What power art thou?
Who from below
Hast made me rise?
Unwillingly and slow
From beds of everlasting snow!
– Henry Purcell, The Cold Song
This is theatre as séance. The stage as a place which, as veteran actor Johan Leysen demonstrates with a rendition of Hamlet’s father, has a history of summoning ghosts. Where heroes die tragic deaths, then raise to take their bows, joining hands with their murderers to receive their applause.
Milo Rau’s documentary theatre piece examines, and restages, the 2012 murder of Ihsane Jarfi, a young gay Belgian man who got into a car outside a nightclub with four men, and was subsequently beaten to death. Before delving into the reconstruction of the night, however, Rau guides us through the process of making the piece.
We learn that he and three actors went to the town of Liège, where the murder took place, and recruited three local performers from an open call. There is a retiree, Suzy Cocco, who plays Jarfi’s mother; an made-redundant forklift driver and DJ, Fabien Leenders, who plays one of the killers; and Tom Adjibi, a mixed race actor who is cast as Jarfi. In staged audition interviews, we gain a sense of Liège, a town crippled by deindustrialisation and subsequent unemployment (there is a running joke that the only jobs around are as extras in Dardenne Brothers films). Fabien spins songs by Aphex Twin and Autechre, the sound of melancholy and unspent energy.
All roads lead to the reenactment – a Volvo is wheeled onstage, rain machines activate, the actors are in costume. Filmed and projected live, It’s gut-churningly forensic in its detail, flawlessly choreographed, the acting painstakingly naturalistic (it could be a Dardenne Brothers film). But it’s laced with visual callbacks which temper the illusion – in the audition sections, the locals are asked what the most extreme thing they’ve ever done is. Would they do a nude scene? Would they kiss someone on stage? Have they ever hit someone on stage? They do, or pretend to do, all these things. Adjibi tells an anecdote about turning up to an audition and pretending to be able to speak Danish and Beninese. He can do Arabic, too, he says. We later learn that Jarfi prayed in Arabic in the boot of the car, and when we hear it, it’s an awful moment in which artifice and realism collide, defying some kind of law of representation. This is the most affecting moment in the show – jarring, horrific and heartbreaking.
Let me, let me
Let me, let me
Let me, let me
Freeze again to death!
Much more than it is a documentary about Jarfi’s murder, La Reprise is an essay on theatrical representation. Reading the subtitles, I notice the French word for rehearsal is ‘répetition’. Theatre as a place where the dead rise, and get ready to do it all over again tomorrow night. But Rau’s thesis seems to be that repetition and representation don’t necessarily help us get closer to the heart of a traumatic event. The murder is repeatedly called ‘senseless’ – a hollow event reexamined with hollow mechanics. The dead don’t speak, says Jarfi’s mother. She can’t find a sign from her son, or understand why he got into the car, or imagine what he went through. In a section titled after Hannah Arendt’s theory of the ‘banality of evil’, Rau seems to suggest that the murder itself was perpetrated because of the killers’ own detachment from the reality of their actions.
But the specifics of Jarfi’s life are left out of the picture. His mother says early on that she does not want her son’s life on public display, which seems to provide the basis for this conspicuous choice. But it has the effect of stripping the story of any contextual specificity – why this murder, why this man’s life? In the casting of Leenders, who explains that his life’s trajectory is an uncanny copy of the killer he plays, it feels as though the production engages with the question of the economic context of the Liège. But the homophobic and Islamophobic dimensions of the murder aren’t properly unpacked. Of course, the murder is anything but ‘senseless’. These motivations are quite, horrifyingly simply, explainable.
The piece ends with a theatrical thought experiment. If an actor were to stand on a chair with their head in a noose, and explain that once they kick the chair away they can last 20 seconds holding onto the rope – and if they were then to do so – would the audience step in to save them? Adjibi gets as far as putting the rope round his neck before a blackout signals the end of the piece. It’s something of a damned if you do/damned if you don’t situation; to follow through on the dare would be to overstep an ethical boundary, but copping out undermines its own point. The rest of the piece puts itself in a similar bind. How to talk about the problems of representation without enacting the problems of representation? Adjibi talks about the frustrations of always being cast for his race – it’s either that, he says, or political theatre where one criticises being cast for one race. A self-aware joke, but also clearly an issue when his main role in the piece is to play a corpse.
And yet I admire the piece for making the attempt. Its ethical knottiness comes with the territory, and it feels productive – we chat in the pub afterwards, all animated hand gestures, with a degree of sincerity that we don’t often dedicate to talking about theatre. For its faults, there is a seriousness to this project which can’t be dismissed lightly – a commitment to the social engagement, an interrogation of theatre’s form and ethics. It proposes itself, not as a solution, but as a problem. It is troubling, and rightly so.
La Reprise was on from 3rd-5th August as part of the 2019 Edinburgh International Festival. More info here.