Celebrating beauty’s passing: ‘Requiem’

By Steve Dow

Italian director Romeo Castellucci on his radical reimagining of Mozart’s classic

Requiem. Photograph by Pascal Victor

Italian director Romeo Castellucci plays with extraordinarily visceral imagery. In his 11-part cycle of stage episodes, Tragedia Endogonidia, a man cut off his tongue and fed it to his cat. In his take on Julius Caesar, Mark Antony gave the “friends, Romans, countrymen” speech through a blowhole in his neck. In On the Concept of the Face, Regarding the Son of God, he explored the metaphysics of shit by having a son clean his senile father’s excrement, which constantly spilled upon the stage; shit was an “expression of love”, the director insisted.

Is Castellucci trying to provoke the audience out of its complacency? “I think the theatrical experience must find its foundation in some kind of stress,” he tells me, via a translator. “But this stress has nothing to do with provoking or challenging for the sake of it. Art contains something bitter and evil in its core, and there’s no point in sweetening it with sentimentalism. I seek emotion in my audience. Beauty is not serene, nor consoling; on the contrary, it’s finding balance in the unbalanced.”

In Requiem, which plays at Adelaide Festival from February 28 to March 4, Castellucci takes the idea of a religious mass – the original context of Mozart’s choral masterpiece that was unfinished at the time of the composer’s death in 1791 (fellow Austrian Franz Xaver Süssmayr completed the work) – and makes the concept a more “fluid and inclusive” celebration, with folk-dancing performers beside the chorus.

“It doesn’t matter if you’re a good dancer, if you can follow the choreography with technical precision: if you can, you have to dance,” he says. “Everybody who is alive is invited to dance, to share their energy; everybody can take part in the dance of life and death.”

This cycle of life, however, is attendant with ominous stress, in a form that Castellucci calls the Atlas of Great Extinctions, with stage captions naming things lost: species, languages, peoples, synagogues, the nuclear explosions at Chernobyl and Fukushima. “The list of extinctions works like a clock, witnessing and testifying that no matter what we are now, we will vanish at some point,” Castellucci explains.

“This progressive disappearing reminds us that our time, the present time, our own existence will be extinct. And exactly in that moment we become conscious of the extinction of our species, it will become some kind of farewell to everything. In that moment, the words projected on stage will speak directly to the audience: they talk about my extinction. This Requiem is for me.”

Born in the rural village of Cesena in northern Italy in 1960, Castellucci set out to be a painter. But performance overtook the canvas. In 1981, he established with his older sister Claudia and others the experiential theatre company Socìetas Raffaello Sanzio, named after the artist Raphael.

Today, Castellucci still creates installations for contemporary art museums, but theatre is taking up most of his time. He considers avant-garde French playwright Antonin Artaud, who conceptualised a theatre of cruelty, as “one of the major philosophers of the 20th century”, but Artaud, he adds, is not a direct inspiration for his own work. Instead, he remains inspired largely by the visual arts: Rembrandt, Caravaggio, Bernini, the ancient Greek sculptures, gothic churches and Byzantine mosaics.

Castellucci has been called a perfectionist, and he agrees that he sweats over the small details, “but it’s never enough”, he says. “Precision can be a weapon.” One recent review described his Requiem as “dream-like”. Is he inspired by his own dreams? “I never remember my own dreams, so I can’t find inspiration from them,” he says. “What I do comes from reasoning and calculations.”

This Requiem is deeply related to our time, says Castellucci, and the director recognises the anxiety we are all facing about our own extinction as individuals and as a species. In Mozart’s time, it seems clear he was writing the piece for his own funeral: “Definitely, the feeling of being close to the end is marked within the music: the composition itself is unfinished [but] the missing parts were complete in Mozart’s mind, representing a slow dissolving into nothing,” he says.

“The staging points out this slow fading out of life as the origin of all beauty. There’s no room for grief, or for laments: on the contrary, this Requiem wants to celebrate life.”

In what sounds like artistic masochism, Castellucci has said he knows he has found what he wants when he feels “crushed by a theme” and has his trust in theatre challenged. Requiem “slaps us in the face and forces us to face ‘the end’,” he says now, with deliberately ambiguous phrasing: the end might also herald a new beginning.

“I think real beauty is only possible when it fades,” he muses. “It’s hidden like a secret, in that moment right before the end, the death, the change.”

Steve Dow

Steve Dow is the 2020 Walkley arts journalism award recipient.


Requiem. Photograph by Pascal Victor

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