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Angélica Liddell: “Me? Feminist? Absolutely not!”

The enfant terrible of Spanish theatre is causing a stir – and some fainting – at Schaubühne this weekend. We caught up with her.

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In Liebestod, Liddell conjures up the death-defying art of corrida and castigates her godless “modern” audiences, more concerned with their pensions and global warming than transcendence. Photo: Christophe Raynaud de Lage

One of the most impressive (and abrasive) artists of contemporary theatre is at Schaubühne’s FIND festival until Sunday with two German premieres: a provocative anti #MeToo manifesto, and a Wagnerian opus glorifying the death-defying poetry of corrida. 

The latter opens with the artist alone on stage expertly scarring her legs and hands with a small razor blade, causing someone who fainted to be evacuated from the theatre on the play’s second night. At least they were spared a violent rant against the climate-concerned youth, risk-averse actors, the pagan French, feminists, leftist intellectual audiences – you and me: welcome to an Angélica Liddell play! 

Love it or loathe it, a Liddel show is always a memorable experience. Angélica Liddell is a blasphemous anti-feminist, a mystical misfit, a criminal apologiser. She’s also a lot more than that – an uncompromising risk-taker and a vital transgressive voice in our increasingly puritanical world.

We met her ahead of her Wednesday premiere for a multilingual chat over a plate of grilled meat and Osso bucco, just across from the Schaubühne where she’s to perform until the weekend.

You’re bringing to Berlin your newest piece, Liebestod, which premiered at Avignon this year. You’re borrowing from Wagner, and linking love and death in a very German romantic kind of way…

Yes, in the piece I speak of love from the perspective of death, as in Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde, the culmination of love is death. Yes, love is what puts us in contact with true emotions.

In tragedy there is always a link between love, tragedy and death. And you can’t understand one without the other.

There is no un-tragic love?

I don’t understand it separately. In fact, the relationship between Eros and Thanatos is something that runs through all of my work.

Thanatos – is that what led you to combine bullfighting and Wagner? How did you become fascinated with the legendary matador Juan Belmonte?

I always work with associations. It is a chaos that I later organise. So the first thing that comes to me, of course, is the bullfighter, it’s Juan Belmonte. It is the biography of Chaves Nogales. As I am reading the biography of Chaves Nogales, Wagner appears at some point in my life, by chance. And what occurs when I read Belmonte’s biography is an absolute identification.

So you identify with Juan Belmonte, the bullfighter, the man who made it his life and craft to defy death in the arena… Is the stage your own arena?

Yes, not only in the physical sense of fighting. But the state of being. First you have to be… Art depends on the ‘being’. It is not a purpose. So it’s like Belmonte’s definition of bullfighting: The way you fight the bull is the way you are.

It sounds like a metaphor for you and your approach to theatre…

First you have to be dark, you have to be tragic, you have to have a tragic feeling of life. In that sense I relate to the Spanish philosopher Miguel de Unamuno’s idea of bullfighting tragedy. As in a conflict between man and himself, with his soul. And I think that from that immense torment an expression is born. But the tragic feeling of life is in your being.

Can one translate that very tragic essence of being on the stage?

The work (play) translates it but without being it, the work (play) is a shell, it is nothing, it is a lie, it is false. In other words, you cannot want to be an actor if you were not born an actor. You cannot bullfight like Belmonte if you were not born Belmonte. There is no technical or formal purpose. It is a translation of a way of being in the world and that is why I identify with Belmonte. Of course, in the end it is a recognition of something that was in me.

You’ve always talked a lot of experiencing life as a constant fight. Do you identify with the physical risk-taking aspect of bullfighting, this flirting with death?

No, it’s not flirting, it’s wishing for death. To save yourself from death you have to desire it.

I work with that desire. If I am struck by lightning on stage, it is a wish fulfilled! But if lightning doesn’t strike, it’s a state of constant salvation, the sacrifice is there. It is sacrifice in the sense of Abraham and his son Isaac. The angel appears and saves him, but Abraham had already accepted he must sacrifice his son. So, only if you are willing to sacrifice your own son, to actually kill him, only then will he be returned to you. And that is the great mystery of faith and sacrifice. That is the mystique and bullfighting is mystical. And what the mystic wishes is to renounce life.

Well, as in Santa Teresa, “I die because I do not die”. And in the bullfighting world, Santa Teresa also has her anecdotes. It is said that she met a brave bull and the bull knelt down before her

I was expecting the connection with Belmonte, but not with Saint Theresa. You’re a mystic! 

I consider myself a Christian person. For me the figure of Jesus is important. The gospels are important. And for Christians, being a Christian means being Christ. And what does it mean to be Christ? It means passion, redemption. So all those things are present in my life. In other words, contempt for the body. The body is a jail.

Are you a mystic?

I lack the courage to shut myself in a cloister. But I lived with the Carmelites last year, and for me, seeing their prayers, their vow of silence…  It was revolutionary for me.

There is a desacralisation of the modern world. And in that desacralisation, the spirit loses out. The loss of spiritual values directly affects poetry and the perception of the world as well.

