Tiago Rodrigues, Portuguese, enfant prodige of the world theater, currently director of the Avignon Festival, takes his leave Catarina ea beleza de matar fascistas (Catarina and the beauty of killing fascists) in the fall of 2020, not coincidentally in full pandemic.
Conceived in the alarmed and disoriented Europe of the chaotic and authoritarian first measures of health policy, the show is then hibernated for months. Like all Western theater, cinema, music, museums, art galleries, cultural and recreational activities. The time and space of play, enjoyment and desire are suspended. We have entered a claustrophilic – or, if you prefer, agoraphobic – phase officially sine die. Governments, not parliaments, and a crowd of ‘experts’ will sanction the transition to a state of supervised terror or delegating obedience. In domestic interiors, however, other things happen and other thoughts circulate.
Tiago Rodrigues, author, playwright and director, has always given life to shows that make texts explode by turning them, turning them over, literally reducing them to crumbs and then reassembling them meticulously as if they were a puzzle in which each piece is in search of its own joint, but it is not said that you find the one originally intended for it. As a child I had four puzzles, the pieces of which were identical in shape and size. They depicted a lion, a giraffe, a deer and an elephant. I had a lot of fun reassembling them at random and so the lion could have a trunk and the giraffe a stage of horns. And everything was fine, so I wondered who had ever decided that things should be in their assigned place, who had decided and why.
Here, Tiago’s playful and very acute, daring and unscrupulous theatrical work proposes precisely this exercise: tirelessly asking oneself the reason for things or, in other words, challenging the order that has been given to them, questioning it. Doubt instead of faith and certainties. Thinking with your own head instead of adapting to received ideas. Reflect rather than mirror. Observation and reasoning rather than prejudice. At the cost of making mistakes and on condition of knowing how to recognize it. It could be defined as a pedagogical project.
Catarina and beleza de matar fascistas, which in spring passed quickly in our parts (from 11 to 14 April at the Argentina Theater in Rome and 28/29 April at the Storchi Theater in Modena), from 7 to 30 October it was re-proposed at the Bouffes du Nord in Paris, long historical home of the Peter Brook theater company. For those who have not yet been there, it is an extraordinary, dilapidated semicircular room where the actors and the public are so close that they can interact and interfere.
It must be said because, in the case of the show in question, that danger and that proximity are key elements that the author / director has well calculated and transformed into potential incendiary fuses. But let’s see what it is.
At the root of Catarina there is a historical fact. On May 19, 1954, in Bailezão, an Alentejo village, an illiterate harvester, Catarina Eufémia, was murdered in cold blood by a lieutenant of the Guard Nacional Republicana. Together with thirteen companions, she went on strike to get two shields to increase the daily wages. Chosen as a representative by the other women, she replies to the lieutenant who questions her that they only want “work and bread”. He slaps her and she falls to the ground. When she gets up, she says to him, “And now kill me.” He shoots her three times, killing her and also wounding her eight-month-old son who Catarina holds in her arms. The woman will be ‘avenged’ by another woman, the matriarch of the family, who kills her husband, a gendarme, for not intervening in defense of her friend Catarina.
The dystopian saga of Rodrigues is grafted onto this story. Every year, from the day of the killing of Catarina, a member of the family – the Catarina on duty – performs the ritual gesture of overthrowing a fascist, because one cannot mediate with fascism. We are in 2028 and a totalitarian regime has once again been established in Portugal. This time it is up to the little girl of her family to have to hold the gun, a young woman who professes to be a vegan, a pacifist, an enemy of ideologies, not ideas, dear to her family.
Tired of the Brechtian quotations of a hedonist and wordless uncle and of her brother’s deafening and escapist silence, when they put in her hand the weapon that should make her a ‘freedom fighter’, Catarina in pectore has the audacity to question herself and ask his people about some concepts dear to the western left. What does the ‘freedom’ to kill in the name of democracy consist of, if that gesture has nothing free in itself?
Is it nothing more than the heavy and undisputed legacy of a tradition, of a psychic automatism that protects us from feelings of guilt and relieves the responsibility of choosing? Is it by persevering in a blood rite, by following a patriarchal diktat, that the future is brought into the world? What is fascism? What is it that makes a fascist a fascist? Are less whipsy, more light and ironic, less martial and macho forms of struggle imaginable today?
