproduction. There is a filter between us and the ‘presence’, the only reality we can know is a ‘media reality’. So realism cannot be a fact: it is a problem – a linguistic problem. Milo Rau highlights this by introducing the performance with a sort of media prologue. A series of screens close the view to the stage. Filmed images of real witnesses and excerpts of the original documentary film are projected onto them. Then the screens are removed and we can see the scene constructed in the centre of an empty stage, a kind of mise-en-abîme of the theatre: is it the reconstruction of the real trial or a ‘set’ for a documentary? Milo Rau leaves the question open.

When we talk of historical reality, we talk about something that does not exist in itself, but is the product of a work of ‘imaginative reconstruction’. How was Julius Caesar really killed? Why did Napoleon lose the battle of Waterloo? We can reconstruct such events through documents. The documents themselves become ‘the real’. Milo Rau, working on the reality onstage, is aware of this. Speaking of realism, or as he prefers, ‘new realism’, he says: ‘To work realistically quite simply means to bring the real out of the shadow of documentation’. He adds: ‘I think that new realism is an attempt to close the monstrous gap that has appeared between what has happened and how we talk about it’.2 The problem of realism in theatre, consequently, is to construct a linguistic system that puts together, in a dialectic relationship, the real events, their documentation and their transformation into a new reality, that of the stage, which for Rau is the prime concern. We face two different levels of reality, the historical one, that we can experience only in an indirect way, and the theatrical one, which is real as well as artificial, because it is always the result of a creative act. The re-enactment – says the director considered the ‘master of re-enactment’ – does not exist: what exists is ‘a dialectic process, an acting practise that has exactly as much to do with fantasy and with precision’.3

After The Last Days of the Ceausescus, which makes this statement very clearly, Milo Rau continued in this mode, confronting the relationship between theatre, historical reality and realism. In 2011 he produced Hate Radio, a performance on the genocide in Rwanda in 1994. The topic of the play was the radio station RTLM, which was a merciless instrument of the genocide, broadcasting a mixture of popular music, propaganda against the Tutsi (racial minority of the country) and rejoicing over mass murders. Rau reconstructed a RTLM radio show, using real words and real situations, but this time, in a different way than in The Last Days of the Ceausescus. There was no model to ‘imitate’, everything, from characters to dialogue, was written and staged by Rau himself. Therefore, the hyper-realistic effect is the result of an artificial construction, based on a long work of documentation. True is false, or should we say, truth is an artistic event. Milo Rau writes that the re-enactment consists of the ‘agreement that everything is only a play, a picture, a reproduction, a repetition’.4 Realism, as I’ve said before, is a problem – a linguistic problem – not the simple act of creating something that is as much as possible similar to reality. This is true also because the reality, as a fact, does not exist in itself. Theatre is the place to face the reality, not to reproduce it.

What I called hyper-realism is not the only linguistic solution Milo Rau chooses. Realism is not a style: realism is an aim and a process of working. It is the result of the dialectics of different elements, and can assume equally different theatrical forms. We can organise the impressive corpus of Rau’s theatre (more than twenty performances in the ten years since the founding of IIPM) around three main models: witnessing as a dramatic form, the trial as a dramatic form and narrative deconstruction as a dramatic form. All three have two elements in common. One, obviously, is facing historical events without ‘imitating’ them. The second is the use of video reproduction onstage, so that we have, at the same time, a real action and a filmed one, with a relation between them that can assume different forms. Both highlights that realism is a linguistic problem.

In the productions based on witnessing the drama is conceived as a personal account related to a historical event. It is a very intimate model of dramaturgy, almost completely lacking in dramatic action. Between 2014 and 2016 Milo Rau realised a trilogy dedicated to Europe: The Civil Wars (2014), The Dark Ages (2015) and Empire (2016). Each performance addresses a different aspect of Europe. The first is about the identity of Europe, its values and its matters at the beginning of the twenty-first century, primarily in Western Europe. In The Dakr Ages this topic is widened to include Eastern Europe and the hard process of unifying, looking at Serbia, Bosnia, Russia and Germany. Empire presents the problem of migration and refugees. The question of the trilogy is: what is Europe today, how has it changed, and continues to change? What future is possible, considering the present and the past?

