If, like myself, you had travelled to The Barbican last night, you would have seen two men, a father and son, on a dazzlingly white, clinical set, a gigantic face of Jesus projected onto the screen behind them. The face shimmers. It's impossible to look at, every time it draws your focus, the area under scrutiny seems to disappear, only for a new area to command attention. After the father, elderly and frail, has been watching a documentary about animals for about five minutes, he loses control of his bowels. The son, amid the father's protestations in Italian for forgiveness, cleans him and refits his incontinence nappy. The father shits himself again. The son cleans him again. This is repeated a total of three times, on each occurrence a palpable smell of faeces wafting over the audience. It is deeply tragic in its naturalism, but the audience are shocked. Some giggle, not knowing how to respond. Others leave; are they offended, or frightened at this glimpse into their own potential future?
Throughout the piece, the actors pause, motionless, drawing attention, in these extended moments, back to the colossal Christ on the back wall. If you weren't offended already, now would be the time. As the son leaves, the father deliberately sloshes faecal matter from a synthetic container over the bed and himself before both the father and son disappear behind the portrait of Jesus. At this point, a deep bass soundtrack kicks in, charming the snake-like audience, Artaud-style, the mimetic cruelty over and now moving to a new unveiling in the context of Christian mythography. The shit is smeared down the reverse of the, now back-lit, Christ figure. Words begin to shine through as hands push at the thin film onto which the Son is being projected. They tear through as words begin to shine out at the audience. The text reads "YOU ARE MY SHEPHERD". The word, "NOT", between "ARE" and "MY" comes into half-illumination, clearly visible, before fading from view.
The most obvious readings are in the reversal of the father and son relationship in the Christian tradition. The father, here, begs for forgiveness from the son. The son does, as with the "Eli Eli lama sabachthani" of the bible, temporarily curse the father, but here, it is not He who forgives. It is He who sins, He who deliberately pours faecal matter across the world stage. The Theater of Cruelty deployed is the accurate portrayal of the horrors of old age when our bodily control, so often taken for granted, abandons us. It seems also to be deeply cynical about religious answers, predicated on a one-to-many model of forgiveness, in the face of such suffering. It seems instead to propose a distributed network of actors who must, to behave ethically, assume His place as the forgiver. This inversion is also reflected through the title, for while “On the Concept of the Face, Regarding the Son of God” refers to the audience's view of the face of Christ, the penetrating eyes of the Son of God are upon the audience all the while, giving a distinctly Foucauldian mode of distribution, centred around a gaze.
This is also, of course, placed within a psychoanalytic framework. It seems impossible to read the clinical white space, smeared with excrement, without a frame of reference that includes Kristeva and abjection. The limits of the body, defined by the transcendence of excrement, also has its parallel in the Christian setting of the Trinity; a disturbing spatio-temporal conflation of multiple entities, defining its transcended nature by emitting the corporeal.
Overall, despite others' negative reactions, I felt that Romeo Castellucci's piece was powerful and dealing with a difficult, and important, topic; one we don't want to think about, for which the Theater of Cruelty was designed. The shit factor didn't seem overdone for just shock and I really didn't find, as did Michael Billington of The Guardian, that this was a reductivist piece in which "Castellucci is saying something about the yearning for faith in a godless age", although I did agree that a better transition between the iconographic scene and the initial naturalism would have benefited the work. That said, perhaps the transition is the synthetic and wilfulness; the moment of change is triggered by the father taking the out of place synthetic container full of excrement and deliberately pouring it; a creation born from will, which moves firmly to the religious sphere. I think the piece also did well in its restraint. The way that much theatre makes itself "interesting" is to take a proliferation of images and amalgamate them with little or no artistic vision of how they should cohere. This puts the burden upon an audience and can be a lazy way to achieve "depth". This work did not do that. It took a limited range of themes: excrement, old age, forgiveness and related them to the Christian setting. It was, perhaps, a piece about incontinence which managed to avoid that very phenomenon in its own structure.
These initial thoughts on Romeo Castellucci / Socìetas Raffaello Sanzio's "On the Concept of the Face, Regarding the Son of God" profited from a conversation with Liz Sage and Seda Ilter.
Featured image by Abode of Chaos under a CC-BY license.