Spotlight on Angélica Liddell
FIND 2021’s Artist in Focus
by Joseph Pearson
1 October 2021
One of the first FIND productions I ever saw at the Schaubühne, back in 2014, was »All the Sky above the Earth (The Wendy Syndrome)« by Madrid-based director and performer Angélica Liddell.
Holy shit. My friends and I are still talking about this production. We still try sometimes to imitate the frenzied, stuttering call of her Wendy, a broken and violent edit from the Peter Pan story: her travelling to a Norwegian island piled with the bodies of dead children. Her electrifying presence on-stage. Her anger. Her self-involvement and embodiment as the consummate artist. Her ability to push her vision to its limits. Her invitation to follow, not just as voyeurs.
Angélica Liddell is not for the faint-hearted. The infamous octopus scene of the FIND 2018 performance »¿Qué haré yo con esta espada?« is a case in point (go on, google it). Liddell offends and embraces her audience in turns, with the frank, brutal, erotic, violent, and erudite. Not everyone likes what she does, which is rather the point. If you prefer theatre to be a safe experience, well, then … visit a different Norwegian island.
As Liddell told me three years ago, she »does not work with shock but with poetic violence that restitutes intimacy with our instincts. I am interested in spiritual conflict. The relations of man with himself are inevitably violent, that descend into areas of the unconscious that emerge through symbols … The violence is the need for these works to hurt our sensibilities, to hurt them deeply. The relief that poetry provides is its ability to wound ever more deeply, and it does this without warning because that is what we all want: for theatre to hurt us«.
A Liddell production is more than the way it wounds. Both the art and the artist is uncompromising. Not just in terms of her references to a challenging intellectual inheritance. But also how she bucks trends in neoliberal theatre, designed to please and to cash in. Those who value the adamant avant-garde have something to look forward to with her two productions at FIND 2021: »Liebestod« and the »Scarlet Letter«. I spoke to the theatre’s dramaturge Florian Borchmeyer about why the Schaubühne chose her as their first FIND »artist in focus«.
»From this festival edition onwards«, Borchmeyer tells me, »We plan to focus on one artist each FIND. They will not dominate the whole festival, but we will have the opportunity to create space for many of the world’s most important theatre artists, who would not otherwise not have a large location, with suitable budget, to showcase their guest performances in Berlin. Yes, their work might be produced here on important stages with German actors, and at smaller theaters who invite many excellent international performances as part of their season. But there is no actual festival format, like the Berliner Festwochen, decades ago, apart from FIND, that today fills this gap. Next year, we look forward to featuring Robert Lepage. And, of course, this year we have Angélica Liddell«.
»Was inviting Liddell something that has been in the works for a long time?«
Borchmeyer laughs, »We saw »Liebestod« only this summer in Avignon, a little more than two months ago! And then we decided to do something ambitious, insane really: to bring an extremely complicated show to the Schaubühne at short notice, one involving special permits, with babies and animals on stage. We had space due to a cancellation and this also allowed us to make her our first »artist in focus« with two shows that have not yet been seen in Berlin. As for why we chose her, it is because she is one of the world’s most impressive theatre artists«.
I suggest, »I think you use the word »artist« judiciously, as she can’t quite be reduced to the singular words »actor«, »playwright«, or even »director««.
»Yes, but her perhaps most impressive point is her text performance. She is an amazing spoken poetry performer. Her texts are voluminous and also violent. But also very human, touching and emotive. Her performing technique reminds me of a tender machine gun. There is extreme speed and power in her execution. These texts are about very contemporary problems, often from a completely irreverent and often not very politically correct perspective. Sometimes, she is classified as a feminist, although she refutes this. She is not about sustainability, or about social problems. She is about love and art, or their absence. That’s what interests her. She is nourished by the counterculture avant-garde – think Artaud – and also by the counterculture of philosophy––think Foucault. I see connections too to Marina Abramovic, to Buñuel, and the Spanish avant-garde of the early 20th-century«.
»The Schaubühne has been consistently bringing her work to our stage over the past years. Is this to expose Berlin to theatre that is atypical here, or to a level of fury and emotion to which we are unaccustomed?« I ask.
Borchmeyer says, »I would say that there are a variety of styles in Berlin but that she doesn’t fit into any of the genres that exist here. She is, of course, not Kammerspiel, nor is she post-dramatic. She doesn’t do anti-representational theatre. She is completely sui generis in her style. She is contemporary but mixes her work with elements that are completely against modernity. She is interested in the Old Masters of painting, for example, (and will even leading a small group through the Gemäldegalerie while she is here, to speak about Caravaggio). But this encounter is not humanist. German theatre is still a moral institution. She is an immoral institution. That is something which makes her like a UFO in the German theatre tradition. People here are fascinated by it, it challenges them, because it is not what we know«.
»Her first performance at FIND is »Liebestod«, which does reach deeply into both the German, and Spanish tradition, bringing together the unlikely combination of Wagner and bullfighting«, I say.
»Yes, case in point. She reflects on Wagner while glorifying bullfighting. This really should be an impossible field of exploration, and you can imagine that it’s not designed to make her the darling of the German left. What I found interesting is her passion for the bullfighter, Juan Belmonte. He had a disability and this impediment made him develop particular bullfighting techniques, which required remaining very still. In some sense, her reflection on bullfighting is a spiritual, rather than an intellectual practice.
Borchmeyer concludes, »The subtitle of the piece is »El olor a sangre no se me quita de los ojos«. The smell of blood won’t leave my eyes. It’s a synaesthetic, Baudelairian image. In this is the clue to her interest in Richard Wagner, and his »Tristan und Isolde«. The theme of death is something that combines bullfighting and Tristan: the bullfight is a place of death, someone has to die in the end, most of the time the bull. But there is always the risk that the bullfighter will be killed himself. Like a soldier, he is always exposed to death. Tristan too is dominated by death as the only spiritual solution. This obsession is something she works through in the play. Something we can’t quite get out of our eyes«.