Creator of shows that, by their visual power, fascinate as much as they question, Romeo Castellucci is much in the public eye. At the beginning of the 2018-2019 season, he revisits for la Monnaie the famous opera Die Zauberflöte by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. The playwright Piersandra Di Matteo, one of his close collaborators, depicts the artist in the following portrait.
The art of attraction
Romeo Castellucci’s art pulses with a visual charge and a highly imaginative power that cuts to the awareness of your unconscious. The age-old technique of theatre is a means to introduce a different time and a different space for spectators, at the heart of the contemporary negligence of a viewing. For Castellucci, theatre is “the possibility to think, to think of seeing, to see to seeing, and to acknowledge therefore, the deep significance of being a spectator nowadays”, as he stated at the recent Lectio Magistralis, when awarded his Laurea honoris causa, from the University of Bologna. In his world, the curtain comes up as soon as the spectator comes through the door and is confronted with “dilemmas designed specifically for him”. The spectator is given the red carpet treatment: and is granted nothing. He is relentlessly presented with images that challenge, that want to be seen, that need to be seen. Their power of attraction is ambivalent, they incite nausea and involvement, shame and abandonment. Art is being used to strike to the deepest reaches of the nervous system, to embrace the highs and the lows of the human existence, to rip the real from the principle of reality, while never sinking to compromises between the violent extremism of beauty and with the non-reconciled face of the obscene.
Looking from today with a panoramic vision at the artistic wake of Castellucci – director and scene, lights, sound and costume designer – you can’t fail to recognise the reach of his creations that have altered the horizon of theatre to come, radically warping the point of view. These creations have been modelled over time with the Socìetas Raffaello Sanzio, the theatre company he founded in Cesena, his hometown, with his sister Claudia and Chiara Guidi at the beginning of the 1980s. That was the starting point, from which an absolute and vertical study of the forms of representation began, searching for a “pre-tragic” theatre. He entertains iconoclasm to invoke a return to the use of the body and he shows an open hostility towards prospect as “subjection of the existing”. He claims the rights to end the on-stage language subject to the “mimetic regime”, where the logocentrical structure is dominant as in western theatre. The debuts were ground-shaking for the theatrical community, such as Kaputt Necropolis (1984) and Santa Sofia. Teatro Khmer (1985) as well as the epics of mythography from the mesopotamian cycle of La Discesa di Inanna (1989), Gilgamesh (1990), andAhura Mazda (1991).
The diffusion of all kinds of illustration practices for text meets the catastrophe of language, that middle ground between logos and soma, that during the 90s led to the creation of the Epopea della Polvere cycle. It deals with a total and thorough exploration into the great classics of western theatre, from Aeschylus to Shakespeare, which takes the arts beyond theatre, beyond the representation in the very heart of the representation. It is a sinking to the underground language that reveals a theatre of the body, Artaudian, backwards and continually in evolution thanks to its artistic strength, it reveals the other. The body and its kenosis – its starkness - are at the centre of attention and nothing is as it was before. The scene is struck by the apparition of Hamlet. La veemente esteriorità della morte di un mollusco (1992), in which the Prince of Denmark is cocooned in an aphasic autism that keeps him suspended between “being and not being”. In Orestea (una commedia organica?) (1995), the text by Aeschylus undergoes a derailment similar to that in Alice by Carroll and Umpty-Dumpty translated by Artaud, during the hospitalisation of Rodez. Giulio Cesare (1997) focuses on the empire of the rhetoric, the morphology of the monument and the obsessions for the statue, framing the drama of the voice and its organs. The cycle is concluded with the confrontation between the biblical myth of the creation of man. In Genesis. From the museum of sleep (1999) creation is linked to his most extreme opposite: Auschwitz. Genesis here is “the act of absolute sovereignty with which the Divinity has allowed himself to no longer be absolute for a long time”, to quote Hans Jonas.
