September 18, 2014


By S. Shakthidharan

A series of incremental steps towards magic

This August I was in the fortunate position of being able to observe the rehearsals and premiere of Romeo Castellucci’s latest production Neither, at Germany’s Ruhrtriennale. Neither is an “anti-opera” / opera written by Samuel Beckett and Morton Feldman. It’s a strange and unnerving musical composition in and of itself, let alone accompanied by Castellucci’s images. There is a solo soprano, surrounded by waves of polymetric percussion, strings, brass and wood. The sound is minimalist, complex, brooding, decaying. As if an array of diverse, delicate flowers were all miraculously growing around one blackened, tiny branch – yet clearly doomed to serve the same fate as the centre they gripped onto.

To this score Castellucci and his team – long-term collaborators Silvia Costa, Piersandra Di Matteo, plus  many, many others – built a series of equally unnerving images reminiscent of, and thoroughly subverting, early and classical Western cinema (particularly film noir). This was large scale image theatre – think 50 performers, 50 musicians, a giant house, a giant train, giant lights, animals. I thought the production was excellent but that’s not what I want to write about here. You can see images and read more about it on the Ruhr Triennale website.

What I’d like to write about is the process employed by Castellucci and his team. I became fascinated during the rehearsals by the incremental steps one needs to take to finally arrive at a moment of magic on stage. Here, in no particular order, are some of those steps.

(Please note, these are personal observations made during the development of Neither – they are not meant to be a commentary on Castellucci’s body of work as a whole.)

Possess an encyclopaedic knowledge of the iconic postures of your show’s subject
Although some of the performers’ postures were created by themselves, the vast majority were specifically detailed by Romeo. Not in any formal way, really – mostly by him casually doing the posture himself as an example, then handing the job over to the actor. I got the impression that Romeo, Silvia and Piersandra had done a lot of research – like watching a bunch of film noir films – and had a ready bank of iconic postures in their minds to use wherever they saw fit. They were flexible on how performers moved from one part of the stage to another – usually it was a slow walk – and flexible on what posture was used where. But when a performer did occupy a certain image – say a look of worry, or horror, or a certain way of sitting, or lying on the floor – this moment became very specific and handcrafted.

Everything comes from the music
The show was entirely birthed from the music. As if the sound itself was dreaming. Beckett’s words played an inspirational role, of course, but his words become transformed into sound and concept in the form of the opera. And it is that concept, within and overlapping the music, that gave the show its development path. This is not theatre born of script, or any written language really. Language is of course the crucial tool that gets the show from concept through to production, in a myriad of ways. But the birthing of the work comes from sound. The team comes to rehearsals not with a script, but with a series of images, written out in detail, that are a symbol for a concept in marriage with the sound.

Each image is a subversion
Many images in theatre are beautiful. Some are spectacular. But very few are profound or primal. Castellucci’s images tend to combine all of the above. In Neither, I found he was able to accomplish this task by being constantly subversive of audience expectations. Each image was, on the surface, familiar. They were drawn from a mixture of places known to most of the audience: the Western arts canon, film noir, pop culture, fairy tales, common acts of everyday domestic life. But during presentation, each image was totally subverted. Suddenly what we are comfortable with becomes very uncomfortable. Talking to some of the others involved in the production, we agreed that this is what opened up the emotional space in the audience, rather than just the intellectual. As a number of images continue to emerge that are both familiar and yet other worldly, everything starts to feel sinister. Like something is lurking, always, at the back of the stage, about to come at you. It could be doom. It could be wonder. But something is coming.

There is room for change
If something appropriate comes up, through improvisation, or a suggestion from an actor, production person or other outside collaborator – the team will use it. It’s unusual, but they’re not afraid to ditch the finely crafted idea they’ve come up with for something better if it comes along.

You need space
Neither was built within the space it eventually had its premiere. It’s obvious, but this is a factor that prevents most artists from being able to truly reach their potential, so I mention it here. We very rarely get enough time in the space the premiere will be, to properly build the show as a piece that occupies that specific space. After the premiere you have a much firmer idea of the work and touring with short term periods in new spaces is easier to handle. But in that incredibly vulnerable time leading up to a premiere, Castellucci’s team is able to occupy the space for weeks in advance – and this is crucial to their success.

