Violence is What You Don’t Expect: Romeo Castellucci’s »Oedipus the Tyrant«
by Joseph Pearson
25 February 2015
I am preoccupied by a mental image of Romeo Castellucci: the director being attacked by seven German shepherds at the Avignon Festival in 2008, in his treatment of Dante’s »Inferno«. Shouldn’t I then be a little surprised to find myself sitting with him, calmly, in a pokey kitchen above the practice stage of the Schaubühne, drinking sparkling water? He is youthful for a man in his fifties, thin and somehow elastic. I wonder whether the dogs bounced back after they tried to get their teeth into him. I expected elegance, but I did not expect him also to be so good-humoured, with round affable glasses. Downstairs his actors are practicing Gregorian chant, for the upcoming performance of »Oedipus the Tyrant« (premiering 6 March). Their ethereal voices lend a liturgical atmosphere to a conversation about the »Theatre of Cruelty«.
There is a pro-forma approach for critics writing about Romeo Castellucci and his Emilia-Romagna theatre troupe, Socìetas Raffaello Sanzio. I’ve already followed suit: beginning this essay with a lurid detail from one of Castellucci’s productions. If you search for Castellucci’s works online, you will find images of his »Rite of Spring«, a ballet of dust made from ground bones. Or an opera, »Orphée et Eurydice« at La Monnaie in Brussels, performed by a patient who is actually in a coma. Or a son following his aging father around an immaculate white stage, cleaning up overflowing faeces from his diapers, while a portrait of Christ looks on. This piece, »On the Concept of the Face«, provoked vigorous protests in Paris in 2011 against »Christianophobia«, with the director famously forgiving the public’s ignorance with the biblical phrase, »for they know not what they do«.
While Castellucci says there is no unified »manual, no method’ to his theatre works, there is nonetheless something identifiable about his productions, which have been variously described as »superbrechtian«, »enigmatic«, or as »total artworks« that break down barriers between actor, text and set. Often there is a mix of fresco painting, strong images, with the electro-acoustic music of Scott Gibbons constructed from samples from the natural world. The result is potent enough that a number of fans I know plan their weekend travel around seeing Castellucci’s productions. The sound bites – »Italy’s most radical director« who explores »forbidden extremes of human experience« – however, hardly do justice to Castellucci’s project. They focus on the methods he uses rather than the audience response he wishes to evoke. He leans forward and explains: »The strategy is to prepare a trap for the audience; it is a rhetorical strategy. To call it »shocking« is to risk falling into stereotypes. The desire is to pull the rug out from under you. This is what [the French theatre theorist Antonin] Artaud understood by »maddening« the supporting structures of theatre (forsennare il supporto). It is to make theatre resound in a different way; to see theatre for the first time – to see what it is composed of; to get struck in the face, because theatre is, by its own nature, violent«. He continues, »We are talking about paying tribute to violence. Of being worthy of this substantial violence. But it can also be expressed with an extreme gentleness. What is violence? It is not simply expressed through knives or scissors or blood. Violence is what you don’t expect; it takes you to unknown places. This is violence. It has a power over you that might seem odious, where you lose control and disorder takes over. But this is its »entrance strategy«. I allow myself to be penetrated by this thing because my defences have fallen. I have, in a certain sense, fallen into a trap«.
Castellucci is in this sense clearly not simply out to shock, but rather to ask us to face responses lodged deep inside of ourselves that often cannot be articulated simply with language. It is theatre that is intended to wake you up. These ideas, as he mentioned, find their origin in the work of Antonin Artaud, and his »Theatre of Cruelty« (from The Theatre and its Double, 1938). Artaud was originally a surrealist, interested in unlocking the unconscious for truths, who eventually elaborated a theory of how theatre, an »impossible theatre«, could destabilize the audience. I understand Artaud’s approach as something close to a catharsis, but it includes an engagement with the problem of language, because what the shock excavates cannot be easily described with words. My own sense is that this voice, or this cry, deep inside of us, waiting to be dislodged, can be called by many names. Some might call it the »subconscious«. Others prefer to avoid the language of psychoanalysis and talk instead of synapses – perhaps the activation of buried cognitive circuits. No matter. The »Theatre of Cruelty« may well deliver the same results.
