Swans Commentary » swans.com November 6, 2006  



Italy Invaded By Troupes Armed With Theory


by Peter Byrne





(Swans - November 6, 2006)  Eugenio Barba came back to the heel of Italy. It wasn't the first visit of course and he'd sent his troupe to perform on several occasions over the years. But this time it was different. He would celebrate his seventieth birthday in the corner of Europe where he was born. His announcement had been lyrical and surprising. He'd discovered that his long life in the theatre, as director and theorist, owed something after all to the south that he'd so eagerly left behind as a young man. The surprise followed from the fact that no theoretician in theatrical matters has ever made such a positive thing out of expatriation and the abandonment of his mother tongue. Barba's theories all rest on the conviction that to be an outsider in far-flung places grants unique insights. He talks of being a "Floating Island" among cultures.

Barba's Odin Teatret based in Holstebro, Denmark, presented several productions in the cities of Foggia and Lecce in October. There were also seminars, staged didactic presentations, and book launches. The visit was certainly a blessing for Italian theatrical life. This has stalled sadly in recent years. Milan, Rome, and Turin still boast an occasional memorable production by a prestige figure, invariably far from first youth. Festivals and conferences come and go. But there's little continuity or evidence of a theatre milieu that makes the stage, at least for a concerned minority, a vital issue in London, Paris, or some German cities. Italian theatre people seem to fall into a trance of inactivity when state funds are wanting. When money comes, it's usually distributed politically. Italy is the only developed country I know where the first thing you learn about an actor or director is what political faction he belongs to.

Third tier cities like Foggia or Lecce can't expect much in the way of touring productions. Several boulevard plays, adorned with a superannuated TV personality, habitually mark the season. One or two decent productions of serious plays may stop over, but only for a performance or two for fear of empty seats. Amateurish local dialect companies exist but have no more than an antiquarian or linguistic interest. At the same time the schools keep turning out graduates in drama, and there are some stirrings. The Cantieri Koreja Theatre of Lecce where the visitors appeared in that city has for some years now labored to set up a serious, modern center of dramatic art. But the entrenched provincialism that surrounds it has slowed progress. In this bleak landscape, the importance of Barba and his Odin Teatret's visit can't be exaggerated.

A freight car would be needed to bring home Eugenio Barba's theatrical baggage. He finished school in Naples in 1954 at eighteen and immediately took to the road. He touched down in Norway and then joined the merchant marine and traveled the world. In 1960 he went to study theatre in Poland, ending up in Opole at Jerzi Grotowski's Theatre Laboratory where he would remain three and a half years. He afterward sojourned in India to learn about Kathakali theatre and its roots in the martial arts. Returning to Norway, he couldn't fit into mainstream theatre and formed his own company with rejects of the established drama schools. Barba eventually settled his Odin Company in Denmark, where in 1978 he set up the International School of Theatre Anthropology, dedicated to the study of the performer.

No one would question that Barba has a place in the line of reformers that leads from Stanislavski to Peter Brook through Meyerhold, Craig, Copeau, Artaud, Brecht, and Grotowski. But it isn't easy to define his work. Any summary of his forty years of practical research in the theatre would have to be grossly reductive. His interest has always been in unending process, not in neat conclusions. His writing, rife with metaphor and myth, meanders suggestively, but defies conceptualization. All the same, discussion constrains us, while offering apologies, to characterize his viewpoint as best we can. To start with, Barba refuses the traditional role of Western theater, which is the interpretation of a written text. As with Grotowski, the most a text can contribute is a theme for a "spectacle." This not only excludes the writer from the theatre but, it seems, any psychological or intellectual probing of a stage production. Realism in most senses of the word is disdained, and we enter a larger than life world where the striking image rules. Barba claims to avoid a specific "style," but borrows with a free hand from avant-garde and experimental theatre practice as well as from non-Western theatre.