“Romeo Castellucci's works possess the strength of an art form that is capable of touching, and knowing how to touch without touching too much”
Castellucci’s theatre is constantly bound to the Grecian world with its telling of the foundation of communities and with the great ancient tragedy. Indeed, tragedy for Castellucci “is the reference point for every work”. But how can you reckon with an insurmountable form? “According to Greek tragedy – he says - it is an extremely refined aesthetic form. Oresteia by Aeschylus cannot be refined further. It is the extreme and perfect synthesis which cannot be surpassed. There is therefore no point in trying to exceed it. You must instead disappear into the tragedy and be absorbed by it. It is for this reason that I believe Greek theatre should neither be watched with nostalgia, nor with an academic approach: it would mean laying a tombstone on ancient theatre. It should be considered as a fixed point in space, a kind of North Star”.
This tension recalls the scenic forces of the colossal cycle of Tragedia Endogonidia (2002-2004) which is composed of 11 Episodes in 10 European cities. This system of plays based on the idea of self-reproduction works in a kind of juridical vacuum regarding the “tragic”, being the only way it could return in our era: here the hero is immortal, unable to die, and the choir is positioned outside the door, waiting, since there are no longer words to say to or for all. However the technology of the tragic in hindsight is to be found in the compositional fibre of each work. It is visible in Purgatorio, in the 2nd act, loosely inspired by the Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri, presented at the Festival of Avignon in 2008, when he was named “associated artist”. In fact the play revolves around a forbidden place: the act of violence. As in a tragedy, we are not witness to the rape of the son by the father, but here the telling is also omitted: we are left alone, only to hear the groans and screams. The risus pascalis generated from Sul concetto di volto nel Figlio di Dio (2010) is also drawn from tragedy. Somewhere between the intensive glare of Christ in the giant work Salvator Mundi by Antonello da Messina, and the spectator there is a hyperbolic soiling of an elderly incontinent father who is lovingly cared for by his son. This morphology of the dispersion (excrements), built with the syntax of polished comic gags, touches an anguish that cannot be dissolved (non liquet) except in the body’s abjection and its symptoms, elevated to become a sublime query on Man and his transience.
However, Castellucci’s founding interest in the ancient Greeks is regarding the western aspect: thus not just the sun-kissed and harmonious Greece, but also the night-time, chthonic Greece, crossed by irreconcilable contradictions, such as that of Mysteries of Eleusis and Samothrace, and the Demetra culture rediscovered by Bachofen. It is here that the meeting with Friedrich Hölderlin comes into play, to whom more than one work has been dedicated. If Hölderlin, with his incomparable translation of Oedipus by Sophocles wishes to take the language of tragedy back to the sacro pathos of its origins, Castellucci when directing Ödipus der Tyrann (2015) –at the Schaubuhne in Berlin since March – dismantles the mental lameness of Oedipus in amorphous bodies that reveal "the enigmatic depth of being something”, adipose masses with only ejecting orifices that excrete the tragic logos in bowel sounds.
To the limits of fiction
One aspect that Castellucci is always able to achieve in his directing is a radical action in etymological terms. He digs deep to the roots of tradition to cut away his own bond with forms of representation and sever the already well-known domesticated repetition. In the wake of Hans Blumenberg, theatrical acting seems to often eradiate from a mythological scene, set out of time. The mythical potential is rediscovered in the material elaboration of something otherwise unspeakable that lives in bodies, in the sensitive world of drama. The peak is portrayed in personified animal power, a biological force which is unmoveable for any dramaturgy. Horses, dogs, baboons, albino donkeys, macaque monkeys and goats have been used on the stage from the first performances as gifts closed in perfect forms. It is for this reason that the actor that Castellucci seeks is he who is able to maintain the objective precision “of a dog who ends up in the square”. And it is here, in the heart of such objectivity that the “as if” of theatre, its fictional dimension, can be pushed to its extreme limits. It is all about “faking fiction. Faking being a fake, – he says – using double meanings whilst conscious of the external element, raising up a structure to then come to terms with it and symbolically decide to destroy it. Pretending requires total presence, like doing. […] His calculated approximation and lack of determination create a tangible space for the spectator, a kind of open door that leads to another room”. In The Four Seasons Restaurant (2013), the type of language used by the young women in Hamish outfits in the gym of a women’s college is the proclaimed “staging” of a voluntary act that forms the “simulation in theatre”. La morte di Empedocle by Hölderlin – a literary text revisited – contains a somersault in fiction that frames another language in poetry, telling of the aesthetic suicide of the philosopher in a crater on Etna. A grinding friction is also created in the performance of Metope del Partenone(2015). Here there is a hyper-realistic device whereby there is a sequence of successive acts to various incidents. Real paramedics and professional nurses carry out first aid with real medical instruments, while the actors with drama in their veins, “playing the part” of the victims, feign injuries or death, while a series of enigmatic riddles suspend, in a counter-rhythm, the concreteness of this contemporary frieze of pain.