The performances are constructed as a series of confessions by actors/characters, who tell stories in person, like monologues, in succession. There are no dramatic narrations, dialogues or action. Each actor/character speaks directly to the audience, most of the time ignoring the other characters. But the communication with the public is not as direct as it might seem. In front of the actors there are little cameras, activated by actors, that project their images (especially the faces) on a large screen above the stage. The audience is thus confronted with two levels of reality: the material one and the media one. What do we see: an everyday environment or a movie set? The set, increasing the mise-en-abîme effect, is a little stage, with real furniture, placed in the centre of the stage. It does not represent reality but ‘quotes’ it. The act of speaking is real, the environment is real, as is the way the actors present themselves not as interpreters, but as persons and their talk is about real events. But this reality is presented as a post-modern fragment, placed in an empty space, and the actors’ act of filming themselves transforms the unity of the perception. Realism is declared to be an artificial act, to be the result of a deconstruction of the representation system.

Rau’s second approach to realism is to relate theatre to a trial. If considered in a historical perspective, this approach brings us back to the ancient Greek classical tragedies: Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex is constructed as a trial and we find a real tribunal in Aeschylus’ Eumenides (third part of the Oresteia). Theatre as storytelling reminds us that the first forms of oral communication are social.

Trial, in Rau’s work, is not a metaphor, and can assume various forms. He can, for example, construct a real trial onstage, discussing real events. Such is the case in The Moscow Trials (2013). Milo Rau went to Moscow and staged an authentic tribunal, based on the trial of the Pussy Riot, the female punk ensemble that held a protest for human rights in the Moscow Cathedral, and was condemned to two years in a penal camp. Did Milo Rau re-enact that event, which sparked protests around the world? Not exactly. He widens his attention to the censorship against the art in Putin’s Russia. In Rau’s production the tribunal is real: the people involved in acting it are real (not professional actors); the discussions are real and the consequences are real (some months ago Milo Rau could not go to Russia to receive the European Theatre Prize). But no trial resembling the one staged by Rau ever existed. As he says, his trials are ‘utopic’ because they should exist but they did not. That is why he performs them, doing it in the original context (the Sakharov Centre in Moscow for The Moscow Trials, for example, or a location in the eastern Congo for The Congo Tribunal, 2015, which discusses the terrible Congo War).

If the ‘utopic’ re-enactment of real or ‘possible’ trials is a path Milo Rau takes, it is not the only one. Breivik’s Statement (2012) is apparently a monologue spoken by the actress Sascha Ö. Soydan. I say ‘apparently’ because the dramatic form is that of a monologue, an actress speaking alone directly to the audience. But the text she reads from is the document Andres Breivik read during his trial for the murder of more than seventy young people in Norway. Breivik was a ‘lone wolf’ terrorist in the name of ‘preserving’ European racial integrity. His neo-Nazi pronouncements can appear crazy, but was the theoretical aspect (if we can use this term) of his bloody act different from the kinds of opinions that are currently spreading all over Europe, through nationalism and racism? From one point of view, Breivik’s Statement is a new reflection about Europe, its present and its destiny. Rau’s dramatic construction is an excerpt from a trial, literally reproduced, but removed from its original context. It is a fragment, given, with a further effect of alienation, to a woman, who plays it in a neutral way, just stopping from time to time and looking ahead with an empty expression, so the audience can pay attention to what they are hearing. Breivik’s Statement, in addition to being another approach to ‘trial as theatre’, poses a linguistic problem: the dialectic relation between realism and something we can refer to as the Brechtian Verfremdungseffekt.

Milo Rau’s third approach to realism is the construction of a story through the deconstruction of its representation. This is the case in Five Easy Pieces (2016) and The Repetition. Historie(s) du théâtre (2018). Both performances are based on events of criminal violence. The first is based on the so-called Marcinelle Monster (from the name of a city in Belgium), a man who kidnapped, raped and killed teenage girls until he was arrested and two of the girls were saved. The Repetition re-enacts, instead, the murder of a young homosexual by a group his own age. Both performances seem, apparently, to address events that have no historical relevance. But this is not the case. Milo Rau presents these events to the audience as a tragedy – a tragedy with historical motivations, arising from racial and moral prejudices. The story of the Marcinelle Monster is related to the independence of the Congo (where the killer grew up) and the murder of Congo President Lumumba, which completely changed the African political history. The Repetition shows what monstrosities can be produced by an irresponsible and violent use of words. These two stories are both private and public, and focus on Europe and the crisis of its cultural and human values. Both are tragedies, and we can understand why Rau is currently working on Aeschylus’ Oresteia, as a way of going back to the roots of tragedy. His Orestes in Mosul is set in the city of northern Iraq, for a long time occupied by Isis forces. For Rau Mosul is a place of tragedy just as Argo was for Aeschylus.

