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F.I.N.D.ing the story of the 20th century

INTERVIEW. The Festival for International New Drama is back Apr 17-26! Inspired by European jihadists, Swiss director Milo Rau's close-up, emotional new piece The Civil Wars opens Schaubühne's F.I.N.D. Festival on Fri Apr 17.

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Photos by Marc Stephan

Milo Rau opens the Schaubühne’s F.I.N.D. Festival this Friday Apr 17 with The Civil Wars, a psychoanalytic piece inspired by European jihadists.

The Swiss essayist and director makes theatre like no one else. A production by Rau’s International Institute of Political Murder usually grabs a topical political event – the fall of the Romanian dictators (The Last Days of the Ceauşescus), the Rwandan genocide (Hate Radio) – and unfolds as a two-step affair: a gestation period of methodical deconstruction through research and investigation, and a performance such as a trial or stage re-enactment. The first part of a trilogy about Europe, The Civil Wars will be followed by The Dark Ages, soon to open in Munich.

Your starting point for this project was a video of a young Belgian jihadist, and you ended up showing four actors telling their own story in a living room. How did it come to that?

It was an organic process. I met a lot of young jihadists and their families, and I found a sort of matrix: the absent father to metaphorically point out the loss of paternity, of tradition… This became the allegory of the piece. I quickly understood that what is typical about the jihadists is that their belief is more of an alibi for something more profound, something very typical for the whole of Europe, something we all suffer from. So it started with a documentary idea and it finally became kind of a political psychoanalysis. With the piece we reflect on this loss of tradition and paternity, thus also on neoliberalism and utopia.

Was it difficult to convince your actors to talk about themselves?

Yes, sure, because they are all quite famous and have never talked about themselves on stage. I had to convince them by explaining that they are not talking about themselves just like that – that wouldn’t make any sense – but to carry the words of our times. It was important that their story transports something that goes beyond them. Through all those anecdotes and especially their relation to the father, we create a sociological, political snapshot of our age. The piece has been compared to a Greek tragedy – with the struggle of the individual against something bigger than himself.

How did you choose that constellation of actors?

I chose those actors because they are very different from one another and very “typical” for what they are. You have Johan Leysen, the old actor, very famous, who had an incredible career with Godard but also had difficult moments and comes from a hyperpositive time, just after the war, a moment when Europe went somewhere else. And you have someone like Karim Bel Kacem, the youngest. His family arrived with a big wave of immigration, and he has a very different perspective on the utopia of multiculturalism. You have Sébastien Foucault whose father lost his enterprise, taken up by a multinational company – quite a banal neoliberal story – and who turned crazy. So did Sara De Bosschere’s Trotskyist father.

So you chose them for what they are?

Well, for me it’s about finding interesting people. It’s not like, “I need a Jew so I’ll look for a Jew.” It’s about artistic sympathy: I cast for months, I look for people who make something in me resonate – and vice versa. Then it’s about the encounter. I was lucky, I guess, to find in those actors’ stories some moments that resonate. Each of them had a very difficult story with their father, and in each of them I found an existential questioning about the art of playing, as well. So those topics became central in the piece.

Why do you insist on fathers? Do you believe they still play such a symbolic role?

One of the reasons might be that I have myself a strong father’s story – and when you do a pseudo-analytical reflection, you are always reflecting on yourself. It was also a coincidence that the father played such an important role in the life of all those actors. Another reason is that the end of the patriarchy is, I think, the story of the 20th century. It has to do with the change from classical capitalism, with the good father, the discipline and all that, to a very different kind of neoliberalism. The defeat of the fathers is something tragic that I wanted to show. On that point, I think the term “symbolic” or “metaphorical” is important. The relation to the father doesn’t interest me as such, but as a metaphorical relationship to society, to the world, etc. The father makes the connection.

Emotion is very central in your works. How do you use it as a tool for thinking?

 always speak about cathartic theatre, for the actors but also for the spectator. A raw confrontation, a presentation of something without analysing it. The emotional intellectual apparatus that we all have has to answer to what is happening. It happened during some projects that I did – in particular during The Moscow Trials – that people cried. During Civil Wars, when the actors tell those very personal stories, it can be embarrassing for the spectator – until we get to something more universal than listening to someone talking about his life. For me, it’s important to bring up the problem and let the spectator ask: what do you want me to think about that?

The Civil Wars is the first part of a trilogy.

Yes, I am preparing The Dark Ages in Munich. For this part I am dealing with Eastern Europe: Bosnia, Serbia, Russia, Germany, with an ideological split, in particular with the Third Reich and the ex- Yugoslavia war. The third part, planned for December 2015 in Berlin at the Schaubühne, will be a monologue with the great actress Ursina Lardi. We will consider the relationship between Africa and Europe.

…which is related to the “Congo Tribunal” you are working on, and bringing to Berlin in June?

Yes – with that project I want to discuss the mineral extract traffic that caused a war with six million deaths already. Who’s behind it? Who are the actors? I’ll do a very big hearing in Bukavu in East Congo and another one in June in Berlin, and a movie about that for the cinema as well. In Berlin we will deal with the role of the National Banks, the UN, the NGOs, the EU, Switzerland etc… thus questioning a globalised capitalism that not only accepts what is happening in the Congo, but provokes it. 

THE CIVIL WARS April 17, 21:00, 18, 20:00, 19, 18:00 | Schaubühne, Kurfürstendamm 153, Charlottenburg, U-Bhf Adenauer Platz 

Originally published in issue #137, March 2015