As we speak, I am, as probably intended, starting to feel rather uncomfortable at the prospect of actually seeing this production. Do I wish to submit to the »entrance strategy«, as Castellucci puts it? Do I wish to be »penetrated«? Castellucci’s theatre is not simply asking politely for me to unearth my darkness. No, this theatre is taking out the shovel. It is asking me to spread my legs.
The set-up for Castellucci’s production of »Oedipus the Tyrant« – the 5th-century BC Sophocles play as translated in 1804 by Friedrich Hölderlin – might at first appear lifted from a page of Boccaccio. Oedipus lands in a nunnery, and havoc ensues. But Castellucci’s vision is, as one would expect, concerned with a more serious collision, that between reason and what are described as the »dark forces« of the »unsaid«. Castellucci tells me, »Oedipus falls like an unknown object, a foreign body, in this case into a convent. They are two opposing worlds: it is a bit of an experiment to see what happens. It is a closed community, where speech is forbidden. The only words that you hear are in Latin, sung in Gregorian chant. It is an extremely precise code that collides with a different and equally precise code: the Catholic and Christian tradition against the pagan and Greek«.
A stage in which language is limited? How, then, will it will be possible to integrate Hölderlin’s text into the project? »Won’t this be a problem?« I ask.
Castellucci looks at me intensely: »Exactly: it’s a crime! «
I have already understood that he is not going to give away very much of the highly anticipated production. Much depends on not knowing, perhaps, to rattle the audience and achieve the intended results, so we turn instead to the conceptual framework. Castellucci tells me that several coordinates guide the production, one of which is sexual. Oedipus invades an environment that is »declared to be homosexual – in the terms of signs, the presence of bodies – you deal with a play that is overtly sexual, in the sense of genital sex«. In addition to this opposition, he focuses on the conflict between the sage Tiresias and the tragic hero Oedipus. The central irony of Sophocles' »Oedipus the Tyrant«, famously the most perfect of tragedies – the most scientific, symmetrical, and unified, to quote Aristotle – is that Oedipus plays both investigator and perpetrator. His rational inquiry into the causes of a plague, a »contamination« that besieges Thebes, is pitted against the prophecies of the blind sage Tiresias, which stand outside his logic, but nonetheless are the truth to which he himself is blind. Relentlessly, the naïve hero pursues the killer, who is himself, and ultimately discovers he has lived in incest with his mother. The story is paradoxically a lauding of his rationality, but also a critique of his blindness to Tiresias’s truth. Oedipus blinds himself when he too faces the truth.
As Castellucci explains, »Oedipus certainly represents reason. And with reason, intellect, and the eloquent capacity of language and rational thinking, he is able to defeat the Sphinx who is a monster gripping the city. Tiresias meanwhile represents the dark forces: the »said and unsaid«. In this sense there is the confrontation between Oedipus and Tiresias, between the »said and unsaid«. It is as if Sophocles had intuited the profound dark roots of the human psyche, as it became situated by psychoanalysis. Tiresias is in contact with the dark forces, but they are those that come closest to the truth, and it is as if the tragedy puts on stage in reality the crisis of the pantheon, the crisis of man in relation to god, the conflict between man and man as divinity. What results is an empty sky; there are no more gods. But, suddenly, the dark forces return, in a neurotic form, to make their claim – a primary system, primitive, which is intuitive, disconcerting«.
Talking to Castellucci, what do I anticipate? That the production will be a banishment of scientific reasoning, a rejection of the austere perfection of the Sophocles original? Yes, I expect we will delve into the »dark matter«: sexuality, prophesy, religion, the esoteric, scepticism, self-doubt, and failure. It is Tiresias’ truth – the truth of someone who has been both man and woman, and of forces to which Oedipus is blind – that appears central to the production. For, in this obscurity, difficult to articulate, one must confront the enduring preoccupation of the director: which is, again, to elicit responses from the audience that cannot be fully explained by language.