Barba's prime interest lies in the performer. His ultimate focus isn't on the spectator but the actor's craft, in Grotowski's words, "the actor's ability to fascinate, independent of context and meaning." The training of his actors never ends, and to his mind ought to constitute a way of life. Indian examples especially have brought Barba to an extremely physical theatre. This goes beyond simple agility, and his actors work at anchoring bodily expression in the deeper emotions. One critic says that Barba's actors "create the text with their bodies." But this only happens after a complex process, which, again, never stops, since an Odin Teatret play, though performed, is never considered finished.

So work on a play begins, not with a text, but with selected themes. These form the basis for improvisations, which are less aimed at interaction between the actors than at immersion in the thematic material. Among theatrical reformers Barba stands out for emphasizing the actor's personal "trouvailles" and not merely group integration. Only very late in the long rehearsal period does the play come together. Not till then can some sort of script be written.

A theatergoer wary of theory really had no choice in Foggia and Lecce in October. He could only confront the returning prodigal armed with a second old saw: the proof of the pudding would be in the eating. He would have to sit with an open mind and weigh up what the Odin Teatret put on stage before him. In his way, he would be conducting an experiment of his own.


The Prodigal's Return: Looking for the Proof of the Pudding


Il libro di Ester / Ester's Book. Oct.4, Cantieri Koreja Theatre, Lecce

A thin old woman sat at a writing table, slightly angled out, stage front left. She looked at us over a portable typewriter that she tapped at off and on. Same place stage right, a young woman sat on a chair with her back to us. The old woman was actor Iben Nagel Rasmussen playing her own mother; the young woman was Elena Floris playing Rasmussen, the old woman's daughter. A dialogue ensued -- neither character would ever leave her seat. Stage daughter answered her stage mother's objections to entering a nursing home. Our attention immediately went entirely to the mother. The daughter was never more than a feed with perfunctory lines. She did, however, on her violin, prove herself an able musician like all Odin members.

Rasmussen straightaway came across as a very remarkable actor. She could be said to flout realism, but only with the excuse that her character suffered senile dementia, not unlike the way Sean O'Casey or Eugene O'Neill might intensify language in the mouth of a drunk. Her sudden, shuddering grins and the play of her mouth were mesmerizing. From the first, we felt cheated when attention moved to other elements of the play. These were exclusively projections of slides and bits of film. Chosen with care, in black and white, they were in their own way often a somber delight and would continue intermittently throughout. Rasmussen's mother -- Ester Nagel -- was a writer. From her desk she mused on her past and read fragments from her work in a way that was always moving and on occasion breathtaking.

The projections, save a few chosen for poetic effect, suggested another world, the outer reality we spend our lives in: realism of the first degree that only photography can furnish in art. To start with, there was the mother's funeral; then some of the European history she lived through; finally, clips from a kind of superior home movie charting her personal and family progress through life. But each time that our eyes were forcibly shifted to the screen at the back of the stage to view these scenes, we felt that the woman at the desk and typewriter had her dramatic impact diminished. She shriveled up in the dark. It came down to whether the old woman's life would be revealed by the actor or the camera. These two instruments were in conflict here, never felt as an integrated whole.

The Odin Teatret, always highly assimilative, has made the alienation effect another one of its routines. The mother proved a consummate ballad singer as she rendered songs in the 1920s Weimar manner accompanied by her stage daughter on the violin. (Lyrics in Danish but projected in Italian, the language of the play.) Rasmussen deftly left her elderly character as she touched on her earlier life. Her performance was, however, encumbered by a tiresome bit of stage business. She, oh how often, burnt little bits of paper on her desk. As symbolism -- an Odin foible -- of time passing, this was a lot heavier than the scraps burnt. If the intention was to create an arresting stage image -- another Odin predilection -- it didn't work this time.

