I’d long heard the buzz about Romeo Castellucci’s work, but had never actually been able to see it. The Philadelphia Fringe Arts Festival this past September was my chance. The formidable (some would say notorious) Italian director’s On the concept of the face, regarding the son of God (first seen in the U.S. in a brief engagement at New Jersey’s Montclair State University last year) was on the program.
Castellucci, along with Claudia Castellucci and Chiara Guidi, founded the avant-garde theatre company Socìetas Raffaello Sanzio in 1981. Based in the small city of Cesena, the group has made a mark on the theatre world that belies its bucolic roots. Awarded the Chevalier dans l’ordre des Arts et des Lettres by the ministry of culture of France in 2002, Castellucci directed the 37th edition of the Biennale Teatro di Venezia in 2005 and was associate artistic director of the Festival D’Avignon in 2008, where he created three pieces inspired by Dante’s Divine Comedy. Le Monde described this work as “one of the 10 most influential cultural events in the world for the decade 2000–10.”
Socìetas Raffaello Sanzio creates work that is heavily based on image and often employs dense soundscapes and fragmented narrative. In On the concept of the face…, a middle-aged son cares for his elderly father, who suffers from incontinence. The son cleans up mishap after mishap in what looks like a contemporary chrome-and-white apartment. (The white background emphasizes the color of the father’s shit; the materials used in these scenes have a dreadful verisimilitude, including the all-too-familiar odor.)
Meanwhile, the son speaks to his father in tones both tender and angry, and the audience experiences a multitude of reactions. David Patrick Stearns wrote in Philly Stage, “Perceptual starting points fall into two camps: Those who dread being in such a situation in the future, and those who have been there and know it’s survivable but feel everybody’s pain. Beyond that, nothing I’ve read about the show jibes with how it spoke to me.” There seemed to be more than two camps the night I saw it: There were walkouts, people stifling laughter, weepers, sleepers and brow-wrinklers.
As the shit hits the stage, so to speak, an enormous portrait of Jesus (based on Antonello da Messina’s depiction of Salvator Mundi) hangs in the background. At times the portrait seems to watch the audience. (Is it simply a portrait or a clever video design?) In the show’s second section, the father and son turn the stage over to a group of kids, who pull grenades out of their backpacks and hurl them at the image of Christ. The portrait is ultimately dismantled, revealing text that reads, “The Lord is my shepherd,” with the word “not” blinking on and off, while a soundscape by Scott Gibbons drones to deafening heights.
The performance I attended was followed by a lively talkback. Castellucci took questions from the audience and described the strong reactions that his work tends to provoke—including a certain hullaballoo that happened in France in 2011. Christian protestors interrupted On the concept of the face… when it played at Theatre de la Ville. The protestors were removed, but the following night audience members were pelted with eggs and oil, and the actors were deeply shaken.
The talkback’s final question came from a man in the balcony who asked politely and hesitantly, “Mr. Castellucci, I’m curious to know what your relationship to God is.” Castellucci responded with a shrug that was at once dismissive, mildly offended and a bit exasperated. “That’s not important. My relationship to God doesn’t matter. That has nothing to do with the show,” he chided gently.
The following conversation has been translated from the Italian with an effort to retain some of the distinct idiosyncrasies of the language.
ELIZA BENT: It seems that people always ask you the same questions in interviews. Since we’re speaking in Italian, I wonder if there’s something American audiences should understand about your work.
ROMEO CASTELLUCCI: Yes, yes, yes—but the most important thing, in my opinion, is to see the work. Interviews are interesting, but they’re not really useful, in my opinion, in terms of understanding the real nature of someone’s work. It doesn’t really come to my mind to say, “The public should understand this.” Otherwise it loses a part of my work. I wouldn’t know what to say.
In my view, American audiences don’t have too many predetermined structures. For example, in Europe, theatre very often—and maybe it’s the same here—is very linked to text. And very connected to literature—very much so, especially in countries like Germany and France. There are kinds of theatre here that are also really connected to text, but as far as audiences go, I find American audiences very open and open-minded. Available. They know things. I feel good about American audiences. It doesn’t really occur to me to say, “The public should know this.”
Excuse me. [Castellucci throws away his chewing gum.]
I’m curious about the situation in France and the reactions to your work in Italy and Lithuania. I know it’s your work that matters, not necessarily the reactions, but since we’re doing an interview.
Yeah, yeah, yeah. Of course. In any case it was really ugly, pretty awful—especially for the actors, because they were completely exposed and vulnerable. I was really worried especially for Gianni Plazzi, the actor who plays the father. He suffered a lot from these attacks.
