Swiss playwright Milo Rau created a theatrical trilogy about the demise of the European ideal. The second part The Dark Ages is now at the Holland Festival. Rau combined his actors' painful, personal life stories with themes from the works of Chekhov, Shakespeare and the Greek tragedies. With a Freudian sauce: 'Countless people who are The Dark Ages have seen ask me: 'Milo, is something wrong with your father?'
We are currently in a period of great change, says Milo Rau (Bern, 1977):
'"Old Europe and old Germany have turned - perhaps this feeling is stronger in Germany and Eastern Europe - into a kind of empire. A post-national, growing, continental power block. A fortress with closed borders. The United States of Europe is too big to fail, but I have an idea that we are heading for a moment of catarsis, after which a lot will change. I wanted to give that idea a face, using a number of personal stories situated in Western Europe (France, Belgium and Germany), Eastern Europe (Germany, ex-Yugoslavia and Russia) and the Middle East (Greece, Romania, Syria and Kurdistan).
I started the first part in 2013, The Civil Wars. I did a lot of research in the neighbourhoods of Brussels and Antwerp. Places like Molenbeek, which later became known as hotbeds of Islamic radicalism. I talked to people who wanted to leave for Syria and northern Iraq to fight Bashar al-Assad, and also to people who had returned. I wondered how this would affect Europe. The Civil Wars became a portrait about Western Europe, based on the bourgeois emotions from Chekhov's work. After that, I made The Dark Ages, focusing on a different part of Europe (ex-Yugoslavia, Russia and Germany). Interwoven with Shakespearean questions about the influence of politics on our lives. Part three, Empire, is now in the making.'
Why did this have to be a trilogy?
'"After the first part, it was absolutely clear to me that I had to continue with this. At first, I had an instinctive feeling that I should make it into three pieces, but it was not a preconceived plan. The material presented itself. I did feel it was important to cast each piece in the same style. Always based on the actors' personal stories and true anecdotes. In a living room setting, the actors tell their stories into the camera, and their faces are projected against the back wall. They are all monologues, but the sequence sometimes seems to create dialogue. They are alone, but also in conversation. I compare it to a fugue by Bach, where sometimes you have six separate voices moving through the piece of music in parallel. Sometimes they intersect and coincide. Sometimes they sing alone. But the whole makes the piece of music. The Dark Ages has such a fugue-like solidarity.''
Hence those diverse playing styles in The Dark Ages?
'Yes, that was a conscious choice. I love those different colours and sounds. I always work with actors with very different acting styles and backgrounds. Vedrana Seksan is a classic method actress who digs very deep. Sudbin Musić is not an actor at all, he is an activist telling his story. Sanja Mitrović is a physical performer with a stern, detached tone. Manfred Zapatka is the classic actor from German state theatre - when he talks about eating a croissant, he plays it like Hamlet. He talks about how his parents lost their house (which was not a party, but not a world disaster either) then he plays it as an epic battle between angels and demons. Valery Tscheplanova has an expressive, hot-blooded Russian playing style. It's very cool to bring all those voices together. You get a very captivating melange. Yet there has been a lot of discussion about that. In The Civil Wars also played a method actor, Karim Bel Kacem. Sometimes he went so deep that he really started crying. That is an interesting contrast with someone like Flemish actor Johan Leysen - because for him, acting is as emotional as baking pizza. He said: "You can't do that, can you? Really crying on stage". And then the other said, "Yes, but why don't you FEEL anything?"'
Was it difficult for the actors to tell their own story?
'"Yes, at times it was terribly difficult. There were some moments when I really had to push. Each player tells a personal story, but in performance they are just characters, and cannot analyse themselves. For example, if a Serbian player says: "I was bombed and that was horrible", that was the truth of the moment. Twenty years later (now), that person may say: we were bombed because we had attacked Bosnia. Now there is more historical context, interpretation and perhaps understanding. But the memories themselves are very pure and primary. That mirroring was very difficult for the actors. Because those contemporary nuances do not fit with what the character is telling in the play.
So I had to keep saying: just vértel your story. Don't go analysing yourself. The audience will analyse you. It is incredibly difficult to trust that. The danger of too much self-criticism was always lurking, because they are all very intelligent, critical and analytical actors. They know exactly what they are doing and where their limits are. In the play, they have to play with those limits, with their own naivety. That is very weird. As they play in-camera, using projection and archive footage, that sense of historical distance and analysis is heightened. At the same time, it's very close to the skin.'
It is notable that almost all players in The Dark Ages daddy issues have.
'"In Paris, I had a funny conversation with an ex-boyfriend of Michel Foucault. He had The Civil Wars and The Dark Ages seen. He said, "You are really making a Freudian trilogy. In the first part, the fathers are strong, then they die or go mad. In the second part, you see dead, dying or absent fathers and the rise of the strong mother figure." The third part will revolve around the loss of the mother. And yes, I am often asked if I have a beef with my own father. But I just think parental loss is a universal, poignant theme. The European is an orphan, left all alone."'
What attracts you to this kind of documentary theatre?
'"I have made many kinds of theatre in the last decade. Installations, re-enacted court cases, but also more classical works, and other re-enactments. They are all experiments to connect the actors' biographical or political background and subconscious with something very real, events that are historically documented. That has something very compelling, inescapable. For example, having a radio station with a message of mass murder played by actors who are themselves all survivors of that massacre (Hate Radio, 2011).’
'Or you invite actors to tell about the loss of home and hearth - not with a text from Shakespeare, but with a self-written text about their personal lives, as in The Dark Ages. My work is always about that crossroads. I seem to remember a quote by Jan-Luc Godard, which also applies to my work: "Realism does not mean repeating the truth, but that the repetition itself becomes real." The moment of performance has to become real and feel real.''
Why is The Dark Ages a play, and not a documentary film?
'"I like it when both dimensions are present, actors physically present on stage and filmed at the same time. I have made documentary films before, but within the theatre walls I have a ritualistic approach. I look for a meditative form, a situation that is almost static. A space where the audience and players sacrifice time and space for the moment. When I go to theatre myself, I need at least forty, fifty minutes to really immerse myself in it. A performance where there is a scene change every few minutes - I don't get that. So why don't they make television? Don't get me wrong. I like to use fast cuts, but for music videos or something. Take your time in the theatre. You might find the first 30 minutes terrible, thinking, "Fúck! Another hour and a half!" - but after that, something develops and you forget the time. Hopefully.'
The Dark Ages by Milo Rau/International Institute of Political Murder, Residenztheater plays at Theater Frascati on 17 and 18 June (20:30). The performances are sold out, but there is a waiting list. More information: http://www.hollandfestival.nl/nl/programma/2016/the-dark-ages/