All of which left us in a quandary. Where had those sweeping theories gone? The production didn't turn its back on realism except in waiving literal verisimilitude in respect to chronology and allowing Rasmussen to move us with larger than life acting. That acting was surprisingly physical but only so far as permitted to an actor seated in a straight chair. Moreover, although the production offered no psychological or intellectual key, it set the spectator up so that he couldn't avoid drawing psychological and intellectual conclusions. As for doing without an initial written text, the spectator can only wish the choice had been other. For a written text did in fact result for the spectator -- the words pronounced by the actors. The question became how good a text it was. An irrepressible suspicion arose that the improvising-on-a-theme procedure had diluted, not strengthened, dramatic meaning and rigor.

Early in the writings of Eugenio Barba the injunction came for the theatre not to compete with the cinema. If we let our fancy off the leash for a moment we can imagine two worthwhile evenings. One would display those sometimes exquisite and always moving black and white projections and bits of film. The other would put Iben Nagel Rasmussen in the dead center of the stage. I'm thinking of Winnie in Samuel Beckett's Happy Days. She would hold us spellbound for the hour Ester lasted with a monologue we couldn't escape and her life-torn face we couldn't look away from. She would pour out the entrails of her long life. But for that monologue we would need a writer who could recast, concentrate, and dramatize her experience. A patchy play script left over from sessions of improvising wouldn't do. Winnie had found that sort of writer.


Sel / Salt. Oct. 6, Cantieri Koreja Theatre, Lecce

Salt began with a tall man (Jan Ferslev) in a white linen suit and a panama hat opening a homemade low curtain for us. He then sat down at a café table, deep left, where he would spend most of the hour-long play. A pretty constant musical accompaniment came from his antique mandolin and another instrument that looked like a small lyre. (The production was full of the Odin's conversation pieces.) The musician also sang several folk songs in English. Generally an alert but detached observer of the protagonist's (Roberta Carreri's ) high jinx, he got up a couple of times and composed a stage picture with the "Woman." (It was a "the Man" and "the Woman" kind of play.) She entered in a blaze of physical theatre slapping the floorboards down like a clog dancer.

In some ways Salt was closer to Barba's body of theory than Il Libro di Ester. It was a series of stage pictures, for the most part eye-seducing, and called forth from Carreri an explosive physicality, if not much else. At the same time, Barba defied his dictum against literary texts by using one by Antonio Tabucchi as a clothesline to hang his items of theatricality on. The question becomes the nature of the text and what the Odin did to and with it. The disjointed interior monologue came from a novel written in the form of imaginary letters. That "Woman" travels to a Mediterranean island to rekindle thoughts of her dead lover.

She cavorted for us like a being possessed. She heaped up salt, danced on it, stomped in a suitcase full of it, whirled dervish fashion as she dispensed it like confetti. Toying with a cute pot, she ritually made and drank coffee amply sugared with sand. She inclined her shoulders in infinite weariness and then undid her long hair and gave the air a whipping. She veiled and unveiled herself, stamping angrily on her lover's book before secreting it lovingly in her garment. She poured water from a pitcher more exquisitely than it has surely ever been poured before. In fact there wasn't much she didn't do, but nothing without its own careful measure and a thought for a riveting stage image. The "Woman" seemed no more concerned with memory than a tap dancer with metaphysics or a gamboling child with limping old age.

Now Tabucchi's subject was memory whose crushing weight and waywardness he examined with eloquence and insight. There was a hint of treachery in the Odin Teatret's use of his work. His monologue, consisting of one person's musing, isn't a play or theatre piece. Carreri and Barba reduced the text to a jumping off point for non-realistic acting and stage images. Tabucchi insists on the monologist's fixation with her absent lover. Carreri's playing, demonstrating a highly physical performer's art, buried the relentless search of the memory seeker under a plethora of semi-acrobatics, feral screams and startling stage pictures. The actor's use of three or four different voices, for instance, didn't help at all to understand what Tabucchi was driving at. The question wasn't whether Carreri's prowess impressed us -- it most certainly did -- but whether it served any larger dramatic purpose. Hadn't Barba here let a sliver of literature into his theatre only to show that it had no right to be there?

