Genesi: From the Museum of Sleep

Richard Murphet



Romeo Castelluci’s Genesi: From the Museum of Sleep arrived in Melbourne at the end of a bleak week for world theatre.

Early this year I wrote an article for RealTime on theatre as Terror (RT 47 p4). Now, as the year grinds down, we have seen, in the Moscow Chechen crisis, terror in the theatre itself. A 2-act drama of pure horror. The prologue was innocence itself—a musical romance entitled North-East. Interval, one imagines: the relaxed chatter, coffee, wine, Kream-Betweens, with little expectation of the change about to happen. “After an intermission, theatregoers headed back to their seats for Act II…Suddenly, masked attackers in battle dress burst into the building. Some fired into the air, while others raced onto the stage shouting, ‘We are Chechens!’ and ‘We are at war here!’” (Time, Nov 4). What was it like, that terrifying point of transition from pretence to reality? How long did it take for the realisation to dawn that this was not a ‘reality effect’ but ‘reality’ itself, intruding into the space of make-believe? It was reported by one of the hostages that members of the audience applauded the violent spectacle of the unexpected entrances.

The dreadfully protracted First Act was played out between the always already desperate Chechen terrorist fighters and the might of State Terror. In that battle, the audience-turned-participants (‘hostages’) had no chance. They would always be sacrificial victims in an unresolvable plot. Meanwhile, the State forces, due to dominate the bloody final Act, were rehearsing their role in another theatre. “For days they had been secretly practising at the Meridian Theatre on nearby Profsouznaya Street. Plainclothes policemen had been deployed to guard the perimeter and keep curious onlookers away” (The Weekly Telegraph, October 30). The final Act was triggered, like a classical movie, by a child: “‘Mummy, I don’t know what to do anymore’, he shouted. Then he threw a bottle at a Chechen woman guarding him and fled toward the exit” (Weekly Telegraph). The shot fired at him by the terrorist was the signal for the state troops to burst in through the walls and the sewers—preceded of course by the deadly nerve gas.

In the end the theatre was full of dead and dying bodies—the end of a Shakespearian tragedy, “littered with bodies of dead and unconscious hostages” (Weekly Telegraph). There is a press photo of a Chechen woman, dead in one of the theatre seats, slumped easily, as if she has fallen asleep during a bad play. “Take up the bodies,” says Fortinbras. “Such a sight as this/Becomes the field but here shows much amiss.” Amen to that.

It is the lasting power of Genesi that its response to the “destiny of the inhabitants of the world” (Castelluci, festival program) is so tough-minded, so terrifyingly lyrical, so unpredictably indirect in its creativity and so openly and quietly scandalised by the tragic consequences of the original act of creation.

The beginning is simple enough. In the dark, the sound of the word in the theatre, the chatter of voices, as if a replay of the hum of voices that fills the auditorium as an audience settles. The chatter builds in intensity as the lights reveal a group of men and women in 19th century formal attire, gathered at the back of the stage, listening to an orator on a podium—an original act of theatre. From here theatre’s problems begin. What should happen next if on this empty stage of possibilities anything can happen? The theatre director/writer’s challenge is in essence no different to that of the god of Adam. “In the beginning was the word.” Well yes, we’ve had that, now what?

Divine creation unleashes the problem of possibilities. It creates an open sea of possibilities. That is terrifying. Castelluci, festival program.

And so before us unfolds in Part 1 a roll call of images that seek not to tell the tale of the Book of Genesis but to track its path anew. A naked man squeezes through a tiny gap in the scrim to enter the front area of the stage—what is that gap: the gates of Eden, the eye of the needle, the mouth of the womb, the stage door? Images may resonate with familiarity (a burning sword, a circle twirling, something revealed from the sand) but they are revealed not as sequential events in a narrative history of the spirit but as if all already there—truly revealed, all of them, it only takes the power of the light to bring them to our consciousness. The theatre mechanism at work is the layers of scrim with which the stage is filled, like veils to protect us from the terror of too much reality. We are given glimpses of the horror of juxtapositions we do not want to see: a man (a contortionist)—Adam?—coming alive in a glass cabinet, whilst next to him in another glass cabinet a horse’s head is crushed in a vice and across the stage 2 mechanical sheep fuck. Conception, birth and death in a triptych of image and noise. I broke out in a sweat.

The intervals felt, at first, intrusive, unnecessary. We have learned from Moscow that intervals can be catastrophic. Both Parts 2 and 3 involved huge shifts of focus and style. What they lacked of Part 1’s rich tapestry of image and sound they made up for in sustained intensity and conceptual daring. In Part 2, 5 children, trapped in a world of white, practice the signs, the symbols, the attitudes and the deadly games of the adults, witnessed in embryo in Part 1. The visuals are entirely uninflected, only the soundtrack maintains the emotional intensity. I was reminded of Francis Fergusson’s discussion of young animals utilising their ‘histrionic sensibility’ to prepare for the serious stalking and murder of the jungle. It is a place of sleep and dream, of silence (“The word ‘infans’ means to be out of language”); a place where a child in a bunny suit plays out the lament of lost life. Only finally, after a child (like a terrorist?) screams incomprehensibly at us from the stage, do we witness the showers (of Auschwitz horror) and the flickering of the camera light of the old documentary.

In Part 3, the group of children is reduced to a pair of men (Cain and Abel?) and then finally to one existentially lonely man (Cain) and the dead body of his victim, whilst huge dogs roam the stage, sublimely uninterested in the stupidity of human violence, sniffing out the scent of death, eating up the flesh that lies around.

It is a devastating sequence. The first act of murder, so quiet, so protracted, so definitive. How many such acts have happened in the real world since? How many bodies have lain on stages in theatre’s futile attempt to reflect the stupidity back to the world? And now finally (post-Moscow) how can we tell the 2 apart?

Genesi: From the Museