Tribunal is another word for Tragedy
Interview with Milo Rau by Lorenzo Mango (28 Nov. 2018)
Lorenzo: When you were very young your interests were oriented to political and social activism and you have been a scholar in sociology too. How and why did you decide to transfer these interests into theatre?
Milo: I was about 20–21, when I started to do theatre. I went at that time to Berlin to study. (Before I had studied in Paris). My then-girlfriend was studying theatre and directing, and started working in theatre, so I began to be interested in it too. I didn’t have a typical approach to theatre; I hadn’t as a very young boy been used to going to the theatre. I just started to do it, and I decided this for several reasons. One is that theatre is a place where you can do things in the moment; it’s not like writing, where you have to publish, or like cinema, that needs a whole post-production process. In theatre you can just try it out, so you are working at the very moment, and that’s what I liked.
A second reason is that you can mix everything – I don’t know, political work, telling stories, camera work, lights, working together with people etc. – all you can bring in. Last but not least, theatre is a collective work, so it’s not like writing. I like writing too, sometimes, working alone, but I prefer working with people, so that’s why I prefer, for example, an interview to just writing a text, because there’s somebody listening, and this is close to how you work in theatre. You come into a room where you find people watching you, waiting for an action. That’s how I approach my work, and it’s very practical, usually. At the same time, there can be a lot of accidents.
I think the last reason for me is the situation of trends taking off, in Germany especially. I think that every country has its main art, so to speak, perhaps in France it’s writing books or philosophy or making movies; in the US it’s shows; in England it’s TV; in Japan it’s comics; and in Germany, I think, it’s theatre, an art made by a lot of people, and widely discussed. Whatever you do in theatre can create big discussions. Theatre is really a public art in Germany, much more, I think, than in other countries, much more than shooting movies or writing books. The fact that it’s a public art is another reason I chose to do theatre.
Lorenzo: So, you chose theatre because it was a way to tell stories but also to put together people, to form a community, to make a community of people.
Milo: Yes, that’s it. At the moment of presenting theatre, you are in front of your audience. At the moment of presenting a book you can’t see your reader, just as you can’t see people listening to the record you made. Theatre is always like a concert or like a public speech, where you see the reactions of people in that very moment, and that’s a wonderful thing, but it’s very hard too. The direct contact with the public can be very hard, but it’s also very exciting. I like this direct exchange.
Lorenzo: Did you have any artistic reference point at the beginning of your theatrical activity? Did you look at theatre or at other arts?
Milo: I think my models have been mainly movies. When I was young I watched a lot of movies, but not so much theatre. There was, at that time, a realistic approach in the new German cinema, especially in the so-called Berlin School, that interested me. You could find a very direct approach to reality in some directors of that school, coming perhaps a bit from Michael Haneke, like just showing the real somehow, in a very direct realism. I don’t remember theatre that influenced me.
Lorenzo: You choose for your productions subjects that have a historical relevance. You said once that you weren’t interested in private stories. What does the concept of ‘historical relevance’ mean for you, and how do you choose the subjects you want to work on?
Milo: Normally there is a very personal reason, something connected with my life, with my biography. For example, for The Last Days of Ceaușescus I remember when I watched the televised pictures of the execution of Nicolae and Elena Ceaușescu, the Romanian dictator and his wife, when I was twelve years old. Around 20 years later I created a play about this, because I had been very deeply impressed by these pictures on television, by this moment, and also, by chance, part of my family lives in Romania. All these elements came together to push me to work on this topic.
In Hate Radio I worked about the genocide in Rwanda in the 1990s, when I was 17. Those people, listening to the same music as I did, my same age, part of my same generation, became killers or victims of a genocide, while I was listening to the same music in a college in Switzerland. In the choice of a topic for my work there is always something that comes out of my biography, a personal interest. The same thing happened, for example, in The Moscow Trials, or The Congo Tribunal. I had travelled to Africa, and I had studied Russian when I was young. What activated my interest for The Moscow Trials was that the National Theatre in Germany asked me if I wanted to do a play about the Gulag, and I said ‘Yes, but let’s do a play about the Moscow Trials’. So I travelled to Russia where I knew more dissident artists, and I decided to work together with them, and then I dedicated myself slowly to do it. And now, while I’m doing Oresteia and working on Greek tragedy, this is wonderful for me, because at school I studied Ancient Greek and Latin and I was always interested in them. I was reading that stuff, and at one moment I started to work on it. Then, of course, there are other, additional reasons.
Normally there is a long evolution in the construction of a play. At the beginning, I just know something about what I want to do. I have just a quite vague idea. For example, in The Civil Wars, when I started that project in 2013, I was interested in jihadism, and I ended up doing a play about the biographies of the actors, which became part of the European Trilogy1. It was a very intimate form of theatre, that came out of somewhere totally different, and that’s very typical of my approach to work. An actor that I’m working with, once said, ‘Normally you don’t know, with directors, where you can go to. With Milo, you don’t even know where you start’. Normally only in the last weeks of a production do we know what it is about. Even if later everything is very clear, we move at the beginning from an idea that can completely change, because we are searching all the time. That’s why also I like the collective process. It’s as if a group asked me to find a subject that I couldn’t find myself; I find out what I’m interested in by discussing and working on it with other people. That’s why I can say that I find the subject or the reasons for doing stuff in the biographies, in the collaboration with my collaborators. Sometimes it’s an assistant, or somebody I need or expect, and sometimes it’s the theatre I’m working for that gives me the inspiration to tackle this or that topic.
