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Issue 24

Get Real

A conversation with theatre director Milo Rau about responsibility, empathy and 'meta-slavery'

BY Dominikus Müller in Interviews | 02 JUN 16

Milo Rau is one of Europe’s best-known directors of political theatre. His plays have dealt with the refugee crisis and the Rwandan genocide, tribunals in Congo and artistic freedom in today’s Russia. Rau doesn’t shy away from topics like paedophilia and jihadism. Dominikus Müller spoke to him about responsibility, empathy, ‘meta-slavery’ and whether we’re all just a bunch of assholes.

Dominikus Müller Your most recent work, Five Easy Pieces, produced with CAMPO arts centre in Ghent, Belgium, is about the child murderer and rapist Marc Dutroux. Why did you choose to work with child actors?

Milo Rau It’s a play with children, but for adults. CAMPO realizes a project with children every two years, and this time they asked me. I’d already come across the Dutroux myth in the context of another ­Belgium-related project, The Civil Wars (2014), while talking to the actors during casting. Dutroux is one of the few cases in Belgium to which everyone can relate: a collective trauma uniting the many strands and aspects of Belgian history. Dutroux spent the first years of his life in Congo, then lived in the south of Belgium during the collapse of the mining industry. That was where he built his dungeons, but he wasn’t caught for a long time because of the crisis of the Belgian state that is still ongoing today – due to the complete lack of cooperation between the Walloons and the Flemish, the corrupt elites. Incidentally, following the attacks in Brussels, parallels were immediately drawn to the Dutroux case in terms of a failure of the state authorities. But beyond the subject matter, I was interested in exploring some of the basic questions of performance with children: How are emotions generated on stage? Why do people lay themselves bare? What’s a director and what’s an actor? And how does one ‘become’ a character?

Milo Rau and team filming for The Congo Tribunal in a gold mine, Eastern Congo 2015. Courtesy: © Fruitmarket, Langfilm & IIPM / Eva-Maria Bertschy

DM Your last play, Mitleid. Die Geschichte des Maschinengewehrs (Pity: The History of the Machine Gun), premiered in January 2016 at the Schaubühne in Berlin. On the surface, the play deals with the refugee question, the Congo conflict and the role of NGOs. Yet it also addresses basic questions of stagecraft: How does performance on stage work? When does something on stage become ‘real’? Your role as director is repeatedly called into question: for instance, when actors announce on stage what the director wants from them at a given moment. What has your work with children taught you with regard to such questions? 

MR In children’s theatre, the director is always completely visible, even if he or she is not normally on display. To an extent, working with children is like dressage. For me, this was interesting not as a formal question but in combination with the topic of Dutroux: when you work with ten-year-olds, when you coax or force them to do this or that on stage, then the critique of representation becomes once again a critique of reality. For children, the behaviour of adults, the figure of  the murderer or the policeman, are actually strange, seductive, bizarre. This has nothing to do with contrived irony or distancing one’s self from one’s role. Because normally, all these meta-levels – this endlessly asking ‘Who am I?’ on stage – is something that bores me: you enter into a part, you fall out of it again, and you present this falling out as an intellectual procedure. But this form of irony is nothing but the ambitious grinning of stupid people. It may have been interesting in the 1950s, but for a few decades now it has been taught in acting schools as dogma. However role-distancing is explained – via Brecht or Judith Butler – as a fundamental postmodern attitude, it blocks utopian identification. And this also prevents the fundamental political gesture of solidarity: identifying with a political task, even if it may be more limited than one would like and even if it doesn’t correspond precisely with what one thinks and feels oneself. In postmodernity as I criticize it, mainly with regard to the theatre, the political and the aesthetic are mixed to the point where the political disappears. And in view of recent wave of politically engaged plays, I wanted, in Mitleid, to ask myself: How far does political engagement go? What actually happens to the objects for which one makes such a commitment? Mitleid, and now Five Easy Pieces, allow me to deal existentially with all these hackneyed postmodern questions. 

DM In Mitleid the question of ‘roles’ is ­broken by the way personal history, performed biography and scripted text overlap in a complex manner that is often not transparent to the audience. The main actress, Ursina Lardi, who delivers a monologue about NGOs in Congo, has herself worked for NGOs in the past – at least that’s what it says online. On stage, this generates a particular reality effect which is very different from the techniques of the tribunal and the trial that you’ve often used in the past, as with Das Kongo Tribunal (The Congo Tribunal) in 2015 for which you spent several days examining the genocide in Congo with witnesses, experts and lawyers, or Die Moskauer Prozesse (The Moscow Trials, 2013) in which you took a close look at ­Russia’s repressive cultural policies, working with lawyers, witnesses and activists.

