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Why stage the Oresteia in Mosul?

| 26 March 2019
Director Milo Rau and dramaturg Stefan Bläske in conversation about the Oresteia, working with the classics, and the fundamental questions about art and morality, Europe and the Middle East, violence and responsibility

SB: The Oresteia is one of the canonical dramas of European theatre history. You have, to date, primarily developed and directed your own plays – or even organised tribunals and activist events. So why this antique classic? What about the material interests you?

MR: I’m interested in connecting the confrontation of the antique tragedy with, on the one hand, the situation in Northern Iraq – thus, Orestes in Mosul – and, on the other, with our actors’ life stories. We had already visited Northern Iraq, for Empire, and the extreme age of these cultures – Aeschylus wrote his trilogy about 5000 years after the founding of Nineveh, or modern-day Mosul – and the topicality of these images has always astounded me. You find yourself in the antiquity of antiquity, in cultures that already had entire world histories behind them before the birth of Greece. At the same time, you find yourself standing, so to speak, in images you see on TV. 

During our last visit to Mosul, we were there explicitly searching for actors. There was, for example, a young student who told us how one of her classmates had been kidnapped by an IS-fighter; a man who, throughout the IS occupation, risked his life taking and uploading photographs; and another man whose hand had been cut off, because he returned to his family home to retrieve his schoolbooks after they had been confiscated. We’re working with musicians who had to play music in secret, but who also played with the militias in control of the city today. The question is: What does the bloodthirsty rhetoric of the Oresteia evoke for the people of Mosul when they are confronted with it and with the ideology of democracy, of forgiveness? What about for the Belgian and Dutch actors like Elsie de Brauw, Johan Leysen, or Bert Luppes when they have to present Oresteia – which they have often seen, and even performed, throughout their long, distinguished careers – in Northern Iraq with us, where they are confronted by these extreme stories? What happens when a psychological, formalist, Western art meets this equally radical and strange art of revolt?

Orestes in Mosul is, so to speak, the “making-of” of an encounter, of a confrontation. What happens in an encounter among people, in a place (Mosul), with the material (Oresteia), and each other?

SB: At the start of your tenure as artistic director at the theatre, NTGent published a manifesto with ten rules for a “global realism”. One rule demands work in a war or crisis region. Another that the theatre-makers (i.e., the creative team themselves) become authors. How exactly are these rules to be understood?

MR: NTGent is a grand experiment on precisely this question of how to move from the tradition that was established in the bourgeois era of adapting plays, and later novels and films, towards a specifically theatrical, collective way of writing. Our production period is long because such processes take time and the production teams are extremely diverse. With the Oresteia, we once again noted just how absurd it would be to produce this text without the expertise of, for example, the Iraqi actors – because what do we actually know about revenge, about war, about suffering, and about hate? Collective authorship is not a dream but a necessity. When Shakespeare wrote his Hamlet, there were already many plays with this name that he could have used – but it was clear to him that, together with his ensemble, he had to write a new version of the material. It was written in rehearsals, in revisions, and even in the trial performances with audiences. Bourgeois theatre studies continue to wonder just how Shakespeare “could have known all of that”: how he could have known the human body, theology, justice – and also be a poet and have commercial success. How could he know about Italy, England, the fairy kingdom, and ancient Rome? The answer is simple: collective authorship knows a lot – and I’m not talking about what we would ordinarily call “collective”: people who speak the same language, who are from the same milieu, who met each other in art school or while studying theatre. No, it’s about bringing people from massively different backgrounds and experiences together: different cultures, different languages, and different approaches to theatre.

SB: How does someone who is interviewed or filmed and then appears in a Milo-Rau-evening become a co-author?

MR: In practice, the answer is simple: By taking part in the rehearsals, by writing the text, contributing his or her stories, his or her knowledge. But theatre is also a physical script, so the question arises morally. When a man whose hand was cut off by the IS appears in Orestes in Mosul, when in Lam Gods a woman allows you to interview her on her deathbed – doesn’t that, quite simply, cross a line? These questions become even more urgent in Mosul: Of course, because of the danger, but also because of the extreme risks our fellow actors have taken and continue to take in pursuit of their work. What does it actually mean to let two men kiss in front of the same building that gay men were thrown off of? Or, this photographer who secretly photographed executions, ready to pay with his life at any time for his work: How can you describe this practice of using the aesthetic terminology of a completely peaceful society like ours which has cleansed itself of all madness and danger? This is not, of course, a new problem: Until the 19th century, actors were regarded as either insane or prostitutes. Since then, the bourgeois theatre has been freed of – on the one hand – professionalism and – on the other – the principle of literature theatre. The body that returned in performance-theatre was an elite body, and the same is true of documentary theatre, where biographic stories are told not as theatrical or ritual stories but for a mosaic intended to contribute to a higher level of knowledge. But what happens if the theatre returns to the logic of a collective authorship that is not bolstered by some additional informative or performative value? What happens when a completely diverse, more or less random, group of people say: We are here and we are telling you about our world?