What exactly happened?
The protestors made threats, and the first night in Paris they came onto the stage. This was very ugly for the actors. Then in the following days, there were metal detectors, like at the airport. They separated men from women.
Yup, there were searches. It was that bad. The police found knives and stones in people’s bags. So it was really serious, because the people making the threats were fascists. So. It was ugly, because the show ceased to be.
Because it was just chaos?
Yes. That was what the show became.
Was that the first time something so violent has happened to you?
This violent? Yes. There had been protests and other condemnations in the past, but for different reasons. Nothing this violent had ever before happened.
How did you find Gianni? He’s fantastic. Had you worked with him before?
Yes, we’ve worked together on other shows before. This is the biggest part he’s done with me. I conceived of this work and thought about it for him because I knew that he could do it. He’s so capable and strong and has the power. He lives this thing in a very profound way. Very bravo and intense. And he’s able to communicate it to the spectators.
Did you write the text yourself or did you create it together with the actors?
Yes, I wrote the text, but—it’s not really a real text, you know. They’re everyday words. You could understand it.
It was very touching. Also because I don’t hear Italian spoken so often, there’s a certain effect.
Yes, of course. Heh heh.
In the discussion last night you spoke about how the reaction in Greece to the show was about the crisis of generations, and how the older generation has left the younger generation with nothing. What were the reactions in other countries?
There were very different reactions elsewhere—in Russia and Belarus a lot of people cried. That struck me. Here there were young people and a lot of ancient people. How do you say that, “old people?”
Yes, elderly or “senior citizens.”
Okay. [Laughs.] That’s very polite, “senior citizens.” I’ve never really heard that. I’ve also heard “cotton top.” Is that possible? There’s a book by Tom Wolfe—Bonfire of the Vanities, I think—and he defines senior citizens as “cotton tops.” [Laughs.] The audiences in Philadelphia really struck me, because maybe they were watching their own existence, their condition. It was strange, this relationship that was really like a mirror. But it actually worked pretty well.
And they stayed for the talkback. The “cotton tops” asked a lot of questions.
And there is an element of “voyeurism”—but it’s not a voyeurism like “Big Brother” or reality TV.
No. Voyeurism is relative to…
Excuse me, but it’s freezing here.
Mamma mia! In America there’s always this incredible air conditioning! Shall we move? [We move to another area. As we walk, Castellucci gets distracted by a Venus in Fur poster.] I did a show about Masoch—Venus in Furs. It’s a novel by Leopold Von Sacher Masoch. Do you know him? The name masochism comes from that writer. This is the most famous of his novels.
There’s also a version by David Ives.
I haven’t seen the version by David Ives, I don’t know it. [We stand by the poster.] I did it, many years ago, my own version. [An assistant enters with tea, Castellucci tells her:] We had to move. We were dying from the cold. [A brief discourse on AC in the U.S. follows.]
In this show by David Ives, there are two characters, a man and woman, and the woman does an audition for him, a director. It played on Broadway, and this year it’s the most-produced play at TCG member theatres in the U.S.
Really? Really? So it’s not on Broadway anymore?
No, they licensed it. So you also did your own version?
Yes. Based on Masoch. Do you call it “masochism”? The name is the same. In the original novel by Sacher-Masoch, there isn’t an actress. It’s a story about a woman who dominates a man—he begs the woman to punish him. He wants psychological punishment. Freud used the name of the author to invent this category of sadism and masochism. The novel is really beautiful. And my work based on it was rather…abstract.
Would you like to elaborate a bit?
Ah! Sure. The set was made entirely out of metal and iron, I forget how many tons of it. It was everywhere. It was quite a big room—very, very heavy. So the sound was all the sound of the metal. There were repeated phrases. There was a woman, naturally. It’s hard to describe because there were a lot of movements. It wasn’t quite dance. It was many years ago.
Do you ever think about restaging your shows from years ago?
Normally, no. It’s almost impossible. To tell you the truth, there’s maybe one that I’ll do again because the Festival d’Automne in Paris has asked me to restage an old show, the Oresteia. It’s a rather complicated show because there are animals in it—horses, which is okay, and donkeys, white donkeys. But the problem is that there are also five or six monkeys—apes. And it’s difficult, because in Europe there are now many laws about the treatment of animals onstage. So I think it’s quite impossible.
What happens to the apes?
Nothing. They stay on the stage, behind glass. They are just monkeys. They are free. They have their own space and aren’t forced to do anything. So, I don’t know.