If we read Carreri's and Barba's account of the gestation of Salt, we can understand just how unimportant Tabucchi's text was to what we finally saw on stage. With the help of musician Jan Ferslev, Carreri took the first step toward Salt in 1996 by making a dance of Molly Bloom's Ulysses' monologue. The two actors began to mull over their feelings for one another. Then, in an Argentine flea market, Carreri picked up some of the do-dads that would figure as the play's props. From 1998 to 2000, she and Ferslev began to give expression to what they called their dream, making use of writers as varied as Fernando Pessoa and Jeanette Winterson. In 2001, the couple worked intensely on various improvisations combining music and dance. They started to ask themselves what story they were actually so busy telling. Five years after their work had begun, Tabucchi's novel (Si sta facendo sempre più tardi) appeared, and they decided to use a monologue from it, adapted by Barba -- he was now directing -- to lend their efforts shape. This would take a year and a half more during which the director made repeated changes in the scenes the couple had envisaged.

The final image of Salt, with that kitchen staple, which had assumed a symbolic meaning, falling like rain on Roberta Carreri as she faced us frontally, proved unforgettable. But what did it say exactly? Beyond its searing beauty, little more than that this was a vulnerable, affirmative, unaware woman. She seemed only fleetingly connected to the frenzied monologist we had been watching and who herself didn't amount to all that much in the larger scheme of things once she chose a wild physicality over the mysteries of memory. Let's be clear. Roberta Carreri's in this image was worthy of Lady Macbeth entering hell, Antigone accepting her cave or Mother Courage rushing forward to her ruin. But Barba's theatrical practice had made her something infinitely less. Beautiful, yes, but disappointingly slight.


Le Grandi Città Sotto La Luna / Great Cities Beneath the Moon. Oct. 12, Cantieri Koreja Theatre, Lecce

Great Cities Beneath the Moon begins with nine members of Odin milling about the stage area as we enter and take our seats. One of them plucks at a guitar. Barba has speculated a good deal on the "pre-expressivity" of actors as they merely live at normal temperatures like the rest of us. He thinks (I'm caricaturing) they rev up when acting, super existing. That's what happens when we have found our places. The actors sit in nine chairs and super stare at us. This is no casual event. It's meant to bring the audience with a shock to a realization of just what theatre in essence consists of.

On this bare floor, without a backdrop, they begin, a kind of cabaret review in street clothes. Costumes when needed will be donned quickly before us like conjuror's tricks. There follow poems, songs and tidbits of larger than life bravura acting. Music rarely stops as each actor has at least one instrument beside him. Everybody sings. The alienation effect that Odin affects suits the review format where actors slip in and out of characters and music marks rapid mood changes. Bertold Brecht is the attendant ghost of the evening. Fragments appear from one of Barba's key productions, Brecht's Ashes, 1980-82, (taken up by La Mama in New York in 1984). In that play written by Barba, he used Brecht and his actors as characters along with fictional personages from Brecht's plays and prominent individuals, like Walter Benjamin, of the WWII period.

Now what strikes us about Barba's Brecht is his anemia, noticeable even in a ghost. In an excerpt too masterful to be called a sketch, we watch Iben Nagel Rasmussen as mute Kattrin from Mother Courage. The group will start a song about Hiroshima that before any blood is drawn shifts into noisy hilarity. Roberta Carreri, after spreading fine powder and sweeping it up with inimitable broom work, shows her versatility and precision singing the Brecht-Weil ballads Alabama Song, and Pirate Jenny. A colleague renders a frigid Mack the Knife. Julia Varley gives a startling recreation of a veiled Muslim woman. She will then recite superbly an ancient Chinese poem in English. (The Odin, Danish based and polyglot by necessity, make the several languages employed palatable to the audience by delivering parallel translations as movingly as the originals.) A female soldier figure, also adept at song, joins the nine and reflects on peace keeping here and there in the world. Again and again somber historical events are mentioned but left without much comment, like items on a list. Augusto Omolù, the groups' only black member, a Brazilian, will top off with a splendid dance, part acrobatic, part nightclub routine, and wholly enigmatic.