SB: According to your manifesto, when performing an existing text only a maximum of 20 percent of the original can be used. We're using the basic structure of the Oresteia – places and character constellations – and, in a few instances, also using fragments of the original text (in English and Arabic translations).

MR: The 20 percent rule makes it sound as if you have to erase 80 percent of the text and then completely re-invent it. But I believe that erasure and invention are all part of a dialectical process. It’s about traversing the text, reading and re-reading it, trying it out on stage, looking at what response it triggers or has triggered in myself and in others. It’s a matter of transforming the levels of meaning within the text and its tradition. Different factors play an important role here: e.g. the question of how to adapt a classic text beyond the usual methods – beyond neoclassical form experiments or its translation into a soap opera where Agamemnon returns as a CEO or war criminal or whatever else. Of course, we were initially seduced by both, and you can see that in the production: As it were, our actors “show” the Iraqi actors “how we do that in Europe”. But we didn’t want to entirely give in to the seduction of the didactic, and we have, therefore, prepared extensively – almost pedantically – for the production of Orestes in Mosul. First philologically with a workshop that lasted several weeks that was dedicated exclusively to the first part of the trilogy and the performance tradition of the Oresteia. We then travelled to Mosul, a region we already knew from our research for our production, Empire.

SB: During our trip in July 2016 for Empire, Mosul was still occupied by the IS. To get to Sinjar and the Syrian border, we actually had to drive around it.

MR: Yes, it’s an area whose topography and whose whole world is a warlike one – with a great impact on the lives of those who live there. Back in Sinjar and again this time in Mosul, I was struck by the various threads that stretch from the Oresteia to the current situation in the region: The theme of the unbreakable chain of murder and revenge, the desire for and the impossibility of self-determination and democracy, the deadly, entangled relations between the Middle East and Europe – the oil industry and the connected politics of power. In the third stage of preparation, which in truth lasted for several months, we worked on the central questions of “global realism”. What is the purpose of a collaboration between European and Iraqi actors, between Iraq and Europe, between artists from Mosul who have just re-emerged from the IS-nightmare and the twisted aesthetic possibilities of a Western city-theatre – apart from exoticism and misery tourism or, at best, on-site social work? And these were tough debates. What are the possibilities of intercultural collaboration that do not sink into the logic of Western charity or, conversely, self-irony, the petty-bourgeois celebration of failure and the ever-practical Teflon mechanism of “White Guilt” (all of which we explore in our production Compassion)? Can Orestes in Mosul be productive and not merely perpetuate this mode of representation?

SB: And what could the possible answers be to these central questions?

MR: The practice itself: The answer is what happens on location during the rehearsals, and – in the best case – what develops from it. As Bert Luppes, who plays Aegisthus, said in a discussion: “The question is not ‘Why go there?’ – but more importantly: ‘How could we not go there?’ Especially because the wars happening there are so directly connected to us – by the oil industry as well as the fact that many of the people fighting there are from Europe. We were in the planning phase of the production in Mosul when, much to our surprise, we discovered an extreme hunger for culture: especially for music and dance. Under the IS occupation, it was, under penalty of death, forbidden to play music, so people played their instruments – provided they had any – in the basement. We are going to work with the different artistic circles there and above all else with the newly founded Academy of Fine Arts: an institution for art, music, and dance. There are a few professionals there, musicians above all else, who belong to the older generation who had done these jobs before 2014. But there are also many young people there who are just taking their first steps into the field.

SB: But why, of all things, this play? Do you consider its themes timeless and cross-cultural? What does the Oresteia still tell us today with its domino effect of revenge and violence? With its exhaustive description of murder and the atrocities of war? With the Gods who call for the sacrifice of the daughter and the murder of the mother? And why stage the murders that were only described in the ancient theatre close up and en détail?