It’s funny because you’re usually described as a ruthless, trash provocateur, but to me you come across as a very idealistic and romantic person…

Yes, yes, I am romantic and also in a Wagnerian sense. I am a woman who does things for love, it is true. But from the side of pain, of loss. And I’m not looking for that, it happens. I speak of what I know. There is a word for this, it is passionism. Passionism is reproducing the passion of Christ in love. So that, surely I pour it into my works. My works are offerings of love. My work is love (laughs)…

Angelica Liddell: “My work is love”, this would make for an unexpected headline in your case.

OMG. It’s too much! (laughs)

Is your work a way to expurgate your disappointment in the world that surrounds you?

Well, If I found myself comfortable with the world, I wouldn’t do theatre. Obviously I don’t feel that I fit in, but I think that when one does not feel love in childhood, it is difficult to fit into the world.

So this is where it comes from, childhood?

I don’t know, I’m not going to get into psychoanalysis, but all I know is that I’ve had the desire to escape since I was a child. I was born with a gun to my head and the gun has a single bullet. And I was hit by the bullet. It’s Russian roulette. What am I going to do? Therapy? Travel? Exorcism? No, I do plays, I do theatre.

What am I going to do? Therapy? Travel? Exorcism? No, I do plays, I do theatre.

Juan Belmonte turned that gun onto himself, right? He killed himself.

He did. I actually just signed up to get a gun license to have a gun in my house. I had already chosen the pistol, I did the exam. I had good aim, but on the day of the exam, with the Civil Guard (police) behind me, assessing me, I failed. Why did I fail? I thought: God doesn’t want me to have a gun. He knows! (laugh)

So, no bullet, no psychotherapy – there’s only the stage left for you. How does it work?

Well, on stage, what takes place is a transformation. My purpose on stage is to get into a trance. So it is a kind of shamanism. I try to cross the line. When you walk on stage you cross the line.

And there, everything that surrounds you transforms into something else. But the theatre for me is not therapy, the stage for me is tragedy. It takes a lot of work from me.

This way of being on stage and doing plays must require a lot of self-discipline…

Yes, It requires enormous demands on myself. It forces you to work a lot. I work from the moment I get up in the morning until the evening. I don’t know how to not be working. I don’t know what life is like outside of work. Not even in my private life. I only interact with the people I work with.

What’s your working routine like?

In the morning I sit for two hours to write. Then I have to train my body in the gym to be able to do what I do on stage, then I have to organise the tour. I have brutal discipline, a brutal work capacity. I think that saves me, somehow – from death.

You write, direct, but you also ‘act’ – you expose yourself, your own body on the stage/arena… Why is that important?

It’s the sacrificed body. It is the body that enters another level of existence. I think that is what the saints are looking for. The saints look for the stigmata… in that way you could say that only the saints can do theatre, or could make art. Because I think we are driven.

Oh, so are you a saint, or on the path towards sanctity?

I could be (laugh). I am on the path to perfection…. I already wanted to meet the pope. I went with my bottle of Barolo to the Vatican when Francisco was named Pope. We drank that Barolo on stage. We dedicate it to Pope Francis! (laugh)…  But holiness is no joke, holiness is the fight between good and evil. This is reflected very well by people like Bernanos, or Bresson. Bresson is a saint, Tarkovsky is a saint. That is holiness. The ability to sacrifice.

You come from a Catholic country. What’s your relationship with churchgoers in everyday life? I can’t imagine they like your plays too much…

I don’t think they see them. Besides, I am not interested in Catholicism at all. I believe that Catholicism, as Pasolini said, is what has ruined Christianity. There are people who are not even aware of spirituality. Spirituality is elsewhere.

Your works are often describe as shocking, or subversive. Is that what you want to achieve with your audiences: to shock?

Not at all. Deep down I am looking for them to love me. At heart, artists work to be loved. I work to take the public to tension – to the difficult. I think that only the difficult can make you enter the cathartic. But I do not know very well what is difficult. I think the difficult thing is beauty. It is the most difficult for me and for the public.

Aesthetic beauty shines through your work. Some scenes are like live tableaux, right out of a baroque painting. It’s often very painful, but also very beautiful.

And beauty is a problem. It’s not the superficial. It is what produces a state of anguish before something you cannot understand. That is beauty. You would say that, for example, Caravaggio at the Gemäldegalerie. I would not say that it is beautiful because it is harmonious, but because it causes me an anguish that I cannot understand. That is why the problem of beauty is very difficult. Beauty is a problem for me.

Do you think that art must be transgressive?

Transgression is the violation of the law of life. The transgression is not showing a breast, or showing the ass. The transgression is something much deeper. It is the violation of the law of life. And that you can only do through art

On stage I can rape, kill, I can defend the murderer. That is the transgression.

Like what? What’s transgressive these days?

Well, empathy, understanding for the murderer for example is transgression. The transgression is always going to be what goes against the general opinion. The transgression is something very complicated. And it has to do with the tragedy because technically it violates the law of life and that you can only do in fiction. On stage I can rape, kill, I can defend the murderer. That is the transgression. In other words, as a citizen I have to fight barbarism. But as an artist, I am barbarism. Sure, that’s the transgression. Am I going to say on stage, what you’d hear on a newscast? I’m not going to do politics. Art is transgression because it is not political.

