Saturday, January 2, 2016

Oresteia (An Organic Comedy?), directed by Romeo Castellucci @ Odéon Théâtre de l'Europe

Photo by Guido Mencari |

Today I experienced Romeo Castellucci’s theatre for the first time: Oresteia at the Odéon Théâtre. Wow. I know he is considered one of Europe’s most exciting experimental dramaturgs, and though his work has played on Paris stages a number of times, tickets are nearly impossible to get. And now I know why. This is among the most inspiring theatre I have seen. It’s mindblowing. I don’t really have a language with which to write about this, it is so far from anything I have seen and know. However, I must blog it because everyone needs to know about Romeo Castellucci.

Where to begin? The man behind me told his companion on a couple of occasions that “these characters are all out of Alice in Wonderland.” Which they are not. I know why he said this though, and will give him the benefit of the doubt that he was not just referring to the centrality of a rabbit who leads the chorus. There is something so ominous, grey, apocalyptic about the visual and sonic density of Castellucci’s Oresteia that it could be taking place down the rabbit hole, behind the looking glass. The whole of the first part of the Aeschylus trilogy unfolds behind a black scrim, giving the stage a blurred lens, making the hellish world of war even more intrepid. The cold, ruinous world behind the scrim is the stage for the power, violence, and the horror of subjection that plague a mythical world at war with itself. Of course, there must be some resonance for an audience in 2015.
Murder about to begin
The bodies of the actors are everything for Castellucci. Their physical appearances are also their allegorical significance in the drama. Unlike the naked bodies of most actors we see on stage today, Castellucci’s are bold and extreme in their size and shape: the actor who plays Apollo is perfect in every way, except that he has no arms. Women are huge as an expression of their power--Clytemnestra for example is obese “because she weighed down heavily on the drama, and Agamemnon was played by a Down syndrome actor “because he was a monarch, and did not enter into discussion.” Orestes and Pylades are anorexic as a statement of their impotence, and because they are covered in flour, they have a ghost-like appearance, marking their other-worldliness.

Torture before murder
Photo by Guido Mencari |
The events of the play are horrific - murder, revenge, torture - when Oresteia kills his mother with a mechanical arm holding a knife, thus, gives over all control, the bloody murder is chilling. When the messenger whips the rabbit, having previously attached its ears to a mechanical hoist, I wanted to jump out of my seat it was so violent. Much of the action is accompanied by either music or silence. When there is talking, the voices are often distorted, thus again, the meaning is not contained in the words that are spoken, but in how they are articulated, and from what body.

However, none of this really articulates the wonder of this theatre. It’s not about the story and neither is it about the description of what takes place on stage. Castellucci says of Artaud in an interview, that the great playwright was in fact a philosopher who happened to present his ideas to the world through the theatre. I am tempted to say the same of Castellucci. I am not really equipped to comment on his philosophy, but I can comment on his mise-en-scène. Castellucci does everything. He is the director, the scenographer, the lighting designer, the casting director, the music director, and he creates a visual and sonic world of wonder. I kept thinking that nothing is impossible to execute on this stage. Whatever he thinks of he will do.

Romeo Castellucci - Socìetas Raffaello Sanzio-Oresteia (an organic comedy?) Photo #1
To give one example, of which there are many: in the final part of the surviving trilogy, after walking backwards and forwards, over and over again, before a black-drawn curtain that extends across the stage, in silence, Orestes rips down the curtain. Behind is a perfect circle in glass, through which we see monkeys on scaffolding, free to move as they will. Orestes climbs into their space, together with Athena (I think), and he becomes one of the monkeys. He moves with his anorexic, almost pre-pubescent, body as they do, swinging from the scaffolding, silently, crouched in reflection, before playing with each other and themselves in the amber light of the aftermath of matricide. It was the most superb image: it evoked the looking glass, the camera obscura, the telescope to another world. We had already seen an albino donkey and a horse, as Castellucci uses the animals for their significance to the definition of human nature, but nothing prepared me for an image so beautiful to signify freedom from the barbarity of the previous two hours.

This is avant-garde theatre at its most exquisite and, to be honest, reading about it is not enough. Everyone must experience Castellucci’s theatre at least once in their lives. 

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