Dana Rufolo in Brussels
Milo Rau, Swiss-born director of the theatre company NTGent in Ghent, Belgium, is no stranger to the contemporary theatre world. He is presently on a run with dozens of projects, films and actions occurring virtually simultaneously all over the map. He is entrenched in the European cultural scene with invitations and financial support from its various cultural organs such as European Capitals of Culture and Creative Europe. His stint as artistic director of Vienna’s Wiener Festwochen began this past summer. His slick International Institute of Political Murder “for the creation and international utilisation of (Rau’s) theatre productions, actions and films” actively advertises his works and the visions that created them. “Actions” used here is a new meaning to the word that merges the idea of performance with documentation of the misery of the most excluded or underprivileged people in society with the view to provoking a consciousness of their plight that leads to fairer social and economic treatment for them.
Photo credit: Toni Suter.
Plays International & Europe has published articles on Rau’s 2023 Everywoman in Almada and La Clemenza di Tito in Ghent. This present article is on his The Last Generation or The 120 Days of Sodom. It is a joint work between the Belgium theatres Théâtre de Liège and Theater Stap in Turnhout which is consecrated to training people with “mental disabilities” as actors.
The Last Generation unfolds with a similar sequence of scenes and similar storyline as the 1976 reputedly pornographic film by Pier Pasolini, 120 Days of Sodom which, in turn, is based on the incomplete novel The 120 Days of Sodom by Donatien Alphonse François de Sade, better known as the Marquis de Sade. The original title of this book is Les 120 Journées de Sodome ou L’Ecole du Libertinage. Sade wrote it in the Bastille while a prisoner; it describes seemingly endless acts of sexual and bestial violence performed on children and youths that today we call “sadistic”. Publicity asserts that The Last Generation neutralizes the sadism by setting out to portray violence (as a contemporary affliction), whereas the Pasolini film set in Salò, Italy, is distinguished by portraying decadence as a way to condemn fascism, the sadistic characters being, in fact, fascists.
Once I saw The Last Generation on December 20, 2023 at the Théâtre National Wallonie-Bruxelles (National Theatre of French-speaking Brussels) as a theatre critic – which in many ways was an underwhelming experience – I understood that the principal question begging to be asked is if indeed the Down Syndrome (or Trisomy 21) actors of the Theater Stap theatre company are the equivalent to the abused and eventually murdered children and youths that appear in Pier Pasolini’s film 120 Days of Sodom, on which the play is based.
Even though Rau staged a similar play in Zurich in 2017 with handicapped members of the Swiss theatre group HORA and was criticized for using these actors, I fear that Rau believes that intellectually handicapped actors are equivalent to children, assuming without self-interrogation that both groups of people are characterized by a naivety that is interchangeable.
He did not comprehend that he was experimenting, and trusted his assumption of equivalence without sufficient proof. Well, the proof is in the eating, and to not keep you in suspense, I believe that these two groups of humans – the child and Trisomy 21-afflicted persons – are not sufficiently similar to compel the audience to react at a gut level to the depravity and – there is no other word for it – the madness of what we witness occurring on stage. In this case, choosing handicapped people to act out depravity is disrespectful and suggests that Rau’s political sensibilities rest on a pillar of unorganized unconscious feelings that result in hit and miss “actions” however beneficial they purport to be.
The European Union’s “Creative Europe” programme offers large sums of money (up to €2m) to theatres that propose projects which mirror the political and social concerns of the time, including the call to “reinforce cultural diversity”. I will eventually provide an article that precisely reports on the funding methodology being used, but so far, I have found scarcely any critical post-production evaluations that might refine objectives and support project leaders as well as provide accountability to the taxpayers of Europe.
Inclusivity in creating artistic products and thematically working against exclusion are the two sides of a timely subject, and so any European theatre director of true merit will be tempted to develop a project that permits eligibility for EU funding. One of the sponsors of The Last Generation is, indeed, the EU. This suggests a possible motivation for Rau working with Theater Stap, but of course it is only a small piece in the puzzle. The question that should have been answered before the project began is: once there is an agreement to work with actors who are characterized as a group as having been born with mental impairment (almost exclusively in this play, those with Trisomy 21) what kind of play should they be in? Insofar as the production is an “action”, what play will bring out best their humanity, their skill, their talents? How can participation in this project improve their wellbeing and audience perception of their humanity?
You have read in these pages about the work of the Australian company of handicapped actors Back-to-Back whose film Shadow (based on their theatre piece The Shadow Whose Prey the Hunter Becomes) was aired in Tampere, Finland this past summer: there was a meta-communative level of discourse in it showing the actors as aware of their mental handicaps. This allowed them to detach themselves from the image they generate through uncontrollable slurring of speech or awkward bodily movements. They themselves brought up their rights to equality. Granted, the lead actors were exceptionally talented, but this level of discourse never appeared in The Last Generation which was controlled by Rau who is identified as the author of the script. There is an outburst of fury towards the conclusion of the play on the part of some actors who repeat “I hate trisomy” but they make no eye contact and the line was repeated as if by rote. Only once, one actor says, “I am slightly intellectually impaired”, and we understand that he is speaking with a level of self-knowledge.