MR Sure, it’s different, but all of these ­formats are about inducing truth via utopian or fictional framing. Realism doesn’t mean that what’s shown is real, but that the ­process of showing itself becomes real. In the trial formats, this is achieved by various legitimizing mechanisms: real lawyers rather than actors, a real case rather than a fictional one, etc. It really is about who killed these 100 people, or who displaced these 1,000 others. That’s one form. Mitleid is another: I call it a ‘theatre essay’. In my view, the ­process of realization within today’s theatre can take place in two ways: on the one hand, by bringing a person on stage who is real and who talks about themselves, something they have experienced – or survived. And on the other, the logic of empathy: as long as you’re standing on a stage, things are real, but as soon as you exit the stage, they no longer are. In this light, Mitleid can be understood as a translation and heightening of catharsis: What happens to the spectator and what happens to the actors themselves when they feel their way into a character or watch someone else doing so?

Milo Rau, Das Kongo Tribunal: The Berlin Hearings (performance documentation), Sophiensaele, Berlin, 2015. Courtesy: © 2015 Fruitmarket, Langfilm & IIPM / Mirjam Knapp; photograph: Daniel Seiffert

DM Beyond this structural level, there are also very specific comments on the role of NGOs in crisis zones. NGOs, and with them the West’s ‘humanitarian’ activities, do not get off lightly.

MR The classical Oedipus metaphor runs through the play, this figure of tragic blindness: here is someone who does something he believes to be right, and this turns him into a different character he has in fact always been, but who writes an entirely different story. The play traces this circle on various levels, among others in simple day-to-day politics: NGOs think they are offering aid, but in many cases it is they who produce the objects of this pity – weak and dependent governments and entire societies become accustomed to paternalism and lobbyism instead of politicizing themselves. Because the play is very complex in some places, it was important that in other places it should make some very simple, direct statements. And for me, these moments of criticism make the play into an essay, a historical work even. The clear references to the way we derive profit from this pity business were important to me. Because the history of humanity is banal, it’s a history of violence: there are no good Congolese and bad whites, no good ­Tutsis and bad Hutus. Whoever has the machine gun defines the course of history which, as described in the play, is a constant sequence of acts of revenge. In classical ­tragedy, there is the deus ex machina or the chorus who comes out and says: ‘We will now interrupt the chain of blood feuding and say: Enough.’ Final verdict, the end. It may be unfair, but it’s over. In Mitleid, this role is played by the second actress, Consolate ­Sipérius, when she says, right at the end (a moment that has been criticized as kitsch): ‘Okay, I could take a machine gun and fire into the audience again now, but that no longer interests me. Because life goes on.’ And then she plays a tape of children laughing. I wanted to do this at all costs, although in terms of tragedy it slightly ruins the play – just as classical tragedy is ruined by the deus ex machina. Western intellectuals prefer when things come to a gloomy end. That’s just the way it is.

DM At the height of the refugee crisis, in a piece you wrote for the Swiss Sonntags­zeitung newspaper titled I’m just an asshole, too!, you spoke of ‘cynical humanism’. What do you mean by that? 

MR Unlike Marxism, with its belief that every viewpoint is shaped by the conditions of production, humanism as a theory aims for the universal. But pictures, too, always have a material basis, as does the fact that something may or doesn’t affect me. Cynical humanism denies this from a neoliberal ­position: one claims to empathize with these people who are fleeing, across all borders, because one is connected to the whole world via the media, trade and virtual friendships. On closer inspection, however, this neoliberal universalism ends, as far as feelings are ­concerned, at Europe’s borders. This is why the death of the drowned three-year-old ­Syrian boy Alan Kurdi on the border of Europe – a death that received widespread media coverage – is such a potent symbol of the limits of our sensitivity: this far and no further.

Milo Rau, Hate Radio (performance documentation),  Hebbel am Ufer, Berlin, 2011. Courtesy: © IIPM; photograph: Zeno Graton

DM What role do empathy and ‘pity’ play in this? 

MR In Mitleid, I was interested in examining the old theatre question of the emotional economy of tragedy, the question of the third estate. The divisions of social class as seen in the plays of Schiller have shifted from the horizontal into the vertical: the third estate is what used to be called the ‘third world’, and the first estate, the nobility in Schiller, is now all of us, the inhabitants of the ‘first world’. It was not until the emergence of bourgeois drama that the third estate was invented as a species with feelings; only since the Enlightenment can a merchant or a farmer have heroic sentiments. By contrast, if you look at the literature of the 17th century, for example, it is astonishing how cynically the farmers and ordinary citizens are discussed, as if they were not human. Where our emotional economy today is concerned, we have no dramaturgy or forms of expression for the new third estate – for the ­Congolese miners, the Chinese sub-proleta­riat, the Iraqis repressed by the Islamic State. This third estate does not yet exist as a ­global subject: bourgeois theatre and its sensiti­vity only reach as far as an old lady from Brandenburg whose pension is too small, or a little boy standing on Europe’s border. These things are worthy of our tears, as we have learned over a period of 250 years.

