text and performance: Ramo Ali, Akillas Karazissis, Rami Khalaf, Maia Morgenstern
dramaturgy and research: Stefan Bläske, Mirjam Knapp
stage design and costumes: Anton Lukas
video: Marc Stephan
music: Eleni Karaindrou
sound design: Jens Baudisch
technics: Aymrik Pech
assistant director: Anna Königshofer
assistant stage and costumes: Sarah Hoemske
directing intern: Laura Locher
dramaturgy intern: Marie Roth, Riccardo Raschi
surtitles: Mirjam Knapp (operator), IIPM (translation)
production manager: Mascha Euchner-Martinez, Eva-Karen Tittmann
cast: Ramo Ali, Akillas Karazissis, Rami Khalaf, Maia Morgenstern
A production of the IIPM – International Institute of Political Murder. In co-operation with the Zürcher Theater Spektakel, the Schaubühne at the Lehniner Platz Berlin and the steirischer herbst festival Graz.
Sponsored by: The Governing Mayor of Berlin – Senate Chancellery – Cultural Affairs, Hauptstadtkulturfonds Berlin, Pro Helvetia and Migros-Kulturprozent. Kindly supported by Kulturförderung Kanton St.Gallen and Schauspielhaus Graz.
Performance in Arabic, Greek, Kurdish, Romanian, with English and Polish surtitles
What is refuge? What is home? What will the face of the new Europe look like? As the grand finale and climax of the Europe trilogy, a three-year long debate with myth and reality of Europe, “Empire” presents biographical close-ups of humans, who came as refugees to Europe or who have theirs homes on its fringes.
After looking at the ideological struggle of Western Europe in The Civil Wars and on wars and expulsions in former Yugoslavia, Russia and Germany in The Dark Ages, in Empire actors from Greece, Syria and Romania are telling stories of artistic and true tragedy, of torture, escape, sorrow, death and rebirth. What happens to people who have lost their belongings or their home by crises and war?
Intimate and yet in epic size it creates a portrait of a continent whose past is shattered and whose future is uncertain. The review of “Die Deutsche Welle” on the first part of the Europe trilogy was: “A radical social portrait, a tableau of Europe.” With The Dark Ages experienced SPIEGEL.DE an evening that juts out into the “universally human” and “time transcending”. Empire will continue and complete the three-year reflection on the cultural roots, the political present and future of the European continent: Europe as a mythical as well as a realpolitik empire, the Europeans as bearers of ancient traditions as well as the eternal homo migrans.
Milo Rau- a Swiss director and journalist. In 2007, he founded the International Institute of Political Murder (IIPM). In his works he often refers to historical events, as in The last days of Ceausescu (2009) or Hate Radio (2012). The heatre and films production works of Milo Rau are invited to major international festivals, including the Berliner Theatertreffen, Noorderzon Performing Arts Festival Groningen, Wiener Festwochen, Kunstenfestival in Brussels and Radikal Jung festival. In addition to working in the theater and film, Milo Rau teaches cultural theory at numerous universities, including issues related to the concept of “social sculpture”. His productions have been invited to the Festival d’Avignon and nominated for the Prix de Soleure. The Swiss newspaper “Tages-Anzeiger” called him one of “the most sought-after directors” and the German weekly “Der Freitag” called him “the most controversial theatre director of his generation.”
A Conversation with Milo Rau:
Thou Shalt Not Make Any Graven Image
Stefan Bläske: The European Trilogy began in 2014 in Western Europe with actors from Belgium and France; it then moved eastwards with actors from Germany, Bosnia, Serbia and Russia; now it appears to be crossing Europe’s borders in a southerly direction: two actors have come to Europe from Syria. Where exactly are the borders, where does the European »Empire« end for you?
Milo Rau: It’s no coincidence that we’re having this conversation in Erbil in northern Iraq. Here of course in Kurdistan, the western – meaning Syrian – part of which used to be actor Ramo Ali’s home, the destructive historical reality of Europe becomes apparent. For example, the Kurdish problem was Orly created by the so-called Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916, in which France and Great Britain established their spheres of influence within the disintegrating Ottoman Empire: these artificial borders at once made the Kurds minorities in three different countries – in Iraq, Syria and Turkey. The Sykes-Picot Line also divided the family of our other Syrian actor, Rami Khalaf. This imperial aspect of Europe is repeated in the biographies of our older actors, the Greek Akillas Karazissis and Romanian Maia Morgenstern: Akillas Karazissis’ family came to Greece after the Russian Revolution and the expulsion of Greeks from Asia Minor following World War I, in a way as a result of the reaction of the shattered Ottoman Empire to European imperialism. And, as Belarusian Jews, Maia Morgenstern’s family were expelled and to a large extent murdered during the last great European imperial experiment before the EU – that carried out by the Nazis.
Stefan Bläske: That’s the historical dimension of European empires. But what about the more recent past, the topicality of »Empire«?
