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Making Sense of the Present by Pulling From the Past


Making Sense of the Present by Pulling From the Past

VIENNA — “These fragments have I shored again my ruin,” T.S. Eliot wrote in the 1922 poem “The Waste Land,” referring to art that survives human catastrophe. Those words returned to me as I wandered through a weekend of the Wiener Festwochen, the international performing arts festival that has been welcoming spring to the Austrian capital since 1951.

Like Eliot, who responded to the cataclysms of world war with a poem assembled from cultural artifacts ranging from the Bhagavad Gita to Richard Wagner’s operas, a number of the artists invited to this year’s festival used the classics to respond to contemporary upheaval.

As the festival entered the homestretch in early June, it presented Milo Rau’s “Orestes in Mosul,” a version of “The Oresteia,” the ancient Greek trilogy by Aeschylus, provocatively set in the destroyed Iraqi city that was once a stronghold of the Islamic State.

Mr. Rau, a Swiss director who runs the NTGent Theater in Ghent, Belgium, traveled to Mosul in March, to stage a production that included European and Iraqi actors. Known for an analytic bent and lavish style, he often courts controversy by tackling topics like jihadism and pedophilia.

Mr. Rau and his team spent two weeks in Iraq developing “Orestes in Mosul.” The performance weaves in video that was shot on location, including footage of the rehearsals and workshops and performers’ testimonials. The seven live actors offer their own running commentary and re-enact the scenes playing onscreen above them. The mingling of languages (Dutch, Arabic and English) adds to the production’s disquieting vérité feel.

But I was less taken by Mr. Rau’s attempt to graft Aeschylus onto the destroyed Iraqi city. As the war recedes from Mosul, survivors grapple with questions of justice and revenge and how to break the cycle of violence. Mr. Rau draws most fruitfully from the beginning and ending of “The Oresteia”: Agamemnon sacrificing his daughter to gain favorable winds for the Greek fleet, and the acquittal of the matricidal Orestes by the goddess Athena.

Iraqis instruct the Belgian actors about ISIS execution methods in re-enactments that bring to mind the harrowing documentary “The Act of Killing.” Iphigenia’s sacrifice is a lengthy video sequence in which Johan Leysen, as Agamemnon, strangles Baraa Ali, a 19-year-old acting student wearing a niqab. The camera doesn’t flinch, and the scene is difficult to watch.

Khitan Idress — another of the three Iraqi actors (in addition to six musicians and a Greek chorus of eight) — assumes the part of Athena. Before stepping into the role, Ms. Idress explains to the camera that Al Qaeda killed her husband and that she collaborated with the Islamic State for six months to save her daughters. Casting someone who knows what it means to make moral compromises as Orestes’ ultimate arbiter hammers home how thorny questions of clemency and justice are in a city that has seen so much suffering.

Yet other moments sputter. An awkward dinner scene for the returning Agamemnon is mostly played for laughs (“So, how was the Trojan War?” asks his wife, Clytemnestra, who will kill him in short order), and Orestes’ desire for revenge is nothing compared with what he feels for his best friend, Pylades. Their friendship is tinged with homoerotic suggestion in the original, but Mr. Rau focuses on it to a distracting extent. Casting Duraid Abbas Ghaieb, a Baghdad-born actor who lives in the Netherlands, as Pylades seems intended to further provoke Iraqi sensibilities about homosexuality; an onscreen kiss is passionately reiterated live onstage. Such moments seem cheap and preachy. It would have been vastly more revealing to have the actors reflect on religion’s role in moving past tragedy, given their having lived through the Islamic State’s violent perversions of Islam.

The 18th-century German archaeologist and art historian Johann Winckelmann, a pioneer of modern aesthetics, famously spoke of the “noble simplicity and quiet grandeur” of even the most violent depictions in Greek statuary.

I feel certain that the Italian director Romeo Castellucci had Winckelmann in mind when he set out to create “Le Metope del Partenone” (“The Metopes of the Parthenon,” a reference to the frieze of battles on the exterior of the temple), a stark, hourlong work about suffering and death that spilled blood, urine and bile on the floor of the Gösserhallen, a former beer warehouse.

Mr. Castellucci counters Winkelmann’s lofty words with shocking scenes of heart attacks, disembowelments, amputations and so on. The six wordless deaths feature real ambulances (earplugs were distributed) and rescue workers who struggle, to no avail, to save the victims. The anguished performances (and realistic makeup) are profoundly disturbing, while the riddles that are projected on the wall after each death strive for metaphysical weight that doesn’t quite feel earned.

Having its world premiere at the festival was “Chasing Homer,” a performance by the New York-based artist and composer Eli Keszler, meant to coincide with a coming novel of the same name by the Hungarian writer Laszlo Krasznahorkai. He took Mr. Keszler on a journey in the footsteps of Homer’s Odyssey, during which the American artist made field recordings of local musicians and natural sounds. These help form the aural fabric of “Chasing Homer,” along with spoken passages from Mr. Krasznahorkai’s novel and Mr. Keszler’s furious and virtuosic drumming. It was dazzling, even if the Homeric component, recorded in Hungarian, was hard to decipher.

While interventions such as those of Mr. Castellucci and Mr. Keszler seek to blur lines between various performing arts and the plastic arts, theater has retained the same essential shape since the days of Aeschylus.

“Sopro,” from the National Theater of Dona Maria II in Lisbon and its director, Tiago Rodrigues, is a dramatic memoir inspired by the theater’s longtime prompter that is a moving meditation on the rituals of the stage. Throughout the evening, Cristina Vidal follows five actors around a nearly empty stage with a script, whispering her memories of 40 years in the prompter’s box for the performers to declaim. At the end of the evening, she stands alone onstage and recites the closing lines from Racine’s “Bérénice” as a symbolic conclusion for a long-ago performance that ended prematurely when the lead actress mysteriously broke off her final monologue.

Something similar happens in Ingmar Bergman’s 1966 film “Persona,” when the actress Elisabet, portrayed by Liv Ullmann, freezes during a performance of “Electra” and stops speaking. “Persona” is among the Swedish director’s most enigmatic works. What happens when it is seen by people with no experience of European art house film?

This was the starting point for “Bergman in Uganda,” a two-channel video by the Swedish artist Markus Ohrn, who showed “Persona” in a Ugandan slum, where screenings involve “video jockeys” explaining films to the audience that lack subtitles in the Luganda language. In “Bergman in Uganda,” a local V.J. narrates with the incessant chattiness and breakneck speed of a sportscaster. (On one wall, we view the V.J. and the audience; on the other, “Persona.”)

What could easily have been a condescending exercise becomes something entirely different. We are mesmerized as the V.J. (unnamed in the program, which seems an arrogant oversight) tries to make sense of the film and simultaneously communicate it to the audience. He struggles to explain Western behavior, including sunbathing, homosexuality and treating mental illness as a medical condition.

In addition to its unusual cultural perspective, “Bergman in Uganda” is an irreverent examination of a canonical work. “Just imagine,” the V.J. says with incredulity. “This film is a classic in Europe!”

The Wiener Festwochen runs through June 19 at locations throughout Vienna.

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