Further to this, the team have their own spaces for the other periods of development too. They research the hell out of the work, and have a home base in Cesena to do this from. They come to rehearsals with a ready made, full show; but with enough time to then change what they need to in the space where the premiere will be. At every point in the process, there is space and time.

The process is complex, but the outcome is utterly simple
So much work is done during rehearsals; technical, performative, musical, visual. But ultimately each moment is quite simple from the audience perspective. A house moves. A train arrives. A person is lying on the floor. There is tremendous technical and imaginative work behind each moment, but the overall consequence is of a simple action occurring on stage. The audience can easily comprehend what is happening, but cannot at all comprehend the effect it is having on them, and they know this. It’s a wonderful position to be placed in, and to place an audience in.

It’s top heavy
Many will not like this, but the reality is that the vision is all at the top. A hell of a lot of people work on the show – but only Romeo, Silvia and Piersandra really know the vision, purpose, meaning behind each image. Everyone else simply trusts them, and ultimately Romeo.

Prepare more than you need in advance. Have everything up for discussion.
For example. You know that two people need to kill each other in a scene. Prepare an array of props that they might use to do this. Try each version out. Pick the best only. Know that there is nothing wrong with discussing the position of a chair for two hours. Everything must be tested and tried. This requires the space and time that has been mentioned earlier. For Castellucci’s team, at this point in their career, it also means having the right people on hand. Ok, so this item now needs wheels? There’s a prop person to work on that. Ok, we need the costume like this now? There’s a person to do that. Can we try this light this way? Sure. There are a myriad of people on hand to implement the decisions that emerge from experimenting at every step in the process.

Mix in real life in seemingly effortless ways
Animals. Kids. Real milk. Amputations. Non-actors occupying key performance moments. Amidst all the artificiality of the carefully constructed image, there is placed throughout the work so much of the guts of real life itself. These pieces of real life ecology are woven into the artifice so carefully that the overall effect for the audience is that they are watching a kind of slow moving, real life painting of the world, but not as they know it. Within this framework are several carefully placed moments of slow surprise. A woman turns around and her face is black. A train arrives and someone – you realise much later – seems to have fallen off it and has been grievously hurt. The surprise and the sense of reality merging with the artificial image again place the audience in a very emotional position. We become highly open to a sense of wonder, or dread, or deep thought.

Passageway moments
There are moments in the show that carefully take us from one mental state to another. It is like the many stages of a chess game. We might go from a dense scene to a minimalist one, for example, and in the transformation we descend from observing our protagonist to occupying the same emotional state as her. A train releases steam, and in this moment the audience also releases its tension. Without these passageway moments, the sense of journey – that connects our wonder to our dread to our disbelief – is lost. They are crucial joining points that make the show as a whole feel cohesive and effective.

One needs to get each of these factors right in order for a show to work. Deliver on just one factor and it’s simply not enough. It’s a great reminder of the highly multi-faceted nature of theatre, the way a successful production is akin to successfully running the many diverse components of a company – or in the case of this production, what felt somewhat more like an entire city.

I’d like to thank the Carriageworks team for enabling this experience – particularly Lisa Ffrench and Lisa Havilah. I am very grateful for it. Thanks also to Max Lyandvert for connecting us to Socìetas Raffaello Sanzio. Finally a big thank you to Romeo, Silvia, Piersandra and the whole team of Neither at the Ruhr Triennale.

Image by Stephen Glagla


Shakthidharan’s practice focuses on collaboration with some of Australia’s most underrepresented and diverse communities. In October he will premiere Rizzy’s 18th Birthday Party at Carriageworks, the first in a series of unique and interwoven works entitled Colony; a transmedia project connecting ancient and modern Australian migration stories.

Carriageworks is supporting and collaborating with Shakthidharan over a three-year period to undertake a diverse program of professional development and mentorship that will underpin the development of a series of new Australian works.