»Ancient Theatre is neither nostalgia nor an academic study. We have to imagine it like a fixed point in space, a polar star… it is rather ourselves who have to orientate ourselves in relation to it«, Castellucci tells me. On this fixed primary material, Hölderlin, who, fascinated with ancient Greece, Orphism, and the Dionysian mysteries, created one of the strangest translations of »Oedipus« that exists – maintaining Greek word order in German! This has a distancing effect that inspired Walter Benjamin in his 1923 essay on the limits of translation, and also Carl Orff who used the text in his opera »Oedipus«. Brecht too was fascinated in his »Antigone«. Hölderlin’s text, with its unusual phrasing, a transfiguration of the original attic clarity, produces »luminous strangeness«, to quote one translator – a return to the Dionysian impulses of the text rather than its Apollonian clarity. The Hölderlin translation, in this sense, further brings out the Tiresian side of the Oedipus tragedy, the dark matter. This is not the first time that Castellucci has produced a piece of Hölderlin for the Schaubühne. »Hyperion: Letters of a Terrorist« appeared in 2013, with the same Italian-German dramaturgical team now producing »Oedipus«.
»If I were to describe a filter, a prism that Hölderlin uses to revisit this tragedy, I would say that it inclines towards »Eastern thought«, towards a thought much closer to the view of Tiresias’, says Castellucci, turning to his dramaturge who adds: »Absolutely. This is something that he says in his notes on his translation of »Oedipus«, and he uses precisely this expression »Orientalism«. This has to do with the recuperation of the primary origins he calls Eastern.«
This kind of Orientalising language might seem well out of date, but Castellucci continues, »What interests me in Hölderlin is precisely how outdated he is. It is that which makes it inevitable – it is not possible not to do Hölderlin. It is a double negative. It is not possible not to do him. I feel that he is extremely close, viscerally, not for a specific reason, but probably because of all the things we have discussed, his relationship to language, which is asymmetrical, a relationship to speaking which is infinitely problematised«. Hölderlin also provides a political context – he was of course an ardent advocate of republicanism, revolution and Napoleon. While Castellucci does not give a strong political import to his play, he does say: »Hölderlin is profoundly political, Tragedy is a political art in the most sublime sense of the term, a way to see. The way I see things changes things, because seeing is the thing. And so revolution is not that of the piazza, but one which is individual, in loneliness – loneliness is profoundly political and radical«.
A New Lens
In this light, Hölderlin, further problematising and making the text more asymmetrical, is in the spirit of Tiresias’s obscure matter. We can choose our metaphor here: the multiple lenses of Artaud and Hölderlin, or a triangulation of their perspectives. The combination, with Castellucci’s particular treatment, gives us an »Oedipus« seen through a glass darkly. As the director concludes, »We are speaking of a treatment which will change the lens on this text. One tries to read this tragedy with different eyes. The audience member at the Schaubühne will hear the words of Hölderlin, and probably knows the story of Oedipus. But the nature of his story remains tendentious. There is no effort – which would be the worst thing to do – to illustrate or reactualise the old text. This is not the plan. Because the result would be cosmetic, something that you can judge but will not judge you. And I think a work of art should be able to judge the spectator, so that there is an exchange«.
Castellucci stares at me more intently through his glasses and folds his arms: »I watch, I am watched. I judged, I am judged, at the same time. Otherwise the play becomes an advertising billboard. Artworks should implicate the presence of the spectator. It is wrong to say the artist is present. The spectator is present«.
Conversation originally in Italian. All translations by Joseph Pearson.
by Sophokles/Friedrich Hölderlin
Direction: Romeo Castellucci
Premiered on 6 March 2015Video