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Interview: Édouard Louis & Milo Rau

| 5 May 2021
"The stage as a place to demonstrate for vulnerability." Édouard Louis & Milo Rau discuss about art, liberation and aesthetics of melancholy.

Carmen Hornbostel: Let me ask you first the most obvious question: how did your collaboration start?

Milo Rau: Oh, we've asked ourselves that, too … There are, as with every friendship, many different beginnings. I had been in contact with Didier Eribon for a while, Édouard had seen some of my plays, and of course I knew his books. A few years ago, before the pandemic, we were both independently of each other asked if we wanted to do a play together. Since we appreciated each other very much, we immediately said yes.

Édouard Louis: There have already been so many adaptations of my plays - in one I even play myself, Who killed my father - that it was immediately clear that we wanted to do something completely new. A new piece that emerges from our encounter. Because of Covid, there were then all kinds of formats: first a play, then a film - in which Isabelle Huppert should have played my mother in one scene and Wajdi Mouawad my father. And at one point I wanted to cancel everything, I was afraid of being on stage, and I wrote Milo an email – that's where The Interrogation now begins. But that same evening I met Isabelle and she told me: "You can't do that! You have a once-in-a-lifetime chance to work with Milo Rau, you won't miss it!" (laughs)

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The title The Interrogation suggests a search. What are you searching for in the play?

MR: When doing theatre, I always search of a necessity: Why and for what do we make this piece? Why do we need theatre – and not film, literature, a political campaign? Édouard and me, we are friends since some time, we discuss a lot… Why not just friendship? In your work as a writer, Édouard, it’s interesting how you use your life, how you interrogate your biography to understand our time. Your novels are perfect, they are complete in themselves. Why would I stage them? So the question of the whole play is: Is there, in theatre, another liberation, another possibility of reflection, another (physical) concreteness than in writing? Asking this simple question, of course a kind of a “argumentum ad infinitum” starts. Why are we doing theatre, why am I telling what I am telling? Can we escape our biography, the system we are in? Or are we only reproducing it? Where did all this start? And is there an exit?

ÉL: We need an interrogation on the realities that surround us. The big paradox with reality is, that we are built by it. Our very flesh, our very skin, our very language, our way of walking, of watching is built by a reality that started before us. We are like fragments of reality and at the same time, reality is the hardest thing to see and to change. Therefore, in politics or in the arts – I don't make any difference there – the purpose is to interrogate what surrounds us. That's what we are exploring in The Interrogation: What is this violent reality that built us? What are our hopes? Why do we have them and where do they come from? How do we revolt against it, by inventing ourselves? Can we escape reality?

MR: Yes. The Interrogation is an extremely simple play, exposing the “Édouard Louis”-method or the “Milo Rau”-method, so to say. To question and to deconstruct it. Yes, we try to deconstruct the myth of realness, of individuality, of authenticity, of liberation through art itself.

EL: Absolutely. In arts we try to grasp the reality, but it's never over. There is no “end”, as we say in the play, not towards the reasons of, for example, violence, not towards a possible liberation of it. There are so many things that we don't understand, that we don't control, that we miss. That we simply can’t describe. How to describe violence – if the victims themselves try to hide it, because they are ashamed?

The Interrogation is not a political play in the classic sense, it’s a show full of beauty, full of silence, of longing, of absence, of sadness – because those are political emotions.

Can art change reality?

EL: We know that art has changed some people's life, that many women or black people have been liberated by books from e. g. Simone de Beauvoir. There is a potential liberating effect in art. People come together - not necessarily to change the whole reality at this very moment like a social or political movement. But art can create a collective symbolically. Often, we just don’t recognize collectives as collectives because they are made out of, let’s say, a superposition of loneliness. But at the same time and that's why we need to interrogate art, we feel the hopelessness of arts. I know so many people who went to see a movie by Ken Loach or the Dardenne brothers. They were so moved by what they have seen: by the poverty and the exclusion that the people in the film suffer from. But they still vote for right wing parties, they still support conservative policies. I think, our play is also navigating between those two realities: the powerlessness and the power of art, of performance, to change an individual and a collective reality.

MR: In the last 10 days, we just had another national film start of our Jesus film, The New Gospel, which plays amongst African illegal farmworkers in South Italy. I was constantly campaigning so that people would donate for the linked campaign, to house people, to give them documents. So for me, the movie is an artwork in the sense that it’s actually a tool to house people, to give them papers, to become citizens instead of slaves. To get proper shelter as well as to promote fair-trade products and build sustainable relationship to local activists. I am not a pessimist: You can use art to structurally and sustainably change the basic relations that link people. But I think there is also a place to question art, the act of art, the act of representation. There is a dialectic between the meta- and the sub-level, art as social change and art as questioning the act or representing itself. Both things are linked. In The Interrogation, the idea of “change” and of it’s impossibility are linked in a very personal and vulnerable way. The play starts with a mail of Édouard saying: I'm here on stage and I don't want to be here. I’m tired of this eternal search of presence, of freedom, of myself. I’m tired to be an artist.

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EL: It's very true. Before starting this play with you Milo, I have been writing a lot about social violence and destruction. Who killed my Father, History of Violence, The End of Eddy - all these titles are already so violent. Now, it was logic to me to go a step further and to do a play about the vulnerability of this very act, about the melancholy of this fight. The melancholy that always comes with political or existential struggle: Why do I always have to fight? Why do I have to be all the time on stage? Why can I not just be happy, disappear behind the scene? I think that the existence of constant fighting, the exhaustion of struggling, creates a new political vocabulary that is not less real in people's flesh. The Interrogation is not a political play in the classic sense, it’s a show full of beauty, full of silence, of longing, of absence, of sadness – because those are political emotions. Of course, politics means policies, governments, legislations, campaigning and everything. But these emotions are also part of it. To open a new political vocabulary, that's what we can maybe do with arts and what we try to do with this monologue. Because it’s very difficult to go on the street and to demonstrate for the right of vulnerability.

MR: Yes, you name it: the stage as a place to demonstrate for vulnerability. The Interrogation is a kind of an entracte, a moment of standstill, of solipsistic interrogation: After all, who are we? Who did we become by fighting? We have this big black space – the “stage” – and there is only this person, there is Édouard. Vulnerable, alone. Plus some sounds, some music. Yes, it’s a deeply melancholic play, a fragmentary play, a tender play. I think it’s the opposite of what in a bourgeois sense you would call “political”. But we both needed not another “political” play, as we see so many on our stages since decades, we needed to stand still and describe the melancholy of the fight itself. Why is there always another end to the story? The Golden City on the hill, why doesn’t it exist?

Édouard, you are one of the most successful authors of your generation, your books brought up social discussions. What do you need theatre for now? What is the difference, your hope in theatre in comparison to literature?

EL: It’s exactly what I say in the Why Theatre? book: What makes theatre particularly powerful is, that people are there in front of you. It's not like a book that you can put down. You are in a room, perhaps you are terrified, you are bored, but there is no escape. And the other reason is much simpler: Theatre is a place to escape literature. I feel that I am, despite myself, part of something – you called it the “Édouard Louis story”, right? And as soon as I'm part of something, I want to be part of something else and run away.

MR: Yes. Like all of us. And of course, this is a story we're going to tell in The Interrogation as well.