The first part of the show is the slow construction of this theorem of doubt. The sense of that claustrophobic recurrence – the bloody renewal of a blood pact – is alternately undermined both by the addiction to the norm of the house and by its refusal. And the slogan traced on the tablecloth of the table / altar laden with food as for a secular Easter, “Não passarão”, will not pass, it seems more a superstitious motto than an invitation to vigilance. This family of nostalgic fighters comes from Rodrigues ruthlessly passed through the scrutiny of a sort of satirical metal detector that at times reduces them to a joke.
Those male Catarina in bulky female clothes, satiated and greedy, so convinced that they are on the side of reason, those austere and very sad women, so certain that the repetition of a bloody gesture shields the recurrence of violence, they seem entangled in the past, prisoners of its lexicon and its metaphors. The same magnificent stage machine designed by F. Ribeiro – a wooden house that unfolds like a screen around a cork tree (the murdered fascists have always been buried underneath it) which it is forbidden to trade in – is a tomb and seal. Tiago seems to tell us that the new cannot be born if the old does not die, that the new totalitarianism can spring from the resistance of the left to think new, uncomfortable, daring thoughts.
For the whole time of the intra-family quarrel, the fascist kidnapped for the annual necessity awaits his execution seated, motionless and mute, at the head of the table. Loose blue tie, he seems to want to forget his presence. Witnessing the impasse of that family, its contradictions and its detachment from reality which is by definition changeable, he waits in silence.
And in fact, about forty minutes before the end of the show, the great refusal of Catarina consummated to the end, the freed fascist camps – tie knot no longer loosened – at the center of the scene, practically in the middle of the audience, transforming the multi-part drama in a long monologue / rally with an impeccable rhetorical mechanism. Tiago Rodrigues wrote it without even putting a word of his own into it. His was a meticulous assembly of the vigorous “speeches of victory” delivered in recent years by Salvini, Le Pen, Bolsonaro, Ventura, Trump, Orban….
The fascist who escaped death is ready to govern and the discourse he prepares for the public now transformed into a people is an authentic political program. From education to safety, from work to the family, from health care to the defense of values, borders, sexual roles, from the economy to culture, from migration to gender policies, from violence against women to abortion, everything has as its beginning. the theme of freedom. The haughty reserve, the elitism unable to ignite any hope or trust, of so much current left backfires like a boomerang. This man, so capable of making himself understood, of communicating, says frightening things and at the same time galvanizes, literally wiping out the now residual anti-fascist family. How is it possible?
Rodrigues’s is a high-intensity provocation of political gamble. I, who just two days earlier listened in astonishment and admiration to the speech on trust of the new Italian premier, am totally uncomfortable. The theatrical meeting of the Portuguese actor Romeu Costa is an equally oiled rhetorical device, almost a photocopy: it seduces and frightens. And the beauty is that the show ends suddenly right together with that rally, so that the audience is forced to applaud it to applaud the whole show or to leave the theater in silence or whistling, screaming, muttering. And it is on that ambiguity that the strength and genius of the work is measured. In Paris, on other evenings, during that final half hour some spectators got into a fight, threw objects at the actor, railed, openly expressed their dissent or their enchanted adhesion.
Yes, because Tiago Rodrigues has chosen not to offer the public any catharsis. Here the passions are not purified, if anything they are set on fire. And the theatrical space replicates a conflict, an impotence and a reborn power. It will be the public who will have to deal with themselves, with their critical ability, with their malaise or with their arrogant indifference. The monologue of the ‘fascist’, so similar to the public discourse of so many heads of state and prime ministers of the democratic West, must be treated with subtle analytical weapons, dismembered, turned upside down, memorized to discover its blind spots, pockets of emptiness, propaganda drifts.
The technique of découpage that Rodrigues has applied to many classics, from Shakespeare’s sonnets to texts by Strindberg, Chekhov, Tolstòj, Flaubert, here it is suggested as an instrument of ‘intelligence’ of contemporary reality. If in his adaptation of Miss Juliethe menina Júlia could aspire to um outro fimanother ending, and the tragedy turning into a comedy, the possible redemption of the multiple and defeat Catarina is entrusted to our active imagination and our willingness not to reduce the theater to a place of cultural consumption reserved for the few.
Angela Albanese, Tiago Rodrigues: the beauty of killing fascists