Speaking of Aeschylus, on the Fringe website you wrote, “I try to lower the temperature in everything I do. I try to restrain the energy just a moment before it is expressed externally; I reject vitalism in theatre because the energy that works on a deeper level is that which is withheld: the katÄchon, the restraining force of the ancient Greeks.”
I said that? Hmm, it could be! For me, as an audience member, as a spectator, I like to watch and recognize a form that’s cold. I don’t know how to say it: I remain completely indifferent as a spectator. When I’m in the theatre, I don’t like vitalism—the spending of energy, indication, exhibitionism. There’s also an egocentrism of the actor that I don’t like. Therefore, I prefer, as a spectator, to maintain a distance and remain…. My relationship to what I see, as a spectator, is very much filtered by the mind and by thought. And when I prepare a show, I’m probably a spectator that works in anticipation.
If you were to see your own show as a spectator, do you think you’d cry? Or would you remain indifferent?
Ah, no, I liked to be moved. I like that a lot. I like to be moved at the cinema, with books and novels. But I must understand that the author, in the moment, doesn’t do anything to move me. I’m moved if the situation is emotional. But if I recognize that the author or the actor or the director is doing something that forces me, then it doesn’t work. When I perceive or feel that there’s too much intention on the part of the actor…
In a certain sense, yes. In my view, it’s important that the spectator has his own space to maneuver. So that he’s not forced into a corner or obligated, where it’s like, “Watch this! Be moved! Feel something.” It’s not that way.
You’re creating something ambiguous.
And open to different interpretations. So there are people who cry and people who laugh. It’s perfect. Also, because…if you wish, this work is close to a kind of clownery.
Tell me more.
Yes, a kind of clownery that’s outside of context. There are scenes in this show with the shit, so it’s immediately comic—but if you shift the context, if you move the frame, it changes completely. The content is the same, but the effect is different. There are these things at the bottom that make people laugh: Things about shit make people laugh, right? That exists, right? Maybe you need a psychoanalyst in order to understand why, but there are very deep and profound motives for this that are linked to the human psyche. In the theatre room, watching the same scene, there are people who laugh and people who cry. But how is that possible?
For me, it’s great. There are people who remain serious and others who sleep. Perfect. Yes, yes. It’s not my job, or duty, to direct the emotion of the people. Bad theatre, for me, does exactly that. It takes you by the hand and says, “Look, here you cry. Now laugh.” I don’t know.
So what would you say your duty is?
My job, and this may seem paradoxical, is to prepare a form, and, in a certain sense, to abandon the spectator. Leave him alone without any suggestion. It’s like that. Super-simple. Naturally, I need to accept any type of reaction. I also understand people that have an angry reaction and that are against this work. I can understand that. But what happened in Paris is another thing.
There was an interview on YouTube in which you said you’re interested in “the power to say what cannot be said.” I don’t mean to be pretentious, but this reminded me of Wittgenstein. Is he an influence for you? Who or what are your influences? You read Tom Wolfe, for example.
Ha ha, honestly, Tom Wolfe isn’t an author that’s so close to me, but it’s true that I love American literature—very much. It’s the literature I love the most. It’s my favorite—not a choice, it just happened. It chose me. I’m very connected to American literature. The most important things that have happened in visual art have been invented and thought here. The biggest figures in art history, with regard to contemporary art, are American.
My mother was born in America, in Kansas. She was the daughter of immigrants, naturally. Then she returned to Italy. So maybe this fact of having…I don’t know—there’s not a precise reason. I have a worship for David Foster Wallace—I’ve read him in Italian. He is very highly regarded in Italy. I love Faulkner, Melville, etc., etc. I don’t know why.
Do you see a lot of theatre?
Not much, I don’t have time. Visual art is easier to see. Tonight I’ll be able to see Nature Theater of Oklahoma—I’ve never managed to see their work, but I know them because we are in the same festivals.
I don’t know if there are other things you’d like to say. I don’t want to ask too much biography Brava it’s not so important.
This detail about Kansas is good.
Have you been? Do you know Kansas?
I’ll go there this winter.
Why are you going to Kansas?
I’ll be working on something.
So that I can concentrate. New York is…..
It’s so important to not have stimulation. New York is a disaster. New York is not a city for artists. It’s impossible. New York is for spectators—for spectators it’s perfect. Are you an artist?
Ha ha. Why unfortunately?
Well, you know. What can you do? I didn’t choose it, it chose me.
Support American Theatre: a just and thriving theatre ecology begins with information for all. Please join us in this mission by making a donation to our publisher, Theatre Communications Group. When you support American Theatre magazine and TCG, you support a long legacy of quality nonprofit arts journalism. Click here to make your fully tax-deductible donation today!