One of the tenets of artistic director Milo Rau’s manifesto for Belgian theatre NTGent is that at least one production every season must be created in a zone of conflict.
To this end, he decided to base his remaking of Greek trilogy the Oresteia in Mosul – one of the oldest metropolises on earth, now devastated by war and only recently liberated from Isis – and, in doing so, firmly root a classical tragedy in real-world events.
It’s an extraordinary undertaking in many ways. Rau always makes his process a central element of his work, and the production blends live performance with pre-recorded scenes filmed amid the rubble of Mosul, its shattered buildings and scarred concrete.
On stage, the NTGent actors – two of whom are of Iraqi origin – interact with a chorus of Iraqi performers on screen. Together, both casts enact a cut-down and shaken-up version of Aeschylus’ trilogy. As in Rau’s La Reprise, the way the live performances echo and blend with the recorded footage is almost undetectable. On a technical level alone it’s impressive.
In this context, the play’s themes of revenge, faith, forgiveness and justice are made to feel eternal. Death ripples through the production.
Rau stages the deaths of the characters as executions: a gunshot to the neck, a torturously slow, drawn-out death by strangulation. Bodies are hauled into untidy piles on the floor. Everyone ends up with blood on their hands, their skin smeared with red – no one emerges clean.
It’s impossible not to think about the word ‘tragedy’ and all it encompasses as we watch these images of a ravaged city, its museums destroyed and its infrastructure in tatters, while also honing in on the tapestry of human tragedy within it.
There is at times also an imbalance at play. Perhaps that’s unavoidable but it’s nonetheless uncomfortable. It exists in the gulf between the actors present and those absent, in the different things at stake for both sets of performers.
A scene in which Orestes and Pylades engage in a passionate kiss clearly proved contentious while filming and Rau was forced to negotiate this tension. The moment in which the final judgement of The Eumenides is replayed as a tribunal against Isis also feels troublingly blunt, though its power is undeniable. But the harrowing aspects of the piece are always underscored by humanity.
This is the opening performance at this year’s Belgrade International Theatre Festival, in a city with its own scars. This, and the production’s mixture of Arabic and Dutch, coupled with dual surtitles in Serbian and English, adds another layer of linguistic and political complexity to the production.
This is audacious theatremaking: bold, morally complex, transgressive but also transcendent.