Milo Rau and the Performative Panopticon

By Lily Climenhaga

Climbing the smooth stone stairs across the square from the Church of Saint Peter in Matera, Italy, where Jesus’s trial was filmed the previous day, one could not help but be taken aback by the combination of the film crews’ various cameras and microphones and the swaths of curious tourists hanging over the stone walls above. Following a procession of Materans dressed as Roman citizens, we – those people following this Biblical procession – clambered up a few steps only to have to stop, climb back down and start the assent once again.

Source: Lily Climenhaga

The initially large group of “tourists” enlisted to follow the procession of booing and leering Judeans – themselves following Jesus and his cross – dwindled as the minutes of filming ticked on and the number of steps failed to decrease. As the procession of Rau tourists1 dispersed, a growing number of people who had travelled to Matera for the heritage site (or perhaps to catch a glimpse of the new James Bond film) leaned over the stone walls. As the procession approached the top of the steps, I glanced around – one of the procession’s few remaining “tourists”– to find myself surrounded by a sea of cameras. The director at the heart of it all hollered excitedly through his bullhorn: “Once more… but this time without the tourists!”

Source: Lily Climenhaga

Swiss-German director Milo Rau – the man with the bullhorn – is famous for repertoire (rehearsed and scripted) productions that build on the autobiographic experiences of their actors and for unscripted, political action performances. His projects are concerned with the representation of a hyper-self. This concept of the hyper-self gestures to an overtly presentational quality, highlighted by Rau’s use of direct address. Direct address refers specifically to how Rau’s actors – both professional and non-professional – speak outwards, past the fourth wall, and directly to the audience. In repertoire productions, this direct address marks what could be described as a Brechtian theory of acting. However, in political actions – staged trials, tribunals, assemblies, political rallies – this overtly presentational performance style is already present in their real world counterparts. Yet we cannot forget that what we see on stage and screen is heavily edited and carefully controlled versions of the self. This careful control and curation of the self points to the importance of vigilance in Rau’s work. We see no more than what the actor (political, professional, or non-professional) and the director want us to see. We are presented with essentialized selves. Selves that neatly fit within the world and political message of the theatrical project. Selves that show little interest in the complexity of the individual in the real world, only as they exist within the project’s rigid parameters.

Performative Autobiography or Autobiographical Performance?

Rau’s early reenactments were intense interested in connecting the performer’s body and experience with the role and historical conflict they personify. Later monologue productions drew directly from the autobiographical narratives collected in interviews to situate the actors’ unique experiences within broader historical narratives and events. More recent conflict zone productions combine performers’ autobiographical narratives with reenactments, exploring the actors’ personal and socio-political realities through the recycled artistic frame of a classic text.

At the core of Rau’s productions is an acute presentation of the self, which is often intricately connected to the scandals that emerge around productions like Five Easy Pieces and Orestes in Mosul. This acute presentation of the self also presupposes an inherent risk of opening oneself to scrutiny and criticism from a broader public. To a certain extent, this risk is part of the actor’s life as a public person. But this risk becomes even more important when we consider Rau frequently works with non-actors within already marginalized and vulnerable communities.

The question of aftercare is key for productions that use non-actors to explore traumatic events through the lens of personal, lived experience. Such productions raise important questions for the production team: What does a theatrical institution/theatre director do to protect the well-being of these performers? How important is the performers’ input in the creation of a script? Particularly when the performer must endure scrutiny from their community for their participation.

The issues of aftercare and risk are intricately connected to the question of responsibility. Responsibility is complicated in conflict zone productions because it extends beyond the time and space of performance. We see this in Orestes in Mosul, where the director travelled to the Iraqi city of Mosul with a group of Belgian actors to examine the physical and psychological scars left by ISIS’s occupation of the city with local participants. Rau included a kiss between Orestes and Pylades despite the protests of Iraqi, who feared local response to the display of homosexuality in a society that still widely discriminates against homosexuals and in which homosexual men were routinely murdered during the IS occupation. Who makes sure that the actors are safe (physically, psychologically, etc.) during rehearsals and during performances? Who takes care of these participants after the project concludes?

In classic theatre, there is an agreement between actor and audience of implied fictionality, but within Rau’s work this fictionality is blurry. The actor – professional or otherwise – does not play a role outside herself, or, if she does play another role, she steps in and out of this role, always returning to herself. We also never see the performer in full, only as they fit within this specific performance, only as Rau and his team know them. A carefully and specifically curated version of this private self. We never see the actors as they really are, as we only have access to their performative versions of themselves. A version not entirely of their own authorship. One that has at least been partially (re)written by Rau and his team – a version less attuned to the complexities, tensions, and oppositions contained within a single human-being and more focused on how the individual fits within the production. By agreeing to participate, performers lose some autonomy over how they presented, while simultaneously taking on the risks of exposure that accompany standing onstage as oneself.

However, the key term here is agree. The actor does agree to take part in the production, and because the actors are live on stage – took part in writing the script, and rehearsed together for weeks – the actors in these productions maintain some control and agency. If something is present in the rehearsals or performance that makes an actor uncomfortable, there is space for a line to be removed, wording to be changed, the line can be given to someone else, or the actor can leave the production. A discussion can take place. A compromise can be found.

Political Action Projects – Panopticonic Performance

Political actions have been a centerpiece of the International Institute of Political Murder’s oeuvre since the early days of the company, winning international attention with Moscow Trials (2013). Rau refers to the liminal aristic-political institutions constructed in these projects as symbolic institutions for the future: performative reactions to the failures and injustices of the current system by constructing an alternative that gestures to the necessity of such an institution in the immediate future.

The self-presentational style we find in Rau’s repertoire productions makes sense in these symbolic institutions, because in the real world, these spaces are marked by lawyers, judges, witnesses, politicians, and activists engaging in an extended practice of direct address. Rau and his dramaturgs recreate and reenact these spaces but also open them. They reorganize these normally vertical structures horizontally; horizontal refers to a structure that – to quote Isabell Lorey – “break[s] down and through existing hierarchies.” Rather than depending on exclusively expert knowledge, Rau’s institutions depend on local and lived knowledge as well as that of institutional experts (lawyers, judges, academics, foreign/external activists, etc.). But with this horizontality comes polarization, a key aspect of the political actions’ dramaturgy. These projects, which I refer to as reactments2, bring together a variety of people, opinions, and experiences at odds with each other, forcing individuals and organizations in conflict to confront each other and co-exist in the same space.

However, we must remember that participants agree to participate in these projects. Therefore, horizontality can only succeed as far as Rau and his team can find participants from both sides of the issue. No one is forced to participate and because reactments depend on participants from across the social, political, and economic spectrum, it is not unusual for reactments to favour one position. It does not benefit Western/European corporations, organizations, or governments – like BANRO in The Congo Tribunal (2017), or the local mafia (caporalato) and Italian right-wing politicians in The New Gospel (2020) – to participate, because projects serve as an extended critique of their actions.

Turning to those political actors who do participate in reactments, it is important to remember that the testimony in these projects is also an act of self-presentation and there is, therefore, an element of self-vigilance present.

Participants are given ten to twelve minutes to present themselves, their relation to the issue, and their experiences around it. We are all the heroes of our own stories and testimony is curated by self-image: Where do I fit within this story? What have I seen/experienced? What is my contribution to the issue? This centrality of the self in these subjective accounts of the conflict gives a human face to the environmental, political, economic, and physical violence inflicted by cobalt mining in the DRC (The Congo Tribunal). It also challenges right-wing narratives about illegal migrants by focusing on the migrant experience and the abuses they experience without a social safety net (The New Gospel). A performative hyper-self is key here, because how can the participants use the time they have to present the essence of their experience to an audience? What can they say that will resonate and stay with not only their peers but with an international audience? However, we need to remain aware that behavior changes based on the situation: i.e., we act differently in public spaces and situations then in private ones. During the testimony and the Q&A that follows, it is easy to see how someone can get carried away, say the wrong thing, get thrown off and never quite recover.