Lorenzo When you talk about your work, you very often use the term ‘realism’, or better, ‘new realism’, or also ‘realism in postmodern time’. What does ‘new realism’ mean for you, and what is the relationship between social reality, ‘realism’, and the concrete reality of the scene?
Milo: I always say that documentary theatre is a contradiction in itself. You can’t document reality, because reality does not exist in that way, you know, it just exists in its representation. Realism doesn’t mean that a reality is represented; it means that representation itself starts to exist somehow. I search, when I’m working together with actors or other people or together with the audience or whatever, I search for situations that themselves become real. This reality can be an atmosphere or a cathartic situation or a political decision. Or just beauty, just emotion. When I do The Congo Tribunal, I’m doing a tribunal that does not exist in a social reality, so it’s a utopic reality, and when I’m doing Five Easy Pieces, it’s a utopic social reality too, because it’s about children overcoming, let’s say, paedophilia, or power relations. This can happen only on the stage. It’s as if I were using the so-called reality to enter a state that is unreal, or that is real in a more utopic way, I could say. It seems very real and very documentary, but what we are doing is totally artificial and utopic. I’m interested in special atmospheres of reality that you could call solidarity. What I really like is the spectator really listening, really watching. The Europe Trilogy, for example, is about real watching and listening. It’s about telling stories; it’s about this relationship you can have with another person, another human. The basic relationship of being interested in its presence. Then you really say, ‘Okay, I am, for reasons I don’t know, totally interested in this other person’, and ‘How can I show this kind of special presence in a public situation like theatre or art?’ This one question, may be the main question of art. How can I produce the presence of, you could even say, a deep humanity, what you could call holiness, how can I construct it?
Another point, or I could say a point that is dialectically opposed to this, is the activation of the spectator, because in presence of listening, you have a total absence of activity from the spectator as an actor; on the other side you have, in a more exciting process, the activation of people entering on stage, the change of the approach in what you could call the social reality from somebody who is just watching to somebody who is acting. This is a transformation that is crucial in theatre: everything that ends at the stage changes its status. When I go on stage I’m not still just Milo – also if there is no figure, I become a figure in a play – because I react to the expectations of the audience. This transformation is another thing that I could call realism. But what is this truth and what is this moment of truth that we produce as a community in a theatre? This is the real question, and why I need a long time to find it.
This year I’m doing an adaptation of the Oresteia. I took a long time to study the classics, because I always ask myself how I can do an act that reproduces something coming from another author. How can I be an artist without the gesture of being an author? How can I adapt a text? Also this year, I’m adapting the Bible for a feature film. It’s very, very difficult for me to stop and become an author. I am working on it at this very moment, and it’s very interesting.
Lorenzo: Many times you’ve said that in your approach to realism, the process is more important than the product. Could you explain this statement?
Milo: Of course, there is a product side. Theatre, in some way, has to function, but I think the problem of theatre is what I’m struggling against in the Ghent manifesto and that I did too in plays like Lenin, etc. where I fell into a sort of technical perfectionism, a way of making a kind of theatre that worked only with technical effects, effects of language and especially effects of acting, of camera and light. I want to come back to something more basic, that’s what I mean with realism – to produce moments that are real in and of themselves, through the experience of them, and not because there is something that is sanctioned by a tradition, because you are using traditional texts, or a technical apparatus. So when you bring to stage the story of a witness, or when you bring to stage a story you invented, you have a big problem. You have to like to fight, you have to make a new deal with the audience. When you present a Shakespeare or an Ibsen, you don’t have to do this, because it is an adaptation. Everybody will accept that you stage Shakespeare, because it has a place in the bourgeois era where you adapt, where you bring all the classics.
What I’m doing now for Oresteia is a long process. We travelled to Iraq, we spent there the last weeks to understand together what our time can say about Oresteia. Because Oresteia is an interesting play. It’s set in the West, in Greece, in Argos in the first two parts, and the last in Athens, but it’s talking about what happened in the Middle East. Oresteia is a play about how the war comes home. I can’t understand how you can do a play like this without travelling, without trying to really delve into it. We had workshops, reading the text in four or five different versions, then we made translations, then we started to travel to Mosul, and now we are rehearsing again. It’s a long process. And in every step of the process we have a different approach, we have one that’s more philological, one that’s very journalistic or sociological, or one just about personal understanding. Then the technical part interweaves. I need to introduce a lot of different questions into the play, a lot of criticism, of meta-questions about what does it mean to transport theatre into a city that is totally destroyed, just bringing art there, what is that, what does it mean to collaborate with artists from Mosul who couldn’t play any music under sentence of death, for three years because they were occupied by ISIS. All these questions come together. I think that the real topic of every play I do is what the act of presenting theatre is, what the act of art is, what it does really mean.