MR: During our workshops and debates, it became clear that these were, so to speak, “our” questions, the questions of global realism that are dealt with in the Oresteia with a near-pornographic obsession: The relationship between Europe and the Middle East, between "Greece" and "Troy", between the powerful and the powerless. The observation of violence and the possibility of overcoming it through solidarity, and, in a sense, the very practice of observing. It is as if Aeschylus, or – by proxy – his characters, were disgusted by the description of war and yet couldn’t help but talk incessantly about it. The performances in ancient Athens took place at a time when the young men had just returned from war and the theatre was – in a manner of speaking – a space for a collective traversing of the traumas experienced and dealing with the recent political upheavals – in the case of Oresteia, this was the introduction of radical democracy.

We have tried to understand this movement of active processing, this quasi societal allegory game, that underlies Greek tragedy. In other words: Only by dealing with the Oresteia in every possible way – as a team, as a collective – were we able to juxtapose the radical, almost self-loathing sadism of the original with our own stories, our own reasons, our own motivations and perhaps even solutions. Why always murder, tragedy, violence? What’s the point? Orestes in Mosul is, so to speak, a play that attempts to surrender itself completely to the fundamental problem of collective, global, theatre work.

SB: Was the play just a pretence to return to Northern Iraq?

MR: Oresteia is of course only an alibi to make Orestes in Mosul, a frame within which completely foreign things are compiled, in which the disparate biographic realities of the actors and the context for their own interest in the Oresteia can be shown. Just like the eponymous altarpiece in Lam Gods was only a frame to get to know the people of today’s Ghent and to bring them onto the stage: You always need a frame. Orestes in Mosul functions as a truth-machine, as a nearly unsolvable moral and organisational project. It isn’t difficult to make a production of Oresteia with professional actors in a Western city-theatre, you need a little bit of patience and a few directorial ideas. But it is incredibly complicated – both dubious and dangerous – to do the same thing in Mosul with a mixed ensemble.

SB: What do the figures of the Orestie tell you today?

MR: Agamemnon is the traumatized warrior who brings home his trauma. The guardian or the nurse, finally the choir, who rebel against their fate of speechlessness and hopelessness, are like the "Gilets Jaunes". And both Orestes and Elektra are searching for their role, their identity. It's all about the complete entanglement of every emotion in global crises, in economy, in religion, in tradition. One is shocked by how archaic we are today and how modern archaic societies are. How strange, how "antique" our own, contemporary world is to us, a world to which we seem to have access at any moment, and how insecure and imaginary finally the promises of democracy and participation are. All this is shown in an almost unbearable way when you want to stage an Orestie in Mossul. It is as if Orestes in Mossul as a project had to symbolically accomplish what the world itself isn't capable of, and perhaps that's precisely the task of art. Of course, our Orestie, unlike the model, will also tell of the failure of this dream. And thus the circle closes, like this was the case in the Congo Tribunal: the will and at the same time the tragic impossibility of breaking out of the world's being just by means of symbolic practices.

SB: The notion of “the tragic” has long been dominated in theatre history by the concept that a great, outstanding man falls from his pedestal. Apart from a personal ‘fall from grace’, there must also be a societal and social one. Tragedies took place in ruling dynasties, it was only much later, during the so-called naturalism and realism movements, that theatre also developed an interest in the ‘lower’ classes. Do you see your theatre – and especially Orestes in Mosul – as one that brings (global) realism and tragedy together?

MR: This is the most difficult question of all: How do you unite democratic with tragic myth? The end of tragedy, of the sublime, and even of the history of violence, has always been regarded as positive by the Enlightenment (and also by socialism). In his early writings in Vienna, Trotsky philosophises about a time when even the simplest worker was involved in drawing up the blueprints for an opera house since their existential problems had all been solved. Today, in our debates on basic income, you could say that we’ve almost reached Trotsky’s time. But only – and this is why the term “global” is crucial for me – if you put the extreme externalisation of neoliberalism to the side. Over the past thirty years, Western Europe has taken over the purely white-collar side of the production of wealth, while the dirty side of production has been exported to the Global South and the peripheries of the EU. I don’t want to go further with this question, as I have dedicated almost all of my entire artistic and theoretical work over the past ten years to it, other than to offer this conclusion: Today, in order to even come close to the tragic, you must symbolically reverse this externalisation, connect these different parts of the world with each other, go back through history (so to speak), and act as if another form of globalisation were possible… A globalisation based on solidarity and cooperation.