Hearing and seeing
Castellucci’s work – whether installations, theatrical plays or directing operas – never cease to stimulate deep, physical images conjured up by the intimate alliance that links the visual and audio. Chromes and lights, sound pulses and acoustic images help to create a form and make it vibrate as if alive and tangible. The scene becomes a sensorial layout, artistic, profoundly pictorial, not at all seduced by the simulation of the enigma or by the taste of aesthetic formalisation. It is not about offering tricks that cannot be represented, nor forcing disloyalty, even only in part, to its mystery, but instead to create openings in the order of perception. Eye, ear and touch are the first target audience. In the second part of M.#10 MARSEILLE the whole stage becomes a kinetic-visual event with no interpretation. The same scene comes alive and becomes the drama through the integrated use of Edward Gordon Craig’s screens, geometric objects and light pulsations. Le sacre du Printemps (2014) is construed as a molecular dance of 30 tonnes of animal bone powder, made on an industrial scale for fertilisation in agriculture. A “powder of folklore”, nebulised and exploded in gaseous masses makes up the idea of the dance with a rhythmical score closely related to the static ostinati and dynamic accents of the music of Stravinsky. For Romeo Castellucci sound is, in fact, the shortest route to reaching sensation. Sound is and produces activity, it builds vision as it is tightly-linked to matter. It reacts before any critical barrier. In his shows, the presence of body sounds is a weapon: from the Gregorian chants to the physiological curves produced by the electronic processing of organic material (bone, rocks, fire) of Scott Gibbons. It is primarily in this direction that the fissure initiated by the directors of Opera is grafted. The gateway to the attraction for Wagner’s universe is real acoustic enjoyment. In Parsifal (2011) the insidious dimension of the “infinite melody” in the leitmotiv plot becomes the area where the philological excavation and philosophical penetration into the sacred scenic action begins. In Orfeo ed Euridice (2014) Gluck’s music and the power of the myth allow for the adoption of the most extreme existential condition: a coma. In Neither (2014) by Morton Feldman the use of the Catabasis psyche, the detection of the dictated music by Morton Feldman, the tour de force of mangled voices in which the short prose by Samuel Beckett is entangled, all lead to the coming together of the narrative seduced by noir, in a story with no object that could run into pure psychic imagery.
The technology of the eye is called into play in his tactile scenes to unleash the power of vision, intended as seen objects – the opening of a space for imaginary creation –, but especially as the act of actually seeing. Thus the different elements that mark the image – the strength of the icon, the seriality of the pop image, the use of precise advertising technology, the dizzy trap of film, the comedy in the form of antiphrastic gags, the search for the bi-dimensional aspect of hyperrealism, the monumentalisation of the “rhetoric machine”, the layout of gestural scores for revenant paintings and sculptures taken synchronously from the history of Western art, the sweetened iconography of the saints - are never worth as much as they are. Nor are they redeemable in the hermeneutic network of quotations or meant as a postmodern resurgence. These are rather devices to insinuate suspicion in terms of the trade of viewing, to prepare for the blooming of something unexpected, something backstage, maybe a manque, that climaxes in an essential and universal shaking up that can be perceived when you feel exposed, under scrutiny to the bone of your existence, plunged into naked life, almost as if, we, the spectators are, in excess, and for this reason centre stage. This is exactly what happens when the voluntary mishap of being a spectator is flipped upside-down in its incidence (or tangent) of vision, giving body to something that looks at you again, and frames you, and makes you the frame. Because watching means being seen by the image. From the stage as it is.
Ultimately, in front of the works by this theatrical philosopher it is all about waiting for the image. Relentless pictures filled with universal intensity. Romeo Castellucci's works possess the strength of an art form that is capable of touching, and knowing how to touch without touching too much, the emotion, of a cortical emotion that opposes sentimentalism, images which you can only decide to look away from, delay or perhaps surrender to.