DM In the spring of 2016, the so-called ­refugee crisis was replaced in the focus of media attention by the Böhmermann affair, in which a satirical poem by comedian Jan Böhmermann criticizing the Turkish president, incited ­Ankara to call for the satirist’s criminal prosecution. At the same time, Angela Merkel’s ­refugee deal with Turkey was launched. Has one thing displaced another here? The actual politics vanish into the background while a hysterical discussion about satire and artistic freedom rages in the foreground.

MR There are various ways of looking at this. One is a funny cartoon that kept appearing on my Facebook timeline: it shows Merkel calling out to Böhmermann from inside a ­conference room, asking him to fool around outside a bit longer until TTIP is in the bag. Of course the whole thing can be seen as an obfuscation of Realpolitik. But this approach of contrasting ‘real politics’ and ‘the spectacle’ uses an old intellectual trick: there’s always another meta-level where things are revealed in their ‘true colours’. I call it ‘meta-slavery’: either one is a slave to the zeitgeist or one is a slave to the meta-discourse that criticizes the zeitgeist. Which clearly amounts to the same thing. But I still thought Böhmermann’s Erdog˘an poem was great, because it was so totally over the top. I  really laughed when I watched the clip. And I thought the performance was very good, the whole routine based on the logic that this thing and that thing are not allowed. And then exemplifying such a forbidden utterance.

DM But in the end that boils down to the meta-slavery you just described: Saying what one is not allowed to say in order to mark it out as that which cannot be said. So that finally it gets said after all.

MR Sure. But that’s the anarchic thing about it, the way someone throws himself so wholeheartedly into such a naïve form, the way he has such fun with it. As far as Erdog˘an is concerned, he should have pretended he didn’t care, because now he’ll be remembered as the president who denied being a goatfucker. But there is something I find problematic about this affair: that an artwork is now measured purely in terms of its scandal value, otherwise it’s something for a few pitiable connoisseurs. How rigorously or badly something is done, what it does or does not talk about – no one is interested in that anymore. It’s all about clicks and page counts and a petit-bourgeois economy of outrage. This is the kind of mainstreaming that is taking place across all institutions. And the worst thing about it is that satire is being confused with political radicalism – whereas in fact, politics is quite simply just change. But when people talk about political art, they don’t talk about potential forms of utopian space, action or solidarity that might be artistically represented or prefigured. No, they talk about someone being taken to court. I’m familiar with this and I’ve often provoked it. I’m doing it now with Five Easy Pieces. But the older I get, the more I ask myself what the specific task of art is. What sets it apart, for example, from satire or activism? 

Milo Rau, Mitleid. Die Geschichte des Maschinengewehrs (performance documentation), Schaubühne, Berlin, 2016. Courtesy: IIPM, Schaubühne Berlin; photograph: Daniel Seiffert 

DM And what does set it apart?

MR For me, art is the accomplishment of a symbolic act. Mitleid is a borderline product, an almost theoretical exploration of the ­problem of the artistic gesture itself. But ­otherwise I’d say something like: a character – however realistically or symbolically portrayed – meets a fate, a tragic or bizarre existence, doing so in exemplary form for the audience. In both positive and negative terms,  regardless of whether it shows the awfulness of the world and its lack of feeling, or a possible path of action not present in reality itself. Art really does only this: it shows or enacts something that doesn’t take place in realty, that is no part of the plan. Like collectives – in the petit-bourgeois ­mentality, the collective is considered intrinsically democratic and thus intrinsically good. But for me, the portrayal of a collective is only artistic if it doesn’t exist in reality, if it’s an impossible collective, one in which people join forces with others who are as ­different as they could possibly be, perhaps even enemies. A good example is Christoph Schlingensief’s collaboration with disabled people, and with Nazis. At such moments, art permits a kind of solidarity in antagonism that does not exist outside art.

DM In the major Schlingensief retrospective at Berlin’s Kunstwerke in 2013–14, it became clear to me when these pieces work and when they don’t. They function when Schlingensief puts his neck on the line, when he is visibly the one responsible. What does the question of responsibility mean to you?