Milo Rau: The European Trilogy negates external time and focuses on the internal. It works in accordance with the principle Chekhov suggested as an inscription on a ring as his artistic credo: »Nothing passes away«. We know that memory refers to an existential, cultural truth rather than to a historical one. It defies time; in memory, the past Romains present. Even the future – and this is without doubt the tragic dimension of the aesthetic – is nothing else but the past in a transformed guise. But of course, aside from this fundamental principle of dramaturgy, »Empire« contains very tangible stories. The two Syrian actors are both refugees – the Kurd Ramo Ali after being detained in the Palmyra torture prison which paradoxically was temporarily liberated by IS. And in fleeing, both were once again confronted with the truth of the European empire: its exclusivity, border controls, asylum system, its repressive tolerance and, ultimately, its historical blindness. On the one hand, following the stories of internal (»The Civil Wars«) and inner-European wars (»The Dark Ages«), in »Empire« I wanted to explore Europe as a large strategic and cultural space, to research the continent from its peripheries in the Middle-East, Romania and Greece, as well as with regards to its own origin stories. On the other hand, in »Empire« we’re continuing to pursue the fundamental questions of the trilogy: what is a war between citizens, a civil war? What – precisely – is power, and what is powerlessness? Why do we believe? And what is the impact of the European history of violence on our bodies, hearts and the images of our time?
Stefan Bläske: With Akillas Karazissis you also have a Greek actor in the team. Ancient Greece is recognised as the cradle of democracy, philosophy and theatre. So it’s not just geographically that – following Chekhov in the first and Shakespeare in the second part of the European Trilogy – it makes sense now for this final section to draw on the ancient Greeks for its dramatic references. Why did you choose »Medea«?
Milo Rau: I studied ancient Greek for six years at secondary school and, ever since I translated Euripides’ »The Trojan Women« into German for my final assignment, I have been preoccupied by the question of tragedy: what is this dark knowledge that doesn’t give birth to anything new but instead unfurls the nightmare of past crimes? Why do the gods test humankind? I was brought to »Medea« – also around 20 years ago – by Pasolini’s film adaptation: in some ways an almost ethnographic and also – of course especially with Callas playing Medea – operatic and borderline melodramatic, even risible film. A fantastic mixture! »Medea« revolves around – and this dramaturgy was emphasised by Pasolini, the great bard of the decline of old, even ancient Europe into mass consumption – the incompatibility of traditional communities and civilisation. What differentiates the circular, ritualistic knowledge of traditional communities from the historical, linear knowledge of modern civilisations? What is the difference between sentimentality and suffering, ritual and esotericism, bartering and consumption? At the same time, »Medea« poses the question of the origins of guilt and, with it, the history of violence and that’s a question we have repeatedly asked ourselves during rehearsal: where precisely does the tragedy begin? With Jason’s raid on Colchis, with Medea’s murdering of her brother, with Jason’s abandoning of Medea or with the jealous Medea killing her children, which Euripides added to the myth? As coincidence would have it, Akillas Karazissis has played Jason several times and, to a certain extent, identifies with his rationality. Maia Morgenstern, on the other hand, has portrayed Medea in a production that’s become a classic. Added to this are the other topics: the terrible, insecure situation of the others, the immigrants. And the essential obliteration of the tragic in the enlightened idea of a blended family by Jason, who has no sense of Medea’s fundamental pain and the blindness of her desire.
Stefan Bläske: In the first part of the Trilogy, »The Civil Wars«, you began with an investigation into Jihadis and the question of why young people from Belgium go to war in the Middle-East. Starting from this, one of the actors revealed how he was beaten by his father. What connections do you see between domestic violence and the wars of this world?
Milo Rau: The Trilogy was designed from the start to be a great symphony of voices. For this reason we are now, as a kind of finale, returning to many of the questions raised in »The Civil Wars«: questions regarding the images of violence, the psychological dimension of history and how it can be narrated. In »Empire« we’re bringing to a conclusion the perhaps fundamental metaphorical thread of the entire trilogy – the movement of the sons in »The Civil Wars« from their domestic living rooms to Syria and northern Iraq and the parallel aesthetic movement of the trilogy from portraits of citizens’ souls ŕ la Chekhov via the world of power struggles in Shakespeare’s play to the giant tableaux of exile in Classical drama. On the one hand, we’re doing this by researching locally in the Syrian-Iraqi border region, speaking with IS-sympathisers as well as their victims. On the other, by following up on the topic of the beaten sons and on the questions of compassion, extremism, guilt and possible salvation in the extreme biographies of the Syrian performers, but also in Maia Morgenstern’s filmography (she played Mary in Mel Gibson’s »The Passion of the Christ«) and on a very real level: one objective of our journey to the Iraqi and Syrian Kurdish areas is actually that Ramo Ali can see his mother and home again. With regards to the »direct« link between domestic violence and war you’re asking about, I’m rather less interested in the socio-psychological level of it. What really interests me is the question about the underground currents of history which people navigate beyond their conscious minds. What, in fact, does exile mean? What does it mean when a tradition is truly and irrevocably broken? When the »old Europe« disappears, just as the ancient civilisations of antiquity disappeared? There is a very late text from Pasolini, written shortly before he died, in which he mourns the death of the tragic. The sons and daughters, he writes with an eye on the 1968 generation, refuse to bear the guilt of their parents. The individual has finally liberated itself, actually into mass consumption, puberty, the baseless grin of a brainless »target group«. For me, if I may venture to make an analysis, Salafism is a similarly negative liberation: a shedding of any kind of past by conversion. A liberation from the social »I« into what Husserl called the transcendental ego – a transference into a radical, ahistorical solipsism in which the other has ceased to exist. A fundamental negativity.
