SPILL STINGS 9: Romeo Castellucci

Thu 01 Jan 1970

Johanna Linsley responds to On the Concept of the Face, Regarding the Son of God by Romeo Castellucci/Socìetas Raffaello Sanzio, 21-23 April 2011


We’ll start at the end, because the beginning is so much what it is.  We’ll start after the end, even.

Post-show.  Romeo Castellucci in conversation with Dr. Dominic Johnson.  A translator is present for Castellucci, but I don’t catch her name.  All three appear physically confident in the large Barbican theatre.  Castellucci asserts early on that he will not explain the work we’ve just seen.  Remarkably, this does nothing to shut down the conversation – rather; the restriction seems to open the director to a range of possibilities.  Castellucci is generous with words and ideas.  We hear about the crucial importance of the history of art, about how Catholicism invented oil painting, about the inherent perfection of every audience member’s response to his work (including laughter and walking out).  We hear about the artist as creator, and the pathetic ridiculousness of this position.  Castellucci tells us that his theatrical spectacles are formed in his mind, and the rehearsal process is a painful process of overcoming resistance.  Attention in the room is rapt, and many later agree that this conversation was as virtuosic a performance as what came before.

What came before?

Back to the end, which was a flash of light.  I’ve seen such a flash, in Castellucci’s earlier ‘London’ installment of the Tragedia Endogonidia cycle.  These flashes are unlike the use of light in audience eyes by, for example, the New York avant-garde director Richard Foreman, for example.  Foreman lights his audience to break their own patterns – to re-organise their automatic responses – in order to trigger a reorientation of thought.  Castellucci flashes lights (it seems to me) in order to signal lack, gaps, or the end of understanding.  These gaps occur not in darkness or emptiness, but in excess, in the too-brightness of the world.

Before the light there was a face.  Ending in tatters, covered in shit-coloured tears, the face started as a Renaissance-era painting of the visage of Christ.  There were bodies, three or four, suspended behind the screen that was the face.  The bodies writhed behind the screen, fighting with it, tearing it apart as it wept.  I thought: bodies struggle against the face and win.  I thought: quiet dignity never stood a chance.

Before the face there were two men, a father and a son.  ‘Before’ meaning ‘in front of’.  Taking no notice of the face, the men were enveloped in a highly constructed theatrical naturalism.  A simple story unfolded – the father, an old man, had lost control of his bowels, and the son had to clean up the shit.  The structure of the story owed something to slapstick as the father’s mess occurred over three escalating incidences, the last one a small explosion.  The structure was slowed down, stretched out, so that while it didn’t feel like it would be violent to laugh, equally the slapstick cues for laughter simply weren’t there.  The father wept throughout. The son at first tried pragmatic comfort to soothe his father, but eventually joined him in tears. The smell of shit (already perhaps the most notorious aspect of the event) wafted through the auditorium. In the final scene of this sequence, the son went offstage and the father took a plastic can from a bedside table and poured the contents – shit – all over himself.

The hyper-naturalism of the spectacle encouraged certain questions that I would ask of naturalistic theatres – material and psychological question.  As touching as the relationship between father and son was, where was the acknowledgment that it is generally women who perform the labour of bodily care?  More banally, if one had an incontinent parent, would one really furnish a flat entirely in white? These interpretive questions felt justified within a certain register of the performance, and at the same time, the surrounding layers of metaphor, representation, archetype, imagery, culture, history and excess assured me that interpretation was only one among an expansive set of possibilities for response.  
Excerpts from On the Concept of the Face, Regarding the Son of God on SPILL TV: