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The dark prince of experimental theatre

INTERVIEW. Experimental theatre titan Romeo Castellucci draws inspiration from German poet Friedrich Hölderlin at Schaubühne's F.I.N.D. (Festival of International New Drama) with Hyperion, debuting Mar 17.

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Photo by Sonja Žugić

Romeo Castellucci, the Italian dark prince of experimental theatre, is back in Berlin for Schaubühne’s Festival of International New Drama (F.I.N.D.).

Internationally renowned with his collective Socìetas Raffaello Sanzio for intensely contemplative works like Inferno, Purgatorio, Paradiso (inspired by Dante’s Divine Comedy) and On the Concept of the Face, Regarding the Son of God in which excrement soils the white stage, Romeo Castellucci brings to Berlin a very personal version of Hyperion.

Based on the German Romantic poet Friedrich Hölderlin’s epistolary novel, this is his first collaboration with a German ensemble. Castellucci casts the title character as a series of female figures – some of whom are played by Angela Winkler, the grande dame of Berlin stages – transposing Hölderlin’s reflections on submission and revolution into today’s media-saturated society.

What attracted you to Hölderlin’s text?

I have never been interested in poetry in theatre because I have always believed it was the anti matter of the scene. And here I am, disarmed again by this subversive poet. The deep intellect of Hyperion eludes me, but not its necessity. In this book I found the icy precision of a guarded aesthetic that cuts to the bone, meant as political radicalism.

The subtitle for this production is “Letters of a Terrorist” instead of the original second title “The Hermit in Greece”. Why did you choose this new emphasis?

We must overcome both grief and hope.

The terrorism that is referred to in the subtitle isn’t the historical version practiced by religious or political extremist groups – so tragically devoid of a true vision – but that of those who practice, or at least confuse, life with art, and combat the absolutism of reality. I am: this is the battle cry of the living. Hyperion represents the struggle of living that is everywhere, through images that are impossible to accept without question but also difficult to forget or ignore. It’s radical, socially unacceptable, that these letters in this epistolary novel serve as the tool of a terrorist: the orderly beauty of the living as a potential vehicle for the bomb of life. The threat – hidden in plain sight, as David Foster Wallace said – of the beautiful form is that which throws the living into disorder. Those who just live are not afraid of death, but of those who truly experience life.

Why do you think that is?

Hölderlin’s main characters disseminate – like prophets – an idea of life, “aorgica” (all-encompassing), which disturbs the metaphysical order of vertical thinking. Life is everywhere, and that’s frightening. The living are frightening to those who accept life as it presents itself. Hyperion feels every vivid moment of life on his skin. He notices this, wants this, loses himself in it.

Why stage a novel from the end of the 18th century at the beginning of the 21st century?

Given the complexity of this era, this text represented for me a new escape route, so contemporary in its antiquated nature, in its ability to overcome the stereotypes of condensed junk culture, of the anti-aestheticism doctrine that makes trash, irony and sentimentalism into an endless lamentation, intolerable and ineffective. This Hyperion is a text that breaks with the domain of communication because there is nothing here to communicate. There are no claims or messages, and this itself is the good news. Hyperion is a representation as such. It’s the thing in itself, not a promise, not the metaphor. It is the time passing.

Do you think that our world is so saturated with junk culture that it can’t see beyond it?

I think the trash – and above all the idea of quantity that accompanies it – can now offer an opportunity for thought and political consciousness. Just as the ancient saints frequented the desert, the artist can now take refuge in the deep white noise – basically already a type of silence – of communication. We must overcome both grief and hope (which is the sister of despair). The trash culture which we are basically immersed in 24 hours a day can be the beginning of a new journey in the desert. So: thanks to the saturation of this age we can see an elsewhere, but first we must succeed in no longer seeing what is right under our noses.

Are all true revolutions doomed to collapse?

The revolution that seems to be suggested by Hyperion is molecular, invisible and individual. And it is trans-historical, beyond chronological time. It’s always morning here. In this sense it is invincible, because the battle is elsewhere. To be precise, it is to be elsewhere. For this reason, there are no references to historical revolutions in the show because it is a radical critique of reality, taken as a whole.

Your style is sometimes described as “picture theatre”. What does that mean to you?

Nothing. It is an incorrect and superficial definition. It’s true, I work with images, but the images are just a partial element. I focus on what cannot be seen, such as, for example, the time channels that are opened between the viewer and the representation. It’s time that shapes the show, and I mould it like a medium, like a sculptor shapes stone or a painter uses colour.

At this point in your career, what do you think of the work you did in the 1990s?

My perspective has changed. I think I have done my duty. I’ve never had any peace. To make theatre is to be on the front lines of criticism and to receive the rougher blows. But I still believe that theatre is the art of a lesser god and a default mode. We must raise the bar and be more daring.

Hyperion, Mar 17-18, 20:00 | Schaubühne am Lehniner platz, Kürfurstendamm 153, Charlottenburg, U-Bhf Adenauerplatz