Participants open themselves to scrutiny and local participants risk violence and reprisal for their critiques. Following Moscow Trials, several participants had difficulty finding work and faced judicial retaliation, while Rau was banned from re-entering Russia. In Congo Tribunal, Rau’s team took special measures to protect local participants with a special garment accompanied with a voice modulator for anonymous witnesses, who Rau then coached on how to remain anonymous in their testimony. Still, some participants choice not to present anonymously. Amini Kabaaka Shemu, a law student and student activist, chose to deliver his testimony as himself and, for his own safety, was forced to disappear from public life. Such proactive measures are extremely important because reactments engage with vulnerable and marginalized populations. How do you – as a political theatre artist – protect your actors/performers after you and your team have left? How do you make sure that your project does not hurt this person’s career or their future?

The final point to discuss around vigilance in Milo Rau’s political theatre brings us back to the steps of Matera’s old town: the cameras and the documentary process.

Cameras are an ever-present element at reactments. Even projects like General Assembly and School of Resistance, which have not been turned into documentaries, are highly mediated. All three days of General Assembly were filmed and pieces of testimony were shared on social media and redistributed by the media (who were in wide attendance). School of Resistance, originally a pandemic project, is a curated series of live-streamed discussions between artists, academics, and activists. Initially consisting of living room Zoom sessions (a marker the first year of the pandemic), more recent iterations of School of Resistance at theatres in Cologne and Ghent are simultaneously live-streamed to an international audience through partners like Howl Roundtable and the Segal Center.

Most audience members do not encounter the reactment as a raw or live performance, but as a highly edited film. These documentaries are meant to show both the performance and its making-of process: to provide a rough design for future policymakers and political activists. However, the major shortcoming of these making-of documentaries is that they show an idealized version of events. Viewers do not see the difficulties of finding people in the ghettos of Southern Italy willing to participate in Revolt of Dignity (New Gospel), Rau being denied a visa to return to Moscow for a follow-up (Moscow Trials), or the Canadian mining company BANRO and the Swiss firm MPC’s (Magminerals Potasses Congo) refusal to participate Congo Tribunal. We are only shown the team’s successes, which – while important – do not show future policymakers, lawmakers, and activists the obstacles they faced and how they overcame these hurdles or, alternatively, failed to.

Whereas repertoire productions provide some agency to their actors through their participation in script writing, reactment participants have significantly less control over the final product. Rau, his dramaturgs, and his editors are entirely responsible for constructing the film’s narrative. Multiple cameras are always filming, catching everything that happens, and participants are not involved in editing. They cannot know what parts of their testimony will be included in the film’s final cut, or even if their contribution will be included.

Rau’s reactment documentaries are inspired by fellow Swiss director Jean-Stéphane Bron’s Cleveland Versus Wall Street (2010). Bron uses local resident and activist Barbara Anderson acts as a framing device to bring the viewer in and out of the trial Bron stages. Rau – who is currently one of Europe’s most famous and celebrated directors – uses himself, rather than using a participant or collaborator, as the film’s centering device. The cameras use Rau as an entrance into the conflicts explored in the mock trials, tribunals, and investigations. We see Rau’s journey through the slums of Southern Italy, through the Eastern Congo, and into the troubled existence of artists in Russia. However, this choice can be uncomfortable and downright problematic. Films like Congo Tribunal and New Gospel can slip into white savourism: Rau being pulled on stage at a political rally by Congolese politician Vital Kamerhe, who declares, “This white man will save us”; or Rau seated in a room surrounded by activist Yven Sagnet and migrant workers explaining the project as a voice over states, “And then Jesus gathered his followers and asked if they would follow.”

