The St. Pölten Tribunal

by Ronald Pohl20 March 23

The destructive potential of globalisation unfolds without regard for any borders. Milo Rau’s opera Justice cross-examines an environmental catastrophe in the Congo as if in a courtroom. Lessons from these events can easily be learned in Austria, too. Ronald Pohl on the Swiss theatre star and his spectacular project for Tangente.

Credit: Bea Borgers
Credit: Bea Borgers

Investigations, as pursued by Swiss theatre-maker Milo Rau (46), are not a matter of regional jurisdiction. The claims of the Bern-born artist span the entire globe. Like no other holistic thinker, Rau – a specialist in valiant interventions for stagnating communities – has thoroughly sussed out globalisation. He detects its destructive potential, its tendency to smooth over particularities.

Long an international theatre and film icon, Rau is still the artistic director of the National Theater in Ghent until July 2023. But the self-proclaimed representative of “global realism” remains the go-to guy for local issues. From 2024, he will be in charge of the Wiener Festwochen festival, which has recently been gossip in the cultural world due to lacking popularity in the last years.

Credit: Christoph Gorka
Credit: Christoph Gorka

Now, in the framework of the 2024 Tangente festival in St. Pölten, the state capital on the Traisen becomes the tribunal for an especially dark chapter in the chronicles of globalisation. The plot of his opera Justice: In 2019, a wrecked tanker truck triggers a Congolese catastrophe; between Lubumbashi and Kolwezi concentrated sulphuric acid leaked out. The utterly heedless use of raw materials and human resources wreaks havoc.

Milo Rau acts as an investigative reporter and at once sets out to formally – read: theatrically – tame the calamity. Voices are given a forum, the comments of perpetrators and victims juxtaposed. An oratorical high mass will convene in which the living and the dead have equal seats and votes.

Congolese author Fiston Mwanza Mujila, who is based in Graz and works in several languages, performs as librettist; Hèctor Parra composes the music. In short: Everything is going to be different than usual, particular and exemplary, that is: strictly related to the scandalous occasion. At the same time, St. Pölten awakens to the memory of its own now traceless fumes: the sulphur emissions of the Glanzstoff chemical factory, which live on in the collective memory of St. Pölten’s population to this day.

Fiston Mwanza Mujila, Credit: Anna Drvnik
Fiston Mwanza Mujila, Credit: Anna Drvnik
Credit: Bine Berger
Credit: Bine Berger

It’s everything as usual. In truth, we can only pin down the variegated multi-talent Rau by means of specific episodes. His artistic reach defies all restrictions. Like few others before him, Rau poses the question of the big picture. No wonder, then, that he already journeyed to Chiapas in southern Mexico in 1997, while still very young, for research purposes. For the resulting film, he had no problems going into debt.

Since then, the story of Milo Rau and globalisation has been a bit like that of Achilles and the tortoise. No matter which corner of the world, capitalism has already taken hold. In the name of globalisation, the idea of profit maximisation is unabashedly taken to the limit, resources are appropriated, sales markets exploited. And moral imperatives are ignored with perfect confidence.

Amongst the wonders in Milo Rau’s works is that they exhibit a proclivity for generalisation, but with restorative intent. Rau, a friendly, immensely capable discursive strategist, rectifies cultural spoilage. He halts the depletion of meaning, he interrogates the precise circumstances and causes of catastrophes by contrasting, in social terms, comatose states with amok incidents.

He gathered eyewitnesses and experts in the Congolese civil war zone for The Congo Tribunal (2015). Milo Rau’s epistemological appetite zeros in on each specific case. To this end, the trained Germanist, Romantics scholar, and sociologist taps into the oldest sources of social sense-making, in aesthetic as well as documentary terms. Rau’s art has always sought intervention. It conjures an eternal judgement day. The student of Pierre Bourdieu relentlessly subjects the out-of-balance world to his manifold revisionings. The Swiss native, although a dyed-in-the-wool proponent of post-dramatic theatre, is not a pure “director.” Nor is he just “engaged.”

Credit: Elisabeth Groihofer
Credit: Elisabeth Groihofer

Milo Rau contrasts contemporary events with ancient principles of human collectivity. His theatre pleas for methodical gatherings. Its outer cognitive guise resembles a court hearing. The fact that it is held is owed to the confidence that every society, on the basis of diligent research, is capable of uncovering the reasons for its own culpability.

In such primordial trust resides the analytical healing power not only of the venerable tragedy but of Milo Rau’s complete theatrical oeuvre. With the aids of representation, the collective experience of pity and dread generates insight. Which, in turn, has the capacity to purify. Cooperative action should replace hostility; the palette of theatrical techniques form the accompanying training programme.

Accordingly, Rau has dealt with exemplary excesses, such as the execution of the Ceausescu couple. He based a theatre tribunal on the defence arguments of right-wing terrorist Anders Breivik. Without further ado, he formed his own political party, simply in order to launch a petition for foreigners’ right to vote in the city parliament elections of St. Gallen. In Milo Rau’s hands, even the public becomes a social sculpture that he incessantly continues to mould. The channels used by this legitimate and yet so very different heir to Christoph Schlingensief are correspondingly diverse. He fills books, writes manifestos and memoranda. Following in the footsteps of Pier Paolo Pasolini, he staged The New Gospel (2020) on film, shifting exploited “illegal” African field workers into the role of saviours.

The father of two daughters, who lives in Cologne, Berlin, and Zurich, counts himself by no means amongst elitist minds: “I’m not known for having specific tastes.” His distaste, on the other hand, is directed at the closed spaces, the circles of wealth administrators, who would prefer their established reflexivity authority remains untouched. Milo Rau is the smiling mask of global conscience, an intervening artist who rather stops by everywhere. Rau intends to share his work “with everyone, for everyone.” So it seems only right and proper for this jack-of-all-trades and tricks to also conduct an aesthetic examination of the situation in Lower Austria.

To the dates →

Hèctor Parra, Credit: Armandine Lauriol
Hèctor Parra, Credit: Armandine Lauriol
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