— At the Festival

Published on July 9 2019

THE SACRED ACCORDING TO ROMEO CASTELLUCCI

Requiem de Mozart - Mise en scène de Romeo Castellucci - Production du Festival d'Aix-en-Provence 2019
© Pascal Victor
That there exists a relationship between Romeo Castellucci’s work and the sacred is obvious; the exact nature of that relationship, however, is not. Over the first few years of its existence, the Socìetas Raffaello Sanzio, which he founded in 1981 with Claudia Castellucci and Chiara Guidi, clearly demonstrated a sacrilegious desire to start anew. The term that came up the most often in their remarks was iconoclasm. For them, it was all about putting an end to the lies of representation: tragedy had been created as a way to shatter the Tables of the Law.

When asked if he is an atheist, Castellucci says he does not know. At the end of Sul concetto di volto nel Figlio di Dio (“On the concept of the Face of God”), one of his most iconic and controversial productions, the words “You are” and “You are not our pastor” flash repeatedly one after the other, as a sign of persistent ambiguity. Nevertheless, Castellucci does not hide his vivid curiosity for the great monotheistic religions. Although he sees Judaism and Christianity as paradoxically incompatible with tragedy (for how can one speak of tragedy when salvation is possible?), both have fashioned exemplary tragic figures—i.e., Cain and Moses—who fascinate, and who appear in several of his productions.
For Castellucci, the West is characterized by an “expansion of being,” while Eastern spirituality moves rather towards non-being (which is why he finds Eastern spirituality of little interest). The West is also marked by its break with God, one that, paradoxically, gave rise to theater. Indeed, theater resulted from the death of God, the moment when sacrifice was no longer possible. Hence, the director is mindful of so-called negative theology: the attempt to approach God through his absence, to say what he is by saying what he is not. According to Castellucci, “You can best speak to God when you think he does not exist.”

Castellucci is drawn especially to Christianity, because of an oddity he cannot quite comprehend: the fact that an innocent victim is central to the religion and that his transformed blood infiltrates and changes the world.
In this regard, two notions keep coming up in his remarks. First, that, for him, crucifixion offers the smallest and the most perfect idea of theater: in the Gospels, Jesus is the “actor of God”; likewise, in a theater, there can be “no stage without nails and a hammer.” “When you go on stage,” explains Castellucci, there is a self-sacrificial behavior—known as “self-victimization”—that is triggered. “You are immediately guilty.” It is palco-colpa (“stage-guilt”): in Italian, this play on words expresses the idea that “being on stage means receiving, masochistically, a punishment,” and that it is already a “state of wonder and shame.”
The other notion is one of Genesis. As an artist, Castellucci sees himself as an ersatz God: art, which is recreation and not creation, is related to Genesis, which in turn can be seen as “a crisis of creation.” In this way, there is something frightening about Genesis—much more so than with the Apocalypse. It is “terror of pure possibility,” in that, “what can be may not be or may be something else.” Seen in this way, the Book of Genesis goes beyond “all imagination, for it comes from chaos, and chaos is its substance.”

Be that as it may, for Castellucci, the question of God is an eminently theatrical one: theater has always encompassed the issue of theology, and must question the concept of God. At its core, theater is a confrontation with the ineffable, or even the unrepresentable. Therefore, the paradoxical act of theater—and both its strength and its weakness—is that one must go through that which fundamentally opposes it in order to reach it: the object, the substance, the vulgarity. “To speak the force of not speaking, you must speak it”: that, according to Castellucci, is the “wonderful contradiction.” The shit becomes radiant.
As for whether the theater can approach the sacred, be a place for the sacred, he imagines it can, in as much as theater itself is primarily “an encounter with an image that is never shown.” But this sacred is not ideological: it is private, the result of an individual epiphany from each audience member. And it in no way brings salvation: for Castellucci, theater is by nature corrupted and corruption; and its beauty is the shock, the destruction, and the extreme. But the figure of the artist can only be extreme in the context of monotheistic religion, “for that is when the price of shame is dearest.”

Timothée Picard