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Letter from a Spectator

'For me the future of the theatre is that of the spectator' (Romeo Castellucci)

In assigning the future of the theatre to the spectator, Romeo Castellucci, director of a theatre company, Socìetas Raffaello Sanzio, founded nearly thirty years ago, assigns it to you. In one sense, this is a familiar gesture. The work of art does not belong to the artist. Its meaning does not lie in the artist's mind or body, nor is it about the artist. Once sent on its way into the world its continued life depends upon what each and every spectator might make of it. But I wonder if this gesture might mean something more than that. If the future of the theatre is the future of the spectator, can we also say that the future of the spectator is the future of the theatre? That would be to place a heavy responsibility on you, wouldn't it, spectator? How do you feel? Is it a little lonely to be on your own, responsible for the future of the theatre?

These notes, prepared in London, for spectators in Tokyo attending performances of Romeo Castellucci's Inferno, Purgatorio and Paradiso, are not offered as the observations of an expert, designed to help you in your encounter with these works. As if you needed any help of that kind. They are, instead, an offer of a certain kind of long-distance companionship. I can tell you nothing about your own experience of the works, that will be as it will be, but I can try to take my own responsibilities as a spectator seriously, and to say something of what interests and excites me still about having seen these productions before you, in the hope that you might receive these notes as an invitation, from one spectator to another, to exchange experiences.

She lit a burner on the stove and offered me a pipe
"I thought you'd never say hello," she said
"You look like the silent type."
Then she opened up a book of poems
And handed it to me
Written by an Italian poet
From the thirteenth century.
And every one of them words rang true
And glowed like burnin' coal
Pourin' off of every page
Like it was written in my soul from me to you,
Tangled up in blue.

Of which Italian poet from the thirteenth century does the American singer of the twentieth century sing here? Once in an interview, apparently, the American singer - his name is Bob Dylan - said the poet was Plutarch. Plutarch was a Greek poet from the first century, or rather, from both first centuries according to the Christian calendar (the first century BC and the first century AD) so it sounds as though Dylan must have been mistaken about the poet he meant, who might turn out to have been Petrarch rather than Plutarch (an easy enough mistake to make, as a poet, about poets). Petrarch was an Italian poet, but he lived, unfortunately, in the fourteenth century. Petrarch was famous for his love poems, and since Dylan's song is a kind of love song, or at least one of those songs that tells us that old familiar story of how love goes wrong, becomes impossible, we might imagine that it was in fact Petrarch whom Dylan had in mind, even if his historical calculations would then have been about a hundred years out. On the other hand, though, he could have known precisely which poet he was thinking of, at least when writing those words, if not, in remembering that moment of writing them in the interview; he may have been quite right that it was an 'Italian poet / From the thirteenth century.' In which case we have to conclude that the poet he meant, the poet whose words, after all those years, across all those centuries, 'glowed like burnin' coal ... like it was written in my soul from me to you' must have been Dante: Dante Alighieri, author of The Divine Comedy, the inspiration for Romeo Castellucci's most recent theatrical project, the trilogy of Inferno, Purgatorio and Paradiso.

Why might any of us care about what an 'Italian poet / From the thirteenth century' might have once written? How could his words possibly turn out to have been 'written in my soul', and what could they mean 'from me to you'? And what might it mean, for an artist of the theatre today, and one, moreover, who has said that his aim is 'to communicate as little as possible', to take inspiration from such words? Inspiration: the receiving of the breath of another. The breath of the Italian poet, moving, through Castellucci's theatre 'from me to you'? Is there any way that it makes sense to say that this is what is taking place here? In Dante's poem, the poet is conducted on his tour of Inferno, Purgatorio and (some of) Paradiso by Virgil. The 'Italian poet' Dante literally follows the pre-Christian Roman poet Virgil, whose place in this history (or mythology) is that of the self-appointed heir of Europe's first ever poet, the blind Homer. The Roman, then, follows the blind Greek, from whom, we are sometimes told, the whole of European literature and culture stems. It is the Roman follower who then takes the 'Italian poet' on his tour of Christianity's world after death, inviting him, above all, to look and to see, and Romeo Castellucci, then, now, who steps into his shoes, to cross the terrifying river that separates our world (our secular world, our world of life, of images) from the next (that other world, where dwell the dead, another world of images). And now it is we who can choose, if we will, to follow Castellucci, this man who stands in for us, who takes upon himself the responsibility of being a spectator, to give us, in our turn, our own chance to see whatever there is, there, to see. From me, to you.