Once again: Within the Western European theatre, the Oresteia is – no matter how much fake blood the actors splash around the stage – a technical exercise in virtuosity. It is an avatar and an ornament of the tragic because the conditions of production are deeply untragic. Conversely, Orestes in Mosul is in all respects tragic: all of the externalising forces become wholly obsolete and can no longer function once you write “Mosul” into the rehearsal schedule. It is as if all the ethical issues return in one fell swoop, as if all of neoliberalism’s externalisations were obsolete. It’s really a paradox: As if one becomes a perpetrator only when they do not profit silently from the colonisation of the Middle East, but instead represents it, repeats it with a solidarity-based approach. This is how art reveals what reality conceals.

SB: The Oresteia was born from an interesting historical situation, staged in 458 B.C.E. and awarded first prize: The supreme council of Athens – the Areopagus – which was first dominated by the high nobility and later the archons, had been stripped of power in previous years. ‘More democratic’ institutions like the “Council of the 400” took over the duties of the polis, while the Areopagus remained responsible for sacral and kinship duties like blood jurisdiction… precisely what is dealt with in the Oresteia.

MR: That’s true: The chorus of old men in Agamemnon joke about the newly displaced former council, describing them as childish, weak, and powerless. But the craziest thing is that Aeschylus – at the same time as the invention of democracy and its celebration of the trilogy’s third part, the bloody story’s utopian conclusion with Athena’s verdict and the abdication of the Gods’ revenge – founded the deeply melancholic tradition of the end of the tragedy. In other words: The Oresteia is a swansong disguised as a tragedy about tragedy, an operational manual for those great externalising forces of European imperialism. Real, insoluble tragedies were first written by Sophocles at a time when Greek society found an equilibrium as well as a self-awareness – at a moment when they could, so to speak, afford it. The nurse and the watchman, these figures from Aeschylus are so close to us – or at least to me – because they anticipate the sentimentalism of the later bourgeoisie: this senseless waiting, the slow loss of youth without love or fame, this emptiness of non-tragic existence that we know from Chekhov, Beckett, and Botho Strauss. And that’s exactly why I wanted to bring these characters – i.e., us – to Mosul, because there, this melancholy that marks the arrival in the post-tragic does not exist. In Mosul, it still makes sense to think about reconciliation and its very impossibility.

SB: "Excessive fame is dangerous, because Zeus easily gets lightning out of his eyes," says the "Orestie". Fame and power, especially "excessive" ones, are ultimately not to be had blamelessly. What does the fall of so-called great men like Agamemnon tell us?

MR: The Oresteia also tells a double story: On the one hand, the end of an aristocratic rule that is based on tribal obligations, myths, decisions, disputes, the pulsion of small families, and, of course, men (fathers and sons); and, on the other hand, the death of Agamemnon, the physical or rhetorical principle of personalised sovereignty which was replaced by a transitional period of confusion, mourning, civil war (personified in the central part of the trilogy by Orestes and Electra, by exiled persons in general: the refugees and the homeless), and finally by democracy, the voice of the majority. I have a tragic worldview. In other words: I’m interested in the characteristic hopelessness of the individual – but, as a sociologist and Marxist, also in a concrete historical situation and concrete individuals. It is not “Agamemnon” but Johan Leysen in his portrayal of the character, which invites him and us (in the act of observing him) into Agamemnon. I’m not interested in “Argos”, “Athens”, or “Greece”, but rather in the concrete situation of a post-conflict zone, a city, a nation that has just emerged from civil war: Mosul in Iraq.

SB: “How would you describe the situation on site? And if we consider the central role of the gods in "Orestie", what role does religion play in "Orest in Mossul"?”

MR: The current problem of Islamic countries is not a problem of Scripture, not a religious problem: it is a political problem. On the one hand, there is the continuing civil war between the Sunni and Shiite sides and the binding of the respective Sunni or Shiite militias to regional groups and (often foreign) governments. This always results in completely absurd roped parties: The list of all groups involved in the liberation of Mossul ranges from Iran to the Kurds to the Belgians, the Americans, the Shiite militias and the Iraqi military.

