Eleven years ago in Paris, audiences seated inside the Théâtre de la Ville were watching a play that had taken a rare, startling precaution. At the top of the stage were two policemen, stationed to protect the performance from rioters outside the auditorium.
The Italian director Romeo Castellucci had created something that, for members of the Catholic extremist group Institut Civitas, seemed to amount to blasphemy. The play, On the Concept of the Face, Regarding the Son of God, was a drama about a restless man caring for his elderly father, staged against a gigantic Renaissance painting of Jesus Christ. It was a gruesome run of a play – actors were interrupted by protesters; audiences were pelted with eggs.
He found mainstream theatre to be a ‘cultural game’, something to reassure people by showing them what they already knew
“It is not my aim to be a provocateur,” says Castellucci, from his home in the Apennine mountains. This disarming and friendly man would surprise anyone expecting a rebel looking for an easy reaction. Recalling that difficult period, he points out the irony of having real law enforcers present onstage; his recent play Bros, touring to the Dublin Theatre Festival, is about how policemen are widely encountered, and even omnipresent, in art.
Castellucci certainly takes risks. With the Socìetas Raffaello Sanzio, the company he co-founded with his sister Claudia Castellucci and his wife Chiara Guidi, he became a pioneer of contemporary theatre. At the beginning of his career in Bologna during the 1980s, he found mainstream theatre to be a “cultural game,” something to reassure people by showing them what they already knew. Drawn instead to the idea of a deeper truth, to French director Antonin Artaud’s idea of leaving audiences so they would be “terrified, and awaken”, he developed an oblique and exciting approach to playmaking, often incorporating epic, visceral displays, and bold casting decisions such as assigning roles to medical patients and live animals.
“You sometimes have to push to change the electricity in the air. You can feel it when sitting in the audience. Something is not correct,” he says. That will remind many of his thrilling gambles during the 1990s – a production of Julius Caesar where Mark Antony’s famous speech (“Friends, Romans, countrymen …”) was delivered by a man scarred from throat cancer, or an adaptation of the Book of Genesis that detoured to a chilling scene at Auschwitz – but, two decades on, Castellucci’s art is still as wild as a fever dream. In the past five years alone, his productions have featured cars falling from the ceiling, a woman in a pool of milk serenading the severed head of a horse, and a biblical tale of fratricide performed by child actors.
The last decade saw a celebrated transition into directing operas, but there have also been plays that, in their casting, feel like statements about gender. A production of Oedipus Rex set in a monastery, where a group of nuns stage Sophocles’ macho story as an ominous foundation myth for society, had a predominantly female ensemble. Bros, by comparison, is occupied by male actors. “Often I work in companies either totally male or all female, for different kinds of energy,” he says.
[A scene] where an infant actor was left unattended and surrounded by brutality, incensed people to phone in to radio talk-shows
A play about policemen was something that was long on his mind. In the early 2000s, Castellucci created an ambitious cycle of plays inspired by European history titled Tragedia Endogonida. One episode, based on violent incidents in Belgium, featured a scene where a man arrived without alarm, until he put on a law enforcer’s uniform and participated in a prolonged, savage act of police brutality. (When the play toured to Dublin, this sight prompted multiple walkouts. The scene, along with another where an infant actor was left unattended and surrounded by brutality, incensed people to phone in to radio talkshows).
‘Chaos and order’
Since then, he has been reflecting on how depictions of policemen permeate art history, carrying with them a range of contradictions: “We see a reference to cinema in Bros because that artform’s history is made for the policeman. If you see the early movies without words, the films of Charlie Chaplin, there were always police in them because they are the balance between chaos and order, violence and comedy.”
That sounds like an intriguing law of determinism. “The police are the guarantee that we can have chaos,” says Castellucci.
In the history of theatre, however, the policeman doesn’t seem as central. That’s not to say there hasn’t always been a preoccupation with authority. “If something is to happen in theatre, you have to break the law – that was the Greek lesson. The Greek hero is the one able to break the law, and by doing so bring a higher level of conscience, another level of civilisation,” he says, making reference to grave errors of judgment seen in ancient tragedies.
The idea of seeing a policeman – an American cop, in particular – pivot between comedy and horror, between slapstick and slapping, first took shape in an earlier version of Bros. Last year, on a promenade in Brussels, near a police station, Castellucci staged a site-specific play titled Buster. (An obvious nod to Keaton). It saw about 40 performers arrive without rehearsal, wearing uniforms and headsets, and blindly carrying out instructions from an invisible commander. After grim allusions to torture and using force against civilians, can these cops still be viewed as vaudeville comedians?
Brought inside theatre auditoriums, the play has been developed into Bros, which, at its centre, has the beloved Romanian actor Valer Dellakeza. (“He plays an old, strange man who is a kind of prophet we cannot understand.” Indeed, Castellucci even leaves his Romanian speech un-surtitled). Wherever the play tours, it recruits a group of local people as “the legion” – participants who have agreed to wear the police uniform and follow all instructions given to them.
In casting unrehearsed actors to carry out actions blindly, Bros tries to expose a structure of aggression, an anthropology of violence: “There is no time to have a judgment or opinion. No time for a conscience. The order becomes the action.
“Onstage, the person changes completely because they become one body. They lose their personality. It’s a kind of brotherhood,” he says.
Castellucci has had to recover from many attacks. “Paris was heavy,” he says, with an exhale, singling out the protests against On the Concept of the Face, Regarding the Son of God as a difficult period. The height of the menace was when serious threats were made against him. “Christian fundamentalists sent me an envelope with a bullet inside,” he says.
He says his art has been strongly condemned before then. I ask about the first time he realised that people aggressively opposed his work, and he begins to describe something unexpected – a physical assault that occurred early in his career. After some hesitation, he abandons the rest of the story. We both move on.
What worries him, he explains, is how an experience of trauma can transform into self-censorship for an artist. Has he been holding himself back, I ask? “People out there are aggressive, and the next time you make something you can think: ‘Maybe I won’t dare do something.’ I discover myself thinking that maybe an idea is too much. Then I decide: no, it’s not,” he says.
‘I love [Beckett] so much. He was a very important reference when I was young. I feel fear and danger from his theatre’
For Castellucci, sensationalism is useless. (“Provoking is too easy”). He seems genuinely committed to an idea of theatre that isn’t offensive but, rather, is searching – that is capable of replenishing itself with new possibilities. Appropriately, midway during the process of creating Bros, he discovered a fitting way of including an overt nod to another avant-gardist, Samuel Beckett.
“I love this man so much. He was a very important reference when I was young. I feel fear and danger from his theatre,” he says, referring to Beckett’s potentially vexing absurdism. That sense of risk seems very important to Castellucci, who, 40 years into his career, speaks of the medium as if it doesn’t have all the answers yet. As if it can still push us all into unknown territory.
Sometimes, that requires creating something that feels out of place, or even – in terms of theatre – like a crime. “An artist needs to prepare a mistake as a door,” he says.
In Castellucci’s philosophy, that portal doesn’t seem to be an affront; in its unfamiliarity, an audience may find something uncanny and unexpectedly recognisable. It’s a plot twist: “You discover yourself to be different. You don’t just discover something strange – the strangeness belongs to you. You are strange.”