Wienerwochen Festival

Elisabeth Kelvin in Vienna at the Wienerwochen Festival: Romeo Castellucci’s Le Metope del Partenone

Romeo Castellucci’s second contribution to the 2019 Wiener Festwochen production, Le Metope del Partenone, is about vulnerability, rescue, recording time, failure, and riddles — all carved out of reality and transformed into theatre.

The staging of this performance reveals a close relationship with Greek Parthenon sculptures that represent heroic scenes of the gods in various, moments of battle, violence and death. Being as powerful as they are beautiful, they represent violent mythological and historic scenes while, more generally, may be considered triumphant symbols of reason and order.  Castellucci begins with a contemporary interpretation of selected scenes from these ancient images. He addresses important questions about heroism, altruism, voyeurism, and horror in an essentially focused delivery, allowing him to approach a particularly daunting subject: that of fatal car accidents.

Just as the stone relief carvings were the ancient Greek sculptors’ medium, the body is Castellucci’s dramatic material. Bodies and sometimes parts of bodies are frozen in a momentary tableau. These come to life allowing the audience to witness six horrific scenes of aftermaths of accidents all within the hour-long performance. The ambulance crew speaks to each other and occasionally to the victim only as would be necessary to a real-life situation. The audience members witnessing the emergency crew are collectively the hapless, silent protagonists.

During the Wiener Festwochen, Hall One of the Gosserhallen was opened up to reveal a vast space befitting its warehouse origins and transformed into an accident zone. Each audience member, moving with relative freedom around the space in which are presented the sections, is able to control how distant or close to the action they wish to position themselves. ln an instant this position can transform into a potentially unsafe one with a sudden action and a deafening volume of sound.

A Rettungswagen (ambulance) vehicle drives around the entire space and in among the audience, momentarily holding the onlookers captive. Real danger lies just below the surface of this theatrical interplay. The distance between protection and vulnerability is palpable. How close do we lookers-on want to be to catastrophe? When does curiosity turn into voyeurism? How to distinguish between compassion and apathy? How much spontaneous reality about death can we bear?

 

Le Metope del Partenone. Credit: Guido Mencari.

 

For each scenario, the victim is brought into the performance space, given last-minute touches of grotesque makeup, and then gently guided into a position in the space where, for a moment, stillness pervades. Suddenly, the victim rouses herself back to consciousness. Then, only after touching her head gingerly and seeing her hand dripping with blood, she finds she has a massive head trauma. Other injuries ensue for other victims: myocardial infarction, anaphylactic shock, an amputated leg, severe acid burn, abdominal trauma. Theatre blood, urine, pus, bile and other artificially concocted bodily fluids flood the floor. Watch out! This will stain. lt splashes and sloshes around as the victim lurches from one painful position to another. Within minutes, the ambulance rushes into the performance space and transforms the entire area into an accident zone. The audience, gently but firmly guided away from the oncoming ambulance, watches at various degrees of closeness as three ambulance crew members desperately attempt to save the victim’s life.

Each time just when one thinks the victim might be saved, the heart monitor flatlines. The ambulance crew perfunctorily pack up and leaves after covering the body in a white shroud. The riddle emerges: “Who am l?” ls this directed at the victim, the onlooker, or a force beyond both? There is room for multiple interpretations. The victim rises up, limps off, creeps away, or is assisted by others from the performance space. One by one, a relentless parade of chillingly realistic results of accidents occurs, leading to an ambulance crew’s response, a rescue mission executed, a time of death recorded, and the riddle of identity emerging. Yet with each incident the audience experiences a moment of hope. Maybe this time the victim will be saved?

 

Le Metope del Partenone. Credit: Guido Mencari.

 

The six emotional events are punctuated by six intellectual points of reference, emerging Sphinx-like, to provoke the re-emergence of hope or pose the eternal question: life or death? The distance between the sense of increasing hope and the horror of each death is closed in when, at one point, the ambulance crew appears fatigued and sloppy. On high alert, the audience collectively gasps upon seeing and hearing rescue equipment, carelessly flung into the van, falling out onto the floor again after yet another failure to resuscitate. Perhaps the team of first responders are losing their capacity to care under the repetitive strain? A peculiar heart-breaking intimacy results from this human response. Life and death to one; a job to another.

Vulnerability is measured by the distance between accidents and rescue. The dynamic flux between a desire to either remove ourselves or to be immersed proves that there is rarely such a thing as neutrality. Rather than a single theme determining the work of Castellucci, a multiplicity of life’s possibilities emerges. The performance closes with music reminiscent of Baroque tragic opera. A ride-on cleaning vehicle steadfastly mops up the muck. Thrust into an archetypal affinity from distant times, we are flung back into the now. A moral decision looms: how far does my compassion reach?