The centrality of Rau within these films is difficult to reckon with in his work. Perhaps it is a way to protect participants from further backlash – although the centrality of  Yvan Sagnet, who played Jesus in The New Gospel, in both the film and  the subsequent film tour indicate alternative framing is possible. There is something about Rau being at the visual core of his film – undeniably physically present on screen in a way that cannot be ignored – that feels odd: like a very expensive selfie. Who or what is this project actually about? Rau is very much the face of his projects and theatre (which is always the case with celebrity directors but is more central in Rau’s work). He is constantly producing: written, televised, online interviews; a weekly director’s journal published by taz; a weekly column first for Tagesanzeiger (2015-2021) and then for SonntagsZeitung (2021-present); publishing books (most recently Theatre is Democracy in Small); and taking part in speaking events across Europe. Again, the question becomes: What is the focus of these projects? The participants or the director? And, if the focus (either intentionally or unintentionally) is the director, then how can and does the project benefit participants, particularly those who take the greatest risk for their participation?

Final Thoughts

How vigilance functions in Rau’s work is not always self-evident. The importance of vigilance becomes clear when one considers the editing and staging of IIPM and NTGent productions and the ways in which Rau and his team present their performers. The ethics of people playing themselves either in a scripted or spontaneous capacity is complicated and tied up with questions surrounding self-image, self-presentation, responsibility, and aftercare.

The highly political quality of Rau’s work means finding a balance between protecting performers and participants from scrutiny and violence, while also getting participants to reveal as much of themselves as possible to Rau’s audience. And honestly, Rau does not always succeed in finding this balance. The demands and constant scrutiny of the theatre industry – the call for another project, another critical success, another scandal – means there is a temptation to be more provocative and take bigger risks, the brunt of which is born by performers and participants. At the end of the day, what appears on the stage in a repertoire production and on the screen in a reactment documentary, is simply a best-of: the most provocative, the most political, the most moving, the most powerful, and the most effective moments from the rehearsal and live performance.

To conclude, I return to the steps of Matera where I spent those two hours on that day in late September 2019. After spending so much time walking up and down those stairs as a “tourist” in the procession, when I finally saw the film at La Biennale di Venezia in August 2020, much to my bemusement, I had been completely removed from the film (There’s a joke there about me being such a bad actor that I was cut from a documentary). While in other scenes of The New Gospel, the crowd surrounding the filming was shown, the reality of the procession was that there were not enough tourists to show the desired fanfare surrounding the production. Even with the storm of cameras, catching every movement and moment, Rau and his editors were still able to adjust the final product to show a reality he wanted the audience to see.

When claims of truthfulness and authenticity are implicit in documentary theatre and film, the audience should remain vigilant. Because – at the end of the day – we only see what we are meant to see and it is our responsibility, especially as consumers of political art, to ask questions about both what we do and do not see. To try to see beyond the glamour of the camera and editing of the production, to look beyond the production, and to continue to demand more of activist theatre.

Cite this article as: Lily Climenhaga, “Milo Rau and the Performative Panopticon” in Vigilanzkulturen, 09/01/2023, https://vigilanz.hypotheses.org/?p=3969.



Diesen Blogbeitrag zitieren
Blogredaktion (2023, 9. Januar). Milo Rau and the Performative Panopticon. Vigilanzkulturen. Abgerufen am 26. Februar 2024, von https://doi.org/10.58079/v7my

  1. We cannot really call those following the procession true tourists because they, like myself, had travelled to Matera not for the UNESCO world heritage site, but for Rau and The New Gospel. []
  2. Within my examinations of Rau’s work, I identify four unique types of projects: reenactment, recollection, reactment, and reclassification. Reenactments reperform a traumatic event from the recent past by using local memory to precisely reconstruct a specific moment within the larger trauma. Recollections are a past-tense exploration of an event or series of events: a retrospective re-telling of an event with the knowledge and hindsight of the present that explores where the small individual fits within the big History. Reactments are one-time political actions that react to a specific conflict through the staging of a fictional institution that using existing political, social, transnational institutions as a frame for better and more urgent ones. Reclassifications use a classic text as a frame through which a more complex exploration of a contemporary, ongoing conflict takes place using the unique personal experiences of its participants (both actors and non-actors). []

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