F.I.N.D. #15
Milo Rau, »The Civil Wars«, and Europe on trial

by Joseph Pearson

18 March 2015

Europe is in trouble. Right-wing resurgence. Islamic extremism. Orthodox Paternalism. Neoliberal kleptocracy. Populist nationalism. Ecological disaster. Economic crisis. And so, when Swiss director Milo Rau (born 1977) says he wishes to »create a tableau of the état d’ame of today’s Europe« in his piece »The Civil Wars«, at the Schaubühne’s 2015 F.I.N.D. Festival, one need ask just how ugly it’s going to get.

Milo Rau, with his production company »International Institute of Political Murder«, is known as an evangelist of disaster, and one expects nothing less than a piece that stares unflinchingly at such problems. The conduit to the political is through the personal: this is perhaps best seen in the work that he has done re-enacting tribunals – the interpersonal tête-à-têtes of the courtroom – in which Pussy Riot, or the Ceausescus, have been tried by different varieties of politicized justice. In »The Civil Wars«, Europe’s agonies are shown through a familial constellation: four children and their relations to their fathers, a story delivered through anecdotes, personal testimony, as they speak to different aspects of crisis from the encroachment of authoritarian capitalism to the question of religious extremism.

»The subject of Europe is treated in a manner which is very personal, by means of the metaphor of the relationship of a child with his father, and, from this, one reaches towards our collective history«, says Rau. The metaphor of father-son, meanwhile, is not uncomplicated, as Rau explains: »It is of course about patrimony, the power of capitalism, the question of parental discipline, the power of the family, and also God«. The four actors – Karim Bel Kacem, Sara De Bosschere, Sébastien Foucault, and Johan Leysen (who worked with Jean-Luc Godard) – draw from actual stories of their youth, about how they have tried to break from parental control. Rau calls the interweaving of their testimonies a »fugue«, broken into movements with allegorical titles such as »The History of Madness« or »Discourse on the Method«, which bring the personal content into a broader theoretical discussion.

One of the most gripping hooks for his story is the question of why a young man would leave Europe to fight for radical Islam in the Middle East. Rau conducted research, meeting with young Islamic radicals and their families, together with his actor Sébastien Foucault. What they observed among such young men was the absence of father figures. One might then begin to ask: is the problem with extremist paternalism, or the lack thereof? »We ask, what might this radicalism be the symptom of?« Rau tells me, »For a young European to leave, to hoist the flag for a battle which is not his own?«

The contemporary resonance of this subject hardly needs elucidation. What is it about Europe that is producing home-grown terrorism? Is it its exclusion of minorities, national culture’s failure to accommodate integration, some failure of the minorities themselves to participate in civil or national culture? Is it the fault of separate religious or traditional mentalities, systemic racism and exclusion, or simply a symptom of unemployment and unbridled young male anger? Is there perhaps something deeper and psychological to fault in our educations?

»The Civil Wars« premiered at the Kunstenfestival in Brussels last year, in May 2014. The timing was remarkable, because this story, of a son from Belgium going to fight in Syria, was conceived and then acted well before ISIS loomed large in the headlines, and before the attacks of Charlie Hebdo this past January.

»It was something strange: French journalists told me I had made a psychoanalytical analysis of the events before the events had actually occurred«, Rau continues.

»The Civil Wars« is but the first part of a trilogy about contemporary Europe, which will explore in turns Western Europe, Eastern Europe (»The Dark Ages«, with actors from places such as Serbia and Russia), concluding with »The History of the Machine Gun« (working title), a »meta-perspectival piece«, as Rau calls it, at the Schaubühne in its next season. Simultaneously Rau is working on a film, »The Congo Tribunal«.

I start to wonder how all these projects fit together. »Why do you work on a project about Congo at the same time you explore problems in Europe?«

Rau replies – and certainly Africa has represented a constant point of return for his production, following his »Hate Radio« play about the origins of the Rwanda genocide – that the Congo is a sensitive instrument to understand the relationship between Europe and the developing world.

»The Congo particularly was always in parallel history to the European one«, he tells me, »Since the 19th century and colonialism, what has happened in Europe has reflected in Congo, and what has happened in Congo reflects in Europe«. Rau then goes on to speak of the spectacular and horrifying battle over resources, that has made Congo a zone of trade conflict between the EU and China, a subject which has increasingly caught the eye of young avant-garde artists in Europe (such as Dutch filmmaker Renzo Martens). These conflicts may well presage more widespread, international, struggles over basic resources in a time of ecological strife.

Exploring material so pertinent to international affairs, one might think that there is a very directed political agenda to Rau’s collective work. After all, one can add to his repertoire »Breivik’s Statement«, or look once more to »The Moscow Trials« about populism and orthodoxy in Russia (If you google Milo Rau, expect plenty of caricatures that criticize him for his presumed Russophobia).

But Rau is quick to correct me, when I suggest a political trajectory. He replies, »I think there is a sociological intention rather than a political one. I do not try to create a universalist tableau, but rather try to reach as many people as possible – the whole world in the details. In the »The Civil Wars«, I pick four different characters, four different actors each with a different style, words and movements, which are clearly different from one another. I did not wish to reconstruct something, demonstrate something, I wanted to create a language, a precise, simple, and personal language, to speak about the nightmares occurring in Europe in our times«.

A political piece could be ideological, but this is precisely the approach that Rau wishes to avoid. A multi-perspectival tableau is the order of the day. And this tableau also finds its expression in the mise-en-scène. »I wanted to have an extreme intimacy, but also an extreme distance«, he says. Above the stage are projections of the four main actors telling their stories: the digitalization of their identities both aggrandizes them, but then renders them flat and beyond reach.

And yet, I hanker after more explanation of the political might of this enterprise. »What do we gain by putting all of this on stage?« I ask him, »Is there still power left in theatre?«

Rau replies that theatre remains relevant and important in political dialogue for two major reasons, which speak to the failures of justice and the amount of time needed to comprehend.

»What can theatre do? I think the theatre can do many things. For example, in one of our court projects [»The Moscow Trials«], I tried to bring together a utopian-political space. To make possible and, in a way, exhibit the antagonisms, which are in reality suppressed. In Russia, there is the whole judicial context, when you are dissident, they say, for example with Pussy Riot: »You came into the church, and it is forbidden by Article 31. But we aren’t going to listen to what you have to say, obviously, on a political level«. And so if we create in theatre a space like »The Moscow Trials«, for the first time the political backgrounds of such an action are explained in public, and can be seen to clash. The other aspect is that theatre is the opposite of information. It is for that reason that I say that theatre can’t ever be documentary, documentary theater doesn’t exist; it is a contradiction in terms. There I’m rather conservative, rather Stalinist. If we meet in the theatre, we will be there listening for two hours. We are going to take our time, we are going to change a bit our normal rhythm of being informed, we will think together. That’s the other thing. A political space, a place of terror, that you can follow«.

Interview conducted in French. All translations by Joseph Pearson and James Helgeson.

The Civil Wars

by Milo Rau
Concept, Text and Direction: Milo Rau

Premiered on 17 April 2015