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“Theatre is a kind of collective séance”

Interview: director Peter Sellars. His new production, Desdemona, was written by author Toni Morrison and receives its German premiere at spielzeit'europa on Nov 10.

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Photo by Pascal Victor

The ever evolving dramatic vision from Peter Sellars has brought the California-based director to helm of experimental theatre. His new production, written by Nobel Prize-winning author and playwright, Toni Morrison, takes the incendiary subject of Shakespeare’s Othello to new heights in context of the new political globe.

EXBERLINER caught up with the theatrical visionary, before Desdemona receives its German premiere at the Haus der Berliner Festspiele’s spielzeit’europa, to discuss the value of Shakespeare, and theatre as a collective séance, and amplifying the voices of the unrepresented.

The script for Desdemona was written by Toni Morrison in response to your adaptation of Othello, with Phillip Seymour Hoffman and John Ortiz. For a man who reportedly loathed the play, what has inspired you to direct two adaptations?

What is profound and thrilling about Shakespeare is that Shakespeare focuses on content; Shakespeare is not about style. He didn’t call his theater “The Next Two Blocks” or “The Neighborhood”, he called it The Globe.

Every time I come to (a) play I see a completely different set of possibilities, so what’s great is certain things remain fresh and open ended, other things are a factor of the times he lived in and one of those is of course the treatment of women.

Shakespeare’s Othello has been for 400 years a masterpiece of the Western canon but also the preeminent piece that deals with an African and the place of a black man in the West. So what Toni Morrison and Rokia Traoré have been able to do is take these things from a pear shaped, brilliant imagination and, now let us not just imagine them but understand their realities. It’s a terribly exciting process.

In Desdemona the play is performed by an all-female cast, with Tina Benko performing both parts of Desdemona and Othello. Is the emphasis on gender rather than race in this production?

Well, you know with Toni Morrison you’re going to get both. Toni really moves issues across gender and race but always keeping them an issue and she’s interested in variations on that.

The one thing she is not is categorical, for example, in her novel Paradise, writing an entire novel concerning four principal women and one of them is white and you never know which one. The one thing about Desdemona is that stereotypes do not apply.

The text is interwoven with the voice of Rokia Traoré. How did Rokia come to be a part of Desdemona?

Well I have been following her work for years and commissioned a piece from her for the New Crowned Hope Festival in Vienna and the more I met her the more I realised that I would really love to collaborate with her. When this project came up, it was such a perfect fit. And so we’re having a really good time and Toni is just delighted, she is now just a huge convert of Rokia’s music and has it going all the time at home.

Both spiritual and socio-political in essence, how is the use of the African tradition – whereby the dead embody the living – relevant in Desdemona?

Well, I think what Toni has done is a strategy that she has uses in novels, which is to have the characters speaking from the other side of the grave. As Toni says, for the dead, the past and the future are the same. So the characters speak and reflect both retrospectively but also prophetically, talking about things that haven’t happened yet and of course all of that flows through the present.

But that is also what theatre is about, theatre is about being in the room with your ancestors. We take words written by people from a long time ago and put them in our bodies. And we have our ancestors passed through our bodies and applaud them. It’s really an amazing kind of collective séance.

Those are really powerful, powerful things in a spiritual context but also politically – not to be like the newspaper and CNN and just simply have to report on what happens but actually to be able to imagine alternatives, other possibilities: what else could have happened, how else could this work? And that’s politically very important because if you can imagine the alternative then you can begin to make the alternative a reality.

Are these issues relevant in Berlin, where people are more open to issues of gender and race?

We’re in an interesting period where the relations between Europe and Africa are very intense and truly need to deepen and I’d like to think that this evening is a real contribution.

That openness I think will create an interest in something as radical as Toni and Rokia are proposing, because for one thing it’s not theatrical in the usual sense, it’s more an evening of literature and music. It’s collaboration between art forms, across cultures, across completely different but intertwined histories and it’s a re-imagination of the future of work.

I think what is awaiting the entire planet is dealing honestly with Africa and that’s in our future and I’d like to think that this production is a step in the right direction.