And then there are the groups in the diaspora, people of the second and third generation or converts who are traditionally particularly radical. Precisely because they do not know the concrete culture in which (as in the West) one can be both religious and secular, they are extremists of the word - which they also misunderstand. In other words, internationalist Islam is much more radical than culturally grounded Islam. For the strange thing about Islamism is that it is absolutely non-exclusive from an ethnic point of view. Susana A. Majid, whose family comes from Mossul and who plays the Cassandra with us, was in Mossul in 2014 shortly before the IS took over power and was surprised: at the roadblocks all were foreigners, Chechens, Syrians, Turks, Belgians and so on. And when we asked Solik Husain, professor at the Academy of Fine Arts, our partner organization in Mossul, if it would be okay for the non-Iraqi actors to speak English in the Mossul rehearsals and performances, he said: "The last Belgians who were here and spoke Arabic with us, murdered our families. Speak English, French, whatever you want. What is important is what we do together".

SB: What do you expect from Orestes in Mosul? Some of your projects are utopian and work towards concrete political change, while others have been accused of repeating and reproducing violence and capitalising on the stories, bodies, and suffering of people. What would be a positive result of Oresteia, even for the people in Mosul?

MR: Orestes in Mosul is nothing more than a making-of: We’re telling what we experienced in Mosul while also trying to bring the themes, scenes, and characters from the drama onto the stage. We try to hold onto how the exchange between European and Iraqi actors works (or doesn’t), and how a post-conflict play like Oresteia, which within the Western tradition remains little more than a formal exercise, responds to the realities of an actual post-conflict zone. What we can learn from the Iraqi people and what they can learn from us, to put it somewhat simplistically. In other words: This collaboration between West and East, between Europe and the Middle East, reveals something in aesthetic, artistic, human, and theoretical terms. In this respect, it is also a sort of Kantian critique: We’ll have to wait and see what this “theatre” can, as an apparatus of knowledge, actually accomplish for us and for “them”, the Iraqis. Is there a theatrical knowledge? Is there a global realism? Is there an intercultural cooperation beyond Western theatre biotopes – which I also include our “open ensemble” in Ghent within, as inclusive and global as it may try to be. Because the “global realism” experiment only shows its worth in its actual practice: in Bucharest, Moscow, Bukavu, Kigali, Liège and now, of course, the most extreme case, in Mosul.

SB: What should happen when we travel to Mosul in March with the entire team?

MR: What we’re going to do in Mosul is threefold: First, we will stage some of the key scenes from the Oresteia in a workshop with actors from the Ghent ensemble, Iraqi actors from the European diaspora, and Mosul actors and musicians to bring out the best in each other. What does the theme of civil war reveal? Who is the chorus? What music works in this context? What role does dialogue, monologue, and ritual murder play here? What does it mean to stage this in a city where just mere months ago such murders were happening on a daily basis? Second, to a certain extent, the tribunal form runs through the play: the European ensemble questions the Iraqi actors – and vice versa – which culminates in the third part, an allegorical trial. Third and above all else, this should be the beginning of a deeper cooperation, an exchange – as was also the case with earlier projects. Ghent's ensemble and program are not interested in Central Africa just because it’s an “important theme”, but because of the countless artistic relationships that have emerged over a decade-long involvement with the region. The same is true for Ghent itself: Since 2010, I’ve been working in Brussels and other Belgian cities, so it was only logical to take the step to Belgium at some point. As far as the Middle East is concerned, Orestes in Mosul is – after Empire – a deepening of our work in the region. The plan is that after Orestes in Mosul some of the artists from Mosul will come to Ghent – to create an exhibition here, to stage an Orestes in Ghent or something like that.

SB: A final question for the future: You as Cassandra. Do you see only murder and apocalypse, or also something positive?

MR: I’m a vitalist. So, it is likely that human civilisation as we know it today – as a globally organised market with intercontinental methods of production, extended supply chains, and so on – will perish along with the end of the oil era. But life will find a way. I think that it was Gramsci, by the way, who said: the pessimism of reason doesn’t make sense without the optimism of the will. It’s a very Western concept (which I also share) that an artistic practice must yield additional financial or social value – why not? But I also think that art and theatre are an extremely fragile construct.
Our Orestes in Mosul is by-and-large an attempt to carry a porcelain vase through a minefield. You have to be extremely optimistic to try and only the attempt really counts. This is a very original, practical understanding of morality: You can either lie back on the practice of exploitation and do nothing, or you can oppose it with a practise of solidarity. Because once again: Why can we consume oil from Mosul, but not be interested in the people there, in their stories, their art? Or, in other words: How could we not go to Mosul? In this respect, for me, the project is in itself post-apocalyptic, for better or for worse.

- Translation by Lily Maeve Climenhaga