MR In most cases I delegate responsibility. I create spaces in which the players have to behave in such a way that they become responsible because what they are doing is taken seriously by the audience. In some of my plays, like The Civil Wars, the actors go into confessional mode and speak, for instance, about the incontinence of their fathers. It isn’t clear whether this private content becomes universal in the art context, or whether it can be understood as an alle­gorical gesture at all. That only transpires during the performance itself. For Hate Radio (2011), a play about the broadcaster RTLM that laid the ideological groundwork for the Rwandan genocide, we travelled to Rwanda. Throughout the play, the actors make jokes about the dead. Among other things, we ­performed on a mass grave containing 250,000 murdered people. And the actors stood there insulting the corpses that lay beneath them. You ask yourself whether art is capable of pulling this off, whether anyone can even understand it? This is extremely arduous for the actors, the audience, and of course for me as the one ultimately respon­sible. It’s almost unbearable.

Milo Rau, Mitleid. Die Geschichte des Maschinengewehrs (performance documentation), Schaubühne, Berlin, 2016. Courtesy: IIPM, Schaubühne Berlin; photograph: Daniel Seiffert

DM And what about the children in Five Easy Pieces?

MR In this case, I can’t delegate responsibility. That’s another new experience for me, because this procedure of transference, of the director stepping back, is a fundamental part of my work. But what if you’re doing a play about paedophilia with underage children: nine-year-olds, ten-year-olds, eleven-year-olds? There’s no point thinking about it in theoretical terms, because what’s interesting is the pragmatic aspect of the situation: how to deal with it. When you’re not just making a joke, only then do you develop a finer sense of responsibility. And that’s something that’s been rather worn away with the Schlingensief generation and the thousands of Schlingensief epigones: at present, we’re caught in a bizarre mechanism of ­one-upmanship. Now that a goatfucker poem about Erdog˘an has been recited on German public television, what are we supposed to do next? Shoot a few Turks on ‘Germany’s Next Top Model’? The problem is this ­stultification, this lack of sensitivity to the consequences of one’s actions. And for me that was the challenge with Five Easy Pieces: to work with the most vulnerable of actors, child actors, on a project about the most taboo issue of our time – paedophilia.

DM Most of your recent projects have taken place in the theatre context. In institutional and structural terms, what does theatre offer that fine art cannot?

MR In the theatre you work with people, large numbers of people. And if you have an affinity for social sculpture and you ­prefer a text-based approach, as I do, then ­theatre is the ideal framework. What’s more, theatre has undergone a development in the last ­decade that took place earlier in fine art: as well as becoming internationalized, it has taken its place among the other ­genres. You can now do projects that unfold between film, literature, fine art and conventional ­theatre. The definition of ‘theatre’ has ­actually been expanding constantly since the 1980s. I always say we’re the golden gene­ration because it’s already beginning to recede again. Another advantage is that the theatre is not at all affected by marketing. There is just not the same level of money at stake as in fine art. 

DM In an art context, especially in performance, there are currently many attempts at working with hired performers instead of using one’s own body, as was formerly the norm. And as in your projects, these hired performers are often asked to contribute their own histories. In the realm of art, this often risks being interpreted as exploitation.

MR: As far as I can see, as an outsider, fine art is always involved in parallel internal ­discourses. The theatre is far more primitive, perhaps on account of the sheer amount of people we constantly cater too. A play like Mitleid has to draw people into the theatre every week. And it has to go on tour.

Milo Rau, Die Moskauer Prozesse (film still), 2014. Courtesy: © IIPM

DM Is it a matter of a different kind of accessibility to the outside – if it’s still even possible to speak of an ‘outside’?

MR Many people still go to the theatre because they know the actors from the ­cinema or television. That’s the case at the Schau­bühne: you have Nina Hoss, Ursina Lardi, Lars Eidinger. That’s firstly why people come, then because of the subject matter, and then sometimes because of a minor scandal, because of a director. But with something like Tino Sehgal’s works – if you tried staging them 50 or 100 times in a theatre, it would be too cool, too abstract. The theatre is not so sacralised: it’s still a carnivalesque medium.

DM In Hate Radio, which deals with the Rwandan genocide that began on 6 April 1994, the day after Kurt Cobain’s suicide, you spoke several times of something like a generational cross-section, also with regard to your own biography and socialization. In the case of the radicalized Islamic youth in Brussels, who you described in 2014 in The Civil Wars, it’s the generation of the millennials. How do you deal with this?

MR In Hate Radio, right down to the ­gestures of the actors, I was interested in the nihilism of the grunge generation: their post-historical sensibility, their aggressive apathy, the idea that there really is no future. For me, this ended with lying around in the mud at music festivals; for my Rwandan actor ­colleagues, it ended in genocide. As a rule I believe no one has real freedom in their choice of subject matter, in their own interests. At some point you’re surprised by how recognizable you are. I felt this with Mitleid, if not before. Suddenly I noticed: this is a title that allows itself to be made into a joke about a Milo Rau play. Which is true. But after a certain age, poking fun at one’s own role is something that can no longer be avoided.

Translated by Nicholas Grindell

Dominikus Müller is a freelance writer based in Berlin.