Friday, June 02, 2023

Antigone in the Amazon

Antigone in the Amazon:
Kay Sara on screen, Frederico Arujo on stage
On April 17th 1996, at a place called Eldorado de Carajás, in the state of Pará, Brazilian police opened fire on a group of land-reform activists who were occupying a stretch of the Trans-Amazonian highway. Nineteen people died immediately, and a further two died of their wounds shortly afterwards. Many more were injured. The leadership of the Landless Workers' Movement (Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rurais Sem Terra, or MST) continues to commemorate this massacre, with the anniversary marked as the International Day of Peasant Struggles.

This year, as part of their collaboration with NTGent and director Milo Rau, MST re-enacted the massacre in the place where it happened, with as much accuracy as possible. Rau has re-created historical events before, for example in The Last Days of the Ceausescus, but this time the reconstruction was made specifically for film, with the aim of framing it within his new theatre-piece, Antigone in the Amazon. The cast includes a part-Indigenous Brazilian actor, Frederico Araujo, who was told he bore a marked resemblance to the first activist who was shot. In the complex, self-reflexive dramaturgy that was evolving, that young man and Araujo himself melded with the figure of Antigone's dead and unburied brother, Polyneices.

I took the Eurostar, changed trains in Brussels, absorbed the beauty of the city, visited the exhibition about Rau's recent work, and watched the play. 

Regular readers of this blog will know that I am a great admirer of Milo Rau, having watched many of his pieces during the online theatre-fest of lockdown, read the Golden Books and (only a few weeks ago) watched Hate Radio live at BAC. His understanding of the need to make theatre that embraces and exposes global issues is very much in tune with our own work; as is his insistence on real, deep, international, intercultural collaboration. There are even some weird coincidences: we have both made films in Matera, for example! The fact that Antigone in the Amazon was to be a collaboration with Indigenous activists made this one of my most eagerly anticipated theatre experiences. And it was certainly a long time coming...  The first discussions between MST and Rau took place in 2018, and the development of the project began in early 2020, only to be interrupted by Covid. The pandemic was particularly intense in the Amazon, with a neo-fascist government under Bolsanoro that refused to impose lockdowns, while his ministers called it an “opportunity” for illegal logging in the Amazon. The hospital corridors of Manaus were lined with corpses, and people had to be thrown into mass graves. Nevertheless, NTGent continued to remind the world that the project was still bubbling away, particularly when Kay Sara, the Indigenous performer and activist cast as Antigone, delivered online the speech with which she was to have opened the 2020 Wiener Festwochen. 

It is an extraordinary, moving and intense piece of oratory. From the start, Kay Sara is clear that she is personally safe: "Nature surrounds me, it protects me and nourishes us too. I live in the rhythm of birds singing and the rain and perform an ancient ritual for my protection. For the first time in over 500 years, Europe and America are separated again." That last sentence seems particularly resonant, coming from an Indigenous woman at a time when an imported virus was once again coursing through her people, as has happened to Indigenous Americans ever since smallpox arrived with Columbus and Cortés. Colonialism, in all its monstrous, rapacious arrogance, remains the root cause of the agonies besetting the Amazon and its people. If only Europe were separate from America, she seems to be saying, then perhaps we could heal.

And so, she goes on to tell her European audience: "Now it is time for you to be silent. The time has come to listen. You need us, the prisoners of your world, to understand yourselves. Because the thing is so simple: there is no gain in this world, there is only life. And that’s why it’s good that I’m not on the Burgtheater stage. That I’m not talking to you as an actress, because it’s not about art anymore, it’s not about theatre anymore. Our tragedy happens here and now, in the world, before our very eyes."

In the past, Milo Rau has been accused of a lack of equity in some of his international collaborations. Orestes in Mosul, for example, was criticised as having made use of Iraqi performers within a largely self-serving European structure, led by "white saviours". I'm not sure I entirely agree with this assessment: after all the play featured Susana AbdulMajid, whose heritage goes back to Mosul, and led to the establishment of a film school in the city. But it's been striking how, since that production, Rau has deliberately engaged in close dialogues with significant figures from the communities featured in his work, for example casting the Cameroonian activist Yvan Sagnet as Jesus in The New Gospel. Kay Sara's performance as Antigone continues that positive trend.

Except that she wasn't there. 

Quite early in the show, Frederico Araujo holds up a phone and plays her voice, introducing herself as an Indigenous woman. She is seen in the film, crying over his body as Polyneices, introducing the European actors to people in the Amazon. She was in Ghent for rehearsals. But, as Milo Rau rather cryptically puts it in the programme: "We understood only  during the film shootings in Brazil and during the last weeks of  rehearsals in Europe that Kay Sara’s place is in her home country, as part of the political Brazilian struggle." This is very resonant with her speech for the Festwochen: it seems that Kay Sara has come to feel that she is better off separating herself from European people as far as possible, and working within her own community. I understand that she has stated this will be her last collaboration with Europeans. Of course, I don't know the details, but the departure of this remarkable, insightful and impassioned artist is troubling for any European hoping to open up channels of communication between cultures, and to address global issues through theatre. In order to deal with globalisation, the child of colonialism, we have to address ourselves to European and North American cities, because that is where the colonial project began, and that is where it is still entrenched, at enormous profit (as today's Guardian makes clear). It would be narcissistic to imagine we can or should do this alone: we have to work in dialogue with peoples whose lands and cultures were and are colonised, and we have to recognise the challenges and nuances of such collaborations. But if the dialogue is refused or the collaboration is withdrawn, then we are left to wait in silence for a global revolution that will come from elsewhere. Perhaps that is what we have to do - but it feels absurdly passive at a moment when we are starting to accept responsibility and to understand the necessity of global collaboration as the only way forward.

Antigone in the Amazon deals with these questions very well: it's been forced to do so, and perhaps that's a good thing. As well as presenting the horror of the 1996 massacre and leading the audience to understand its context and the need for activism, there is also a reckoning with the ambiguous position occupied by the European activist and artist. The Flemish actor Arne De Tremerie reflects on the experience of being in the Amazon, the privilege he felt that he could go there while most of the people he met were unable to travel, his sense of “a guilt complex disguised as activism.” As well as his original role as Polyneices, Frederico Araujo plays the onstage Antigone: and there's an extraordinary sense of his reaching towards his Indigenous identity at the same time as being aware of his own form of privilege, encapsulated in his distance from that heritage. I was left wondering whether the play was made poorer or paradoxically richer by Kay Sara's physical absence. But that isn't really the point, of course. The play is an intervention in an ongoing and profoundly complex political process, and so it expresses the current moment in that process, the place where we stand right now, which is (rightly) very uncomfortable. As the first of the rolling titles says: "This is not The End".

I am grateful to the Research Office at Rose Bruford College for funding my visit to Ghent.