Precisely because it is art. Because it is Sadean. That is why Sade exists.

So in that sense, there can not be limits to artistic freedom, right?

Of course not, and that’s what I was referring to when I talked about aesthetic beauty. There are no limits within those terms. What happens is that everything gets confused. Real violence is confused with aesthetic violence. For me there is no confusion between aesthetic violence and real violence.

Do you see a difference between theatre and say, literature and painting when it comes to the expression of violence – does it get more transgressive when enacted on a stage?

Totally, because on a stage the level of taboo increases. And that is why the theatre is so impressive. Just try to bring Justine by Sade, as it is written, onto a stage, to see if it is a transgression or not! You can read Justine, you can see an illustration of “Justin” , but as soon as you put Justine on a stage, you realise that the degree of taboo increases.

You go to the museum and you see abductions, rapes, within the context of aesthetic violence and you are capable of having an epiphany. Transgression is born from the moment when you reach that taboo level, which decreases, from painting, to photography, to cinema, to the theatre, which is the most transgressive art form.

But let’s see if they let you take a naked child out on stage today. But you can go to the museum and see the naked children in Titian or Caravaggio paintings and there’s no problem.

Image for Angélica Liddell: “Me? Feminist? Absolutely not!

In The Scarlet Letter, freely inspired by Nathaniel Hawthorne’s famous novel, Angelica Liddell rails against feminists, #MeToo and “this world where women have stopped loving men”. Photo: Bruno Simao

In The Scarlet Letter, you raise the issue of our society’s puritanism and how the artist is the new adulterer of Nathaniel Hawthorne‘s novel. Do you think it’s getting worse?

It’s obvious. Today there are theatres where you cannot use a live animal onstage. (Ed note: the dead cow in the original Avignon staging of Liebestod has been replaced by a fake dead animal for the Schaubühne performance) And if you bring a naked child you have a huge problem. And why is that not applied in painting and photography? Take Pasolini’s 120 Days of Sodom. Can you imagine a group of nine 15-year-olds eating shit on stage? This would be hugely transgressive. Because we live in white, hygienic times in which everything has to be political, everything has to have a positive, wholesome impact on out society. But it’s not my responsibility as an artist.

Freedom for artists to be irresponsible?

That’s clear. I defend the irresponsible artist. The marginal artist, the alienated, the madman, the mystic, the sick. Like Carson McCullers. So I am not going to do a work to save the planet. This doesn’t mean I’m going to burn a forest.

Me? Feminist? Absolutely not! I do not identify with any herd, or collective movement.

Your Scarlet Letter has been described as anti-feminist, anti- #MeToo. Was that your intention?

Yes, yes, of course. Whenever there is a consensual opinion that bothers me and that affects the arts, that castrates and constrains, then I come out in defence of art. Above feminism, above #MeToo …

Do you still consider yourself a feminist, maybe in a different way?

Me? Feminist? Absolutely not! I do not identify with any herd, or collective movement. I don’t need feminism to have my own convictions. Art doesn’t have gendered genitals. I don’t care if it’s made by a woman or by a man. There’s a Sherwood Anderson story from “Winesburg, Ohio.” He is a drunk who meets a five-year-old girl and falls in love with her. And he says to the girl: “Don’t be either a man or a woman, be Tandy.” And Tandy means to be love, because everyone is concerned about genitals and in the end the only thing that matters is love.

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¿Qué haré yo con esta espada? Photo: Luca del Pia, 2018

You show a lot of genitals on stage for someone who doesn’t care! In Scarlet Letter the men are naked all along …In ¿Qué haré yo con esta espada? (What will I do with this sword?) that was at FIND in 2018, you memorably opened the play, dress up and legs wide apart, your own genitals exposed to the audience…

I show genitals, and my own genitals, but why not. But again it’s an aesthetic expression in the context of art, but it isn’t genital art. That has nothing to do with it. For me an anus is like a colour, a table, or it’s like choosing a glass. It belongs to the realm of beauty. I try to do beauty.

It is also a rebellion against the puritan world. That work (Qué haré yo con esta espada) took its toll on the Puritanism that grows and grows … The sexual night (La nuit sexuelle) by Pascal Quiñarte is a work in which he perfectly explains the devastation of Puritanism in the world of sexual representation, in the world of eroticism. When you see that puritanism begins to lower the bar to what’s taboo, what art does is revolt. It is a moment when the artist is suffocated.

Do you feel like a rebel?

Since I was born. I have that motor. I fight with everyone [laughs].

You famously railed against the French, you hate actors and feminists. You also used to hate mothers. Still?

Yes. Motherhood repels me. Women always go a little dumb when they get pregnant. That’s just a fact.

…There are many things that you hate, right?

Yes Yes. It’s what inspires me the most. I seem to be able to speak better about the things I hate than the things I love. Talking about love is much more difficult.