This is not exactly the first time that this spectator, Romeo Castellucci, has stepped into such shoes, and invited us to follow. And nor is it the first time that the invitation to follow has required us to retrace our steps, to go back the way we had come. This work inspired by Dante follows a sustained engagement with the idea of tragedy. Tragedia Endogonidia was a three year project involving eleven theatre productions, numerous other small performances and installations (called crescite, or growths), and a video-memory. As with The Divine Comedy, the work of Tragedia Endogonidia involved going back, retrieving something from the past, the exhumation of a theatrical form - tragedy - from its grave, to see what it might possibly mean today, to see what it might look like in the particular light of the twenty first century, what life there might be in it, still. Going back again: Genesi, from the museum of sleep (1999), another kind of tour, perhaps, like Dante's tour of the other world, but back then (1999) a tour through exhibits displaying some of the materials left over by the first book of the Jewish holy text, itself doubling itself (coming back again) as the first book of the Christian holy text. Back again, back to before the beginning: to the Sumerian epic Gilgamesh (1990), to a story which stands as the story that came before all Western stories, the story that, in its mere existence, reminds us Europeans that we are not the beginning of everything, not by a long way.

Such journeys back come with a kind of vertigo, or at least some kind of travel-sickness. They produce an experience in which you find yourself, supposedly transported back to some place before even the beginnings of your own cultural memory, face to face again with the very moment of your own life. You are both here and now, and there and then, and the gap between the two places in which you experience yourself is what makes you dizzy, sick. That is why you should try not to be surprised by the people you meet on your tour of the after-life. Some of them may have lived in the unimaginably distant past. But some will turn out to be your contemporaries. That was how Dante found it. It's a matter of living side by side with the dead, all of a sudden.

At least in Inferno, that is, where it feels like all the pasts of all the world (or all the Christian world, at least) are side by side in an instantaneous present. After all, the inhabitants of hell are there for ever: with no salvation to look forward to, there's simply no point in imagining time as involving movement, not in either direction. There is no future, nor any past either, really, since what's done is done, after all, and there's no going back to undo the sins that condemned you to hell in the first place.

In Purgatorio, perhaps you will find that time is experienced rather differently. You may become acutely conscious of the movement of time, conscious of it in that way that you become conscious of time when it is really taking its time, when one event succeeds another only ever so slowly, when the seconds pass so much more slowly than your mind counting them can possibly imagine, or possibly bear. The seconds will not be empty seconds, not the seconds of the time of boredom, but rather seconds each one of which seems laden with the thickness of the world, a world in which the air itself is saturated with life and everything that happens will happen just as you know it will happen. As if you had been through all this before.

In Paradiso, time alone will tell whether you will see or not.

By Nicolas Ridout

Nicholas Ridout is Reader in Theatre and Performance Studies at Queen Mary University of London. He is the author of Stage Fright, Animals and Other Theatrical Problems (Cambridge University Press, 2006) , and of Theatre & Ethics (Palgrave, 2009), co-editor with Joe Kelleher of Contemporary Theatres in Europe (Routledge, 2006) and co-author, with Claudia Castellucci, Romeo Castellucci, Chiara Guidi and Joe Kelleher of The Theatre of Societas Raffaello Sanzio (Routledge, 2007).