Both performances incorporate elements that identify them as a particular form of re-enactment. The cameras, previously very small and used directly by the actors, are now professional, mounted on tripods and used by a cameraman, and are an active part of the performance, changing the stage into a kind of movie set. The plot’s narrative line is deconstructed in fragments, in separate scenes that appear to the audience exactly like movie sets. The deconstruction of the plot is emphasised by another of Rau’s innovations. The performance is introduced by a sort of prologue: the audition of possible actors for the performance. In The Repetition there are two non-professional performers, who are interviewed by a Commission about their interest in theatre. In Five Easy Pieces an actor asks a group of children (who will act in the performance) why they are there, why they are curious about theatre, what they are able to do (singing, dancing, acting), what kinds of characters they would prefer to perform, and if they know the story of the Marcinelle Monster. In both cases, access to the narration is shown as an artificial act, which establishes a dialectics between the reality of the real and the reality of the theatre. Another Verfremdungseffekt is produced by the movies projected on big screens above the scene. Sometimes we have close-ups of the actors which, isolating the set from the whole stage, gives an effect of reality. But sometimes the result can be totally different. In Five Easy Pieces the same actions are made by children onstage and by adults on the screen, perfectly corresponding to the children. In one of the most touching scenes in The Repetition, the parents of the young victim are naked in their bed. We see the scene on the screen, but, at the same time, the two actors are onstage, seated on chairs while the cameraman films them projecting their faces onto the screen alternatively with the bed scene.

Realism, in Milo Rau’s theatre, is a ‘process’ not only because the performance results from a long working process with people of diverse racial and social origins, situating his ideas in relation to different and very often extreme contexts, but also because the language’s unity has undergone a deconstruction process. Theatre is a way of storytelling, of re-enacting genocides, racial conflicts and human right abuses, and also a way to reflect, from a metalinguistic approach, on its grammar, on its structural status as a language. This is why previously I likened some of Rau’s linguistic propositions to the conceptual art movement of the 1960s. Conceptualism doesn’t imply an unemotional result, but a different way of producing feeling, which includes a rational awareness, as in the work of Bertolt Brecht, whose model is not unlike Rau’s. Both these elements are synthesised in the Ghent Manifesto, ten rules that Rau established in May 2018, when he assumed the artistic direction of NTGent, the theatre of Ghent, in Belgium. These ten rules, published in our anthology of documents, establish not an aesthetics, but a working method that expresses an idea of theatre, and presents itself as an analytic reflection on the language of theatre.

One last thing about realism as a process. If it is relevant how a production is constructed, it is equally important where it is offered to the audience. When The Last Days of the Ceausescus is presented in Romania, The Moscow Trials in Russia and The Congo Tribunal in the Congo, they gain an added-value. Theatre enters into the real world that it talks about. Realism, in these special cases, becomes a concrete sharing experience and its artificial dimension touches the real lives of the spectators. Milo Rau is continually looking for this kind of experience; for a theatre that addresses reality, bringing together a real event, a real representative situation, a real sharing experience with the audience, and, involving people in the production, not only as actors or technicians, but, first of all, as human beings coming from all over the world. ‘Global realism’ is the term Milo Rau uses to define a theatre on the road, which tries to connect worlds, people, ideas, in a social context that unfortunately is filled with separations, conflicts, and rejection and exploitation of others. His theatre is a witness, and as a witness it is a political act, like the ancient Greek tragedy: questioning the meaning of life, and the structure of human and social relations without offering an easy and comforting answer.

1. About IIPM. Production Company for Theatre, Film and Social sculpture: www. (last consult 12/23/2018).

2. Milo Rau, Globarer Realismus. Global Realism (Gent: NTGent & International Institute of Political Murder, 2018) 176, 178.

3. Rau, 162.

4. Rau, 173.