And this is, I think, the last question: every moment is compared to violence, compared to death, compared to exploitation, compared to what is an act. When I decided to become a theatre director it was very clear to me that I shouldn’t just do a bit of Shakespeare or Ibsen, etc. In Germany we have this tradition of adapting texts, but when you put your own style on them and do your, I don’t know, Romeo and Juliet, or your Ibsen version of the Feminist Woman, and blah, blah, blah, you do aimless and heartless adaptations. That’s why there is no writing of texts, no trying out, no taking the time. Yesterday I had a very long discussion with my team of the NT Gent Theatre, where we spoke of time: how can we work without exploiting ourselves, how can we take the time we need to make theatre? We don’t want to produce 20 plays a year, but perhaps only six or seven plays, because we need time, we need energy.
Lorenzo: You very often worked on trials (The Moscow Trials, The Congo Tribunal but also The Last Days of the Ceaușescus or Breivik’s Statement), now you are doing Oresteia. After all, a trial is at the beginning of Western Theatre: Oedipus Rex or The Eumenides.
Milo: Oresteia is a very good example to answer that question. Oresteia is a tribunal from the beginning. You have the jury which is the chorus, you have different parties, for example Clytemnestra or Agamemnon in the first part, or Orestes and Clytemnestra in the second, and Orestes and the Gods of vengeance in the third part. You have all of these characters like antagonist parties. In the last part, for example, Athena and Orestes say: let’s stop the vengeance, let’s start a new form of rights, of justice, and on the other hand there is somebody who believes in the traditional law and says: but you killed, so you have to be killed because this is the law that is the mathematics of justice and if you step out, justice is owed. So, tragedy, the birth of tragedy is a question about justice, it’s about confronting two ways of thinking. If you take, for example, Medea or Antigone you have the confrontation, for example in Antigone, of a traditional way of living according to which you have to bury your brother, you have to state the rights of the family, of the tribe and on the other hand you have Creon and the modern state, where the family doesn’t count anymore, the tribe doesn’t count anymore and you have another law, a modern law. So tragedy and theatre, for me, is the moment when society explains to itself how people want to live, how they want to change their laws. Of course, you don’t always need something about justice or about execution, etc. It can also be something like an aesthetical judgement, or intellectual judgement, as I did in the Zurich Trials, a project made in Zurich that was about what you can write in a journal when racism restarted, about what we can accept, as a society, about our treatment of other people in the world. That was an intellectual or humanistic question. For the Congo Tribunal, instead, there was a very direct question: how can we have a justice system for international capitalism, for global capitalism, for globalisation? What could be a tribunal, as a utopic institution, where we could call to justice the big enterprises, the big international companies, the multinationals? That one was a very activist work.
The Last Days of the Ceaușescus too is a trial, a tribunal that really happened, but it is, let’s say, also a picture, a live series of pictures and actions that impressed me so deeply when I was a child, and in 2009 it seemed to me a metaphor of the whole ’89 revolution, of why it didn’t function. The shift from Communism to Capitalism was really very well expressed in this one hour of fake trial they did on 25 December 1989. So it had for me a political and an aesthetical interest.
I think that within every real tragic play, you have the situation of two antagonist positions where you don’t ever find a synthesis. You would never find a solution. There’s a very beautiful quote from George Steiner, who wrote in one of my favourite books, The Death of Tragedy, that today we don’t even know what tragedy means, we have only drama. When you take for example Ibsen, the classical bourgeois writer, there is a bit more of science, a bit more of female rights and everything will be fine. It’s like Woody Allen, you can find a solution, and a happy end. In Aeschylus, in the tragedy, you can’t find a solution. In Oresteia the King has to be killed. In Mosul, you have to fight ISIS, you have to win over it. You have the Sharia or you have the modern law, but there is no possible drama about it. It’s a tragedy, it’s a fight, and I think that it summons that kind of art form. Bringing ancient art forms back to modern theatre has always interested me. I find out now through this work of Oresteia that this is an important point when you’re talking about tribunals or you’re talking about tragedy. You could say that a tribunal is another word for a tragic dramaturgy. It’s just the same. The birth of tragedy and the birth of justice happened at the same time, in a radical democratic way. Of course, this cannot be seen except as a ritual today. When I did The Last Days of the Ceaușescus I knew of course how it would end. It was the ritual of non-functioning justice, but it was a kind of justice play, and I think the same for Oresteia. You can read Oresteia as a justice play, you can do it and a lot of directors do it; you can stage it as a tribunal if you want, or you can stage Medea, you can stage Antigone, you can stage every classical play as a tribunal if you want. It’s very simple. So it makes a lot of sense, but you can never stage Shakespeare, which is a modern drama, you can’t stage Shakespeare as a tribunal; it’s impossible.