The play Ridiculous Darkness by Wolfram Lotz was written in 2014, that is, immediately before the flooding wave of refugees reached its climax. Bearing in mind that in the meantime we have become witnesses of a political experiment whose guinea pigs have swamped the European territory, have you been able to notice, lately, a certain change in the reception of the play by the theater audience?
What started as staging of a new German play became first a production considered by most as a Czech-made unplugged theatrical experiment – turned down by some, valued by others. Noteworthy was, that most of the spectators reacted only to the chosen theatrical means. Not to issues told by them, not to the critic of a so-called developed First World facing away from war zones or crisis while amusing itself to death. No one is to blame. In the summer of 2014 many people thought, that we are only staging some “instant” or light version of Coppola’s Apocalypse now or Conrad’s Heart of Darkness: a third interpretation of a well-known plot – solid entertainment for a culturally active society building its self-image on social awareness…
Then, things changed, the Syrian exodus started. The audience understood that Wolfram Lotz’s play refers to the contemporary world, to a very real situation, where all of us have to face not only the possible ending of diplomacy and international politics, but also our own fears. An idea of Europe and humanistic values our society is built on were being tested! All of us had to question ourselves – and to learn something new: as soon as we come face to face with strangers and their poverty, the end of our “openness” is reached. The proclaimed understanding of migrants and their needs, the understanding of an “exotic” world existing somewhere beyond our Central European mindscape – everything became all of a sudden very difficult. Transferred back to the theatre and the staging of Ridiculous Darkness: it was the end of a comedy. The audience understood, that the theatrical metaphor dealt not with funny German soldiers on an absurd mission in the rainforest of Afghanistan, but with every single one of us: with our siege mentality, our moral cowardice. In other words – some people stopped to laugh and started to listen.
The reaction to the refugee crisis is an extraordinary proof of a European state of “mind” steeped in conformity and self-sufficiency. Do you believe in the “obligation” of the contemporary theater to “drive” us, by using all available theatrical and performing means, to self-examine ourselves, at least briefly?
Yes, I do. The question is, what is necessary to open our minds to all those changed – and still changing – living conditions. As long as they seemed to have no direct impact on us, it seemed to be enough to tell commonplace truths about war, crisis and poverty. Now people start to understand, that the quality of public dialogue has to change. What makes me wonder about the meaning of our work, are recent developments: yes, the world has changed – but does this mean, that we should show real suffering by just displaying it on stage? Theatre – at least as far as I am interested in it – should not be a cynical freak show. We shouldn’t make the spectators feel better by placing a refugee in front of them and telling them to watch. Yes, such a “mean” or “tool” produces immediate impact on the spectator, maybe it will make someone feel guilty. But will it change a thing? Is it purifying – or just an inappropriate way to justify our jobs, to cement our position in good old culture industry? Will it change ourselves and all those willing to take part in a public dialogue? Or will it manipulate the audience – and us(!) – into passivity? As long as most of us think, that we have done or achieved something by staging or visiting a theatrical performance, we do nothing. We produce, offer, sell and consume doubtful distraction – entertainment with the aftertaste of political and social awareness. And in the meantime real life is happening elsewhere. The only real in theatre is the communication between stage and audience. Actors and audience come together, for a certain period of time they share one space. If theatre is able to plant questions in the spectator’s mind, at least something real happens. That is a thinkable goal of contemporary theatre. But I do not think, that it should be aimed for “by using all available theatrical and performing means”…
As a kind of prologue, can the trial of the Somali pirate in Hamburg, in a figurative sense, in your opinion, be interpreted as a kind of warning of the Western society to the newly arrived refugees and migrants that they have come to “someone else’s house,” and that they must not take nor appropriate in an unauthorized way what is someone else’s?
I think it is quite the opposite. We Westerners took from the Third World for whole centuries. It went very well – we didn’t even have to get in touch with those people, who became in the last years “refugees and migrants”. We had a chance to prepare, but we missed it. We decided not to see and not to listen. Now we have to get involved – whether we like it or not. How much had to happen, until we Westerners learned our first lesson? How many ships had to be captured, how many refugees had to die, how many people had to make their way to refugee camps all over Europe, how many deals and arrangements (for example with Turkey) had – and will have – to be made, until we finally realize, that our privileged existence was built on someone else’s expenses?
Wolfram Lotz’s Afghanistan is a very dark place, a world of its own, assembled of war zones and crises of the last 30 years. A world that teaches us Central Europeans a new meaning of fear. It is a place, where we can project our concerns, siege mentality and cowardice. The Somali pirate is an ambassador from that world.
Maybe it sounds ironical, but for whom will it be more difficult, in your opinion, to adapt to the new situation: for the refugees coming from distant warzones or for the “Eurocentric” natives?
It won’t be easy for both sides. We all will have to learn – to listen, to understand and to adjust.
First time at Bitef and the performance you directed wins the festival Grand Prix and you the Best director award. Did you expect that?
Of course not, no, it is something I definitely didn’t expect. I feel honoured and grateful and now I’m getting back to work. There is still a lot to do.
Interviewed by Jovana Mijović
Photo Greg Hochmuth