A dystopic world where Venice is the last safe place in Italy and a referendum to decide whether to blow up the Ponte della Libertà and to stop the current of refugees coming to Venice from across the country. This is the initial setting of the play directed by the renowned German playwright Albert Ostermaier and staged on February 27th at Teatro Ca’ Foscari by some students of Ca’ Foscari University, of Ca’ Foscari International College and of Marco Polo high school. We interviewed the director to ask him about the play and the role of contemporary theatre within our society.
Can you tell us more about the project you will bring on the stage of Teatro Ca’ Foscari? Why did you choose Venice as the last safe place on earth and how does this work connect with the complex context of this city?
I am very happy to be here and to participate to this Waterlines residency, which for the first time had theatre as the object of the project. Why Venice? Well, for many reasons. First of all, because of the theatricality of this city. The philosopher Georg Simmel would say that Venice is a stage. Venice suits theatre because of its very nature, this city has a theatrical essence and it offers dramatic situations that other cities can’t offer. I also wanted to show Venice, which is a touristic city, some sort of a Disney park where you must buy a ticket to get in, from another perspective. I wanted to use Venice to provide a cross-section of contemporary Italy and of its political situation, in order to show the divisions of the current situation through this lens. Moreover, Venice, from the point of view of someone who is not Italian, is in a sense a wasteland, because in Venice everything is trivialized, everything becomes commerce. Here the phenomenon is macroscopic, and it is more serious than in other European cities, even though this same trend can be seen quite everywhere. I therefore wanted to show another side of Venice, also because Venice represents what Italy has been, that is a cradle of culture. Not only did I want to represent contemporary Italy with its political divisions and the commercial dimension of this city, but I also wanted to show Venice as a small sample of what Italian culture is. In this play I also reflect on the relationship between theatre and politics, which in this city is quite evident. In the initial setting of this work, a future Venice is depicted, where some people want to blow up the Ponte della Libertà. The idea of the bridge is also related to the idea of the wall: in this initial setting I imagined a kind of separation, similar to the separation a wall creates, between a part of the population who wants to blow the bridge and the other part that does not, and this separation leads to a series of conflicts, from which all the aspects I have just mentioned emerge.
Social engagement appears to be a recurring theme in your plays, and the play you have directed for the Waterlines project is also explicitly related to the issues Italy and Europe are currently facing. Why is it so and what, in your opinion, is the role of contemporary theatre and of art in general in nowadays society?
Art and literature never move and never develop in an empty space. They are not in an ivory tower, but rather have a political duty and a political mission. This political mission is not to simplify things, and “being political” does not mean being shallower, art’s political mission is on the contrary to reproduce reality with precision. This precision also means making certain situations visible, reveal and bring to the surface situations that would otherwise be hidden. This is the political mission of art. This political dimension doesn’t necessarily have a moral content, but it might bring out what is invisible in the current affairs. Literature, theatre and art have to be there where it hurts, and they should also, in a sense, hurt and wound.
Literature teaches us the complexity of life. Whoever reads literature is used to facing a complex text, and therefore literature is also useful as an education to complexity. Literature opposes in a sense to the present reality, which tends to simplify things (let us think for example of fake news). Literature shows the complexity of reality, and this is also related to the precision I was telling you about before.
You say literature has to wound. Literature in general and theatre in particular might provoke an emotional response from the audience: the audience, through theatre, can identify itself with a certain situation and thus have an emotional response. However, in a political situation as chaotic as the Italian or the European one, is an emotional response enough, or is it necessary to take a step further, and look for an answer which is not only emotional but also rational?
There are different kinds of emotions. There is a trivial emotion, the one that “arrives by phone” and that does not touch what we really are. Theatre however is capable of awakening emotions that are real. Not only are they real, but they are also close to what we are and can therefore provoke a political reaction. This is what I mean when I say that emotions have a political function and that what theatre arouses is not pure sentimentality. I am thinking of the film “Bohemian Rhapsody” about Freddy Mercury: it is a film that though music can move and touch the audience, but at the same time it allows the same audience to know something, to acquire knowledge. Emotion is not disconnected from knowledge, they are on the contrary connected, and this knowledge is also political knowledge. By political knowledge I mean the ability to look at the world without being fooled, to judge the world even in its complex details. In the specific case of Freddy Mercury, the problem was global hunger and the children who starved to death: the reaction to the music forced the world to do something to solve this situation. Emotion transmits action, and this action is also in a sense political action because everybody has to contribute and because it calls everybody to a shared responsibility. My generation grew up with borders, with different currencies, and this is the reason why we have tied our relationship with Europe with very strong emotions, that belong to our identity as a generation. This has been lost in the following generations, but for my generation identifying with Europe was related to a series of strong emotions that we felt. This emotion is the vehicle through which a bond characterized by a certain set of values, European values in this case, is created. The potential of theatre is to arouse strong emotions, so strong that through them it is possible to recognize the world, to look at it in its details, distancing from the banalization that media nowadays use to present our contemporary world. Emotions can thus also bring a revolutionary element, or at least they can change something within our society.
Our society seems to be permeated with uncertainty and people are more and more suspicious of each other. What would you say to those who want to blow the Ponte della Libertà? Why is it good to build bridges instead of walls?
Culture itself is a bridge, because culture unites two shores that are separated without erasing them, it unites them by preserving their identities. The potential of the bridge is exactly this, and to blow a bridge means to cut this tie between two cultures that do not lose their nature but that are related to each other. The idea of the bridge is exactly that of a dialogue between cultures that respects the specificities of each one of them. This is the cultural potential of the bridge.
February 25th, 2019
An interview by Rachele Svetlana Bassan and Filippo Grassi as part of the project “Waterlines” (https://waterlinesproject.com/)
Albert Ostermaier’s residency, February 4th-27th, 2019, supervised by Cristina Fossaluzza