Stefan Bläske: Could it be said that, since one of the defining topics of the Trilogy is the observation of suffering, in »Empire« this negativity is carried to an extreme?
Milo Rau: Yes, a direct line runs from the murder fantasies triggered by Korean snuff movies in »The Civil Wars« to Rami Khalaf who looks at 12.000 photos of people tortured to death in search of his brother. But there is an evolution here because, unlike the first two parts of the trilogy, »Empire« contains a level of successful transcendence: although Rami Khalaf is denied salvation because he does not find his brother in the torture files, at the same time something like a release, a consolation is hinted at – incidentally this also happened when Ramo Ali visited his father’s grave during our research trip. This sense of »homecoming« also exists, on several levels, in Akillas Karazissis’ narrative – in the gesture of compassion when, figuratively speaking, he falls in love with his father as the latter lies on his deathbed or when he plays Ajax with an ensemble of, in technical terms, depressingly bad actors and suddenly experiences the dedication of these Greek peasant performers almost like a revelation. And finally with Maia Morgenstern who, as Mary in »The Passion of the Christ«, must bear the hideous torture and crucifixion of her son and in the end kisses his mutilated body.
Stefan Bläske: What connection do you see between brutality and salvation? Or to put it more broadly: what role does faith play in »Empire«?
Milo Rau: Once a society has become atheist there is no way back to faith – or only in autistic, inorganic ways like Salafism. »Empire« once again describes this transition from »faithful« societies to consumer societies in depth. Akillas Karazissis grows up in the conservative Greece of the military Junta and experiences the 1970s in Germany as a manic-depressive phase of liberation – only to then have his Greek identity catch up with him and to make his peace with it. The Romanian Maia Morgenstern distances herself from her Jewish background and is only confronted again with her religion whilst filming in Auschwitz and then by the reactions to »The Passion of the Christ«. The most extreme transition, of course, is experienced by Ramo Ali who is thrown from traditional western Kurdis tan into the southern German theatre scene where people temporarily convert to Islam for a laugh. But alongside this sociological perspective in »Empire« there is also an existential one: faith in the sense of the New Testament, that is, as the source of pity. And here, the gaze of the Mother Mary on her suffering son is decisive: when his mother looks at him, Jesus is released from his divinity into a mortal existence. He returns to being the child that suffers. Rami Khalaf tells an anecdote about a controversial Saudi TV series which featured the first four caliphates: the Prophet Mohammed is only ever shown as a blaze of light. It is forbidden to look at him, even more so to portray him, let alone touch him. He remains invisible, untouchable. Mother Mary gazing upon the mutilated body of her son who, in dying upon the cross, has been subjected to the Classical world’s most humiliating form of death: for me, this signifies the triumph of mortal love over all the transcendental, solitary adventures of the ego with which the European Trilogy – and the history of faith overall – is so full.
Stefan Bläske: Which brings us to the central question of the Trilogy: who is the performer on the stage, from which perspective are they speaking when they talk about »themselves«? Akillas Karazissis, for example, has a very clear understanding of the role of the actor and the impossibility of being »someone else«. The question of identity is posed in an existential way for both Syrians: Rami Khalaf has to pretend to be a Romanian and Ramo Ali a Palestinian in order to circumvent the doorkeepers and Cerberuses of the European empire. When Ramo Ali describes the interrogations in Assad’s jails as a kind of psychotherapy, an almost masochistic layer is added – or when he relates how in Germany he’s predominantly cast as a refugee who is expected to deliver his story.
Milo Rau: Now we’re back to »thou shalt not make any graven image« from the Bible, but also to the strange circumstance of existing in an absurd and tragic world without any divine assistance. But how do you dodge the passivity of being an object of history, how can you cope with this entire atrocious reality from the Holocaust to the Syrian civil war without becoming one of the inanely grinning consumers of Pasolini’s text? Although I represent a rather pessimistic view of humanity in the European Trilogy and hence in »Empire«, and despite having described all collective terms from the family onwards as violenceinfested, perverse or idiotic misunderstandings, there is a kind of light at the end of the tunnel and it is the other, who is listening to us. It is the audience who – to use Roland Barthes’ beautiful image in »Death of the Author« – looks upon the actor struggling in their tragic blindness before them and listens with interest and perhaps even filled with sympathy. This is the best salvation you can hope for in life.
This conversation took place in July 2016 in Erbil, Iraq, during a journey to Ramo Ali’s hometown of Qamishli in northern Syria.