So, if you have actors who do not automatically communicate self-awareness, should you not attempt to develop a scenario in which their plight is highlighted? Hasn’t the analogy that they in their lack of consciousness resemble children in their innocence been far too easily decided upon by the director’s controlling vision? For instance, a scene involving the “marriage” of two of the actors – male and female – which parallels scenes in Pasolini’s film, requires the two to embrace, dress up, dress down to nudity (except for panties) and simulate sexual intercourse on stage.
But even Rau himself, in different circumstances such as in his film Das Neue Evangelium (The New Gospel), interrupts the action (the word is used this time in its traditional meaning) to introduce scenes showing the preparation of the shots with amateur immigrant actors and scenes where they are off-camera and we see them trying to survive as tomato pickers who are exploited and badly treated. Why were we in The Last Generation never given information leading us to understand that either this couple were genuinely affectionate towards one another (although we observe the man, future groom, wipe away the woman’s kiss from his cheek very early on in the play – which belies the interpretation that they are a genuine off-stage couple to some degree, but not entirely) or that they had been selected to act out these roles? This show never permitted the personalities of the Stap Theater actors to shine though.
The function of handicapped actors on stage, or persons who have designated themselves to be actors and who are recognized as such even though their overweening thespian skill does not have to do with imitation (mimesis) but with developing a character at the core of which is the handicap – the personality of the handicapped and the visual value of being witnessed as a handicapped actor – is not new to the theatre. But the Australian company Back-to-Back’s film presented in Tampere offered a show that was extremely respectful of the actors, all of whom are genetically unusual or neurodiverse and cognitively impaired.
If one goes back in the record, Robert Wilson repeatedly put Christopher Knowles, an autistic child, on stage, most notably in Einstein on the Beach and other works including A Letter for Queen Victoria which Knowles initiated. Knowles travelled with the troupe, to whom his parents had given their consent. In the 1970s, I chose an actor with acquired Tourette’s Syndrome as a consequence of a skiing accident to play the role of Jerry in Edward Albee’s The Zoo Story for my company Le théâtre de l’on verra in Geneva, Switzerland, and I have subsequently wondered whether the oddity enriched the character of Jerry, as I wanted, or if it encouraged audience voyeurism which is something I did not want – so how one uses an actor who is not simulating handicap but is rather authentically handicapped is an important question for theatre practitioners to ask themselves. Rau did not ask that question, it seems to me. His actors might have consented to play roles that require agreeing to being portrayed as having been reduced to beasts (one scene has several on dog leashes), but they lacked agency.
Aesthetically, Rau can always assert that he was simply converting Pasolini’s film to the stage, with the same intent to be critical of fascist thought. And the actors and the Stap Theater staff themselves consented to the project. The techniques used to distinguish the theatre play from the film perhaps distracted from paying close attention to the lack of dramatic tension that the stage performance suffered from. For instance, in the play an actor supposedly evacuated his bowels and then slid the bowl behind him under a table. A stagehand slid back an identical silver coloured dogfood bowl in which were neat coils of no doubt chocolate mousse. This exchange would have been cut out in a film, making the filmic experience more synchronic than the reality of a trick played on the viewer, so the end product, the “feces” – in this case destined to be smeared onto the faces of and forced into the mouths of the actors – signified authenticity more in the film than in the play, increasing our horror. On the evening, I couldn’t help but marvel at the cognitive dissonance provoked by the clash between genuine and make-believe as the actors resist and groan in disgust over what must have been a tasty treat.
Milo Rau rose to fame because of his directorial skills, and that is a sphere in which he should remain: a Regietheater director. His forays into playwriting do not assist him professionally, because he doesn’t take advantage of the metaphorical aspect of images he creates verbally on stage, letting the entire construct of those images sink like marble pillars into quicksand.
For example, the title “The Last Generation” derives from a stand-alone scene played with melodramatic pathos. One of the “normal” actors in the play (the role of those who inflict torture are played by actors from the National Theater of Liège) tells how he and his wife are informed that their child to be is afflicted with Trisomy 21. Although the pregnancy was advanced seven months, meaning the baby boy was already capable of surviving if born, the parents follow the advice of doctors and friends, and they chose abortion. And so it goes, we are told: 90% of parents who discover that their future baby suffers from Trisomy 21, although it is a birth defect compatible with life, will agree to abortion. With detection methods readily available to today’s future mothers, fewer and fewer Down syndrome/ Trisomy 21 babies are being born. So, these actors in Stap Theater – often in their 30s or 40s – represent to some extent the last generation of their kind.
But the metaphor of the last generation is pregnant with meaning. Genocide in the broadest sense is equivalent to preventing the existence of future generations of peoples, whether they be handicapped, Palestinian, Ukrainian, Darfurian or culturally manipulated “others” such as Tibetans. Although “The Last Generation” was advertised as depicting violence as we experience it in our contemporary world, towards the end it is atavistic in that it returned to the Nazi kingdom as some of the actors turn into swastika-arm-banded characters who invade the stage to round up the others so as to chop them to bits.
So many modern post-Hitler Hitlers are to be found in our midst; even if Pasolini’s film used Nazi characters in it to supposedly make a political point, why must we see these specific historical brutes on stage in 2023? The same could be asked of the religious image in the final scene, where one actress is placed on a cross, awaiting crucifixion. Retreating to cultural references that have been superseded produces not enlightenment but boredom.
Photo credit: Toni Suter.