All this cutting and chopping gives pause. Didn't Brecht conceive of the alienation effect to follow a shot of emotive drama and allow the spectator a chance coolly to think over the implications of his feelings? Barba seems to be using the a-effect as mere stage punctuation. The spectator hasn't previously been given anything to be emotional about. He doesn't need to cool down.

The key here is surely Barba's view of Brecht. He considered the German master trapped in an orthodoxy without which he couldn't maintain personal coherence. One sympathizes with Barba's own apolitical stance and his need to look into other aspects of the human condition. He refused to let the one-dimensional "committed" art of the post war period set limits to his explorations. He sought his own coherence in identifying basic traits shared by performers in all the cultures of the world. Unfortunately, however, Barba not only rejected Brecht's politics. His rejection included texts as such and the great plays of the past and present. So along with Brecht's politics went much else that was invaluable quite apart from them. Most telling, a dramatic urgency concerning the fate of man disappeared to be replaced by the fastidiously arranged collage theater that we were watching.

With the moon, flashes of music and various authors' words illuminate the Odin's cities. But these remain generic, unmoving, seen only in glimpses that don't make us want to live in them. However polished by the actors' virtuosity, these are places that leave us indifferent. The spectacle remains fragmentary and tepid. This is Brecht with his teeth extracted, though enjoyable and well done in its own terms.


After the Last Curtain

Odin Teatret asks to be taken as a whole: theory, actor training, directorial idiosyncrasies, troupe fetishes, and productions that are always provisional. For his part, the theatergoer cares most about what's put before him on stage the particular night he turns up. He's not overly concerned whether the actors' preparation has been "organic" or artificial. More generally, he can't help feeling that the exclusion of great plays, old and new, inevitably reduces the humanistic import of the Odin. It closes the door on a great treasure trove of the West. At the same time Barba's flirtation with non-Western theatre never amounts to more than the intelligent curiosity of a traveler. He may have been personally enriched by it, but his stage practice, apart perhaps from an intensifying of the physical, shows little extra-European influence.

His exclusion of writers finishes in a contradiction. He can do without good or known writers but can't avoid ending up on stage with words that someone has strung together. Paradoxically, Barba himself is an excellent writer. You have only to read his notes on a Transiberian train journey in the program accompanying Salt to realize that he's a poet. But, significantly, he doesn't specialize in complete plays. Moreover, his taste for poetic prose makes his theoretical writing charming but often unclear. The reader feels Barba's making poetry out of the process of making theatre.

His preference for centering attention on the performer and not the spectator has had mixed results. A teacher might profitably limit his interest to the creative process of actors. But a theatre director who leaves the spectator out of the equation has chosen the wrong profession. The us/them state of mind can lead to complacency among the clan of initiates. So can the idea of a company of actors as a self-sufficient mini society. Inadequate rehearsal time is the bane of contemporary theatre. But the Odin's habit of rehearsing a play for years and never declaring it finished recalls the bad habit of Etienne Decroux. The great mime -- and theoretician -- would stop his performance and repeat an action again and again until he -- never mind the public -- felt it was right.

Yet the Odin Teatret is a remarkable company, never slap dash or less than interesting. Like all real beauty, its brand is sharp as a razor and always tinged with magic. But the theatergoer can't help but regret not seeing exceptional talents like Iben Nagel Rasmussen's or Roberta Carreri's or, for that matter, Eugenio Barba's, at grips with a mind stretching and mind enriching play.


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About the Author

Peter Byrne was born in Chicago, attended universities in Quebec and Paris, and lived for long periods, teaching and writing, in Montreal, London, Paris, Italy -- north and south -- Sofia, and Istanbul. He now lives in the Italian city of Lecce within sight of Albania on a very clear day.



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Published November 6, 2006