In the late 1970s the infamous ‘180’ law led to all Italy’s asylums being effectively emptied out and consolidated. This event coincided with a three month research project by Dario D’Ambrosi, then 20 years old. When his research was done D’Ambrosi started developing what would become known as Pathological Theatre – a practice devoted to the performative exploration of mental illness. When he failed to find a suitable outlet for his preoccupation in Italy, he moved to the USA, where he became one of La Mama‘s regulars. Since then he has grown to be one of his country’s most respected performance artists, and has even managed to rise to infamy when he accepted the role of one of Jesus’ torturers in The Passion of Christ.
Given his international reputation it is somewhat surprising that D’Ambrosi is only now visiting London to showcase his work. Frustra-Azioni (Frustration), originally devised in 1994, is a classic example of his poetics, taking as its inspiration a true account of a 1920’s schizophrenia sufferer, a butcher who became obsessed with the animals he was slaughtering to the point of developing a sexual attraction to their cadavers. The short solo piece, like much of D’Ambrosi’s work, is an attempt to strip the layers of prejudice and unnecessarily grotesque imagery from the depiction of mental illness, finding instead a painful logic and rationality in the mind of those stricken by a life-defining condition. The overwhelming grief and guilt over the killings the butcher commits for a living, lead to a need to, as he keeps saying, appreciate the animals. This urge finds its outlet in all sorts of bizarre behaviours – from a compulsive reflex to constantly smell, touch and cover himself in blood, to a more clear sign of mental illness: it will soon become obvious that the dead meat has acquired a voice in the butcher’s head, which is ordering him not to take his medication. D’Ambrosi tries not only to uncover the mechanism behind this particular case of schizophrenia, but also to find its roots in the patient’s outside life and his inability to communicate – or indeed physically engage – with women.
While Frustra-Azioni is clearly a well-researched, thought-out and compassionate work, it’s constantly on the verge of being didactic; the concept of the performance is elaborate, but the execution is lukewarm at best. Instead of a deeply troubled and troublingly convincing man, the stage is occupied by a clearly passionate artist who never really manages to inhabit a character, but instead always looks like he’s unsuccessfully imitating him. The result is an illustrative and occasionally painfully naive depiction of a psychiatric patient – in stark opposition to the chilling and horrific narrative.
There are similar issues with the visual aspect of the work: it’s clear the intention was to recreate the clinical atmosphere of an abattoir, but the actual space ends up looking like nothing more than a rehearsal mark-up made of white plastic sheets. Perhaps the most striking evidence of how the concept lets itself down when it comes to its practical realisation is in the closing scene: having just had sex with a dead animal, the butcher finally reaches the point where his personal chaos becomes too much to handle and he hangs himself. What should be a horrific finale is clumsily executed and over-dramatic. The piece’s potential to wrench and upset is turned on its head when this final image is followed by a slogan informing the audience how regular medication could have prevented the tragedy.
It’s difficult to be hard on D’Ambrosi, especially when his commitment to shedding new light on one of the last taboos of the first world is this evident. It would however be unfair to completely neglect the theatrical merits of his work, for the sake of his noble intentions. Frustra-Azioni‘s journeys well beyond the obvious; what’s never quite clear, given how under-appreciated the performative elements of this piece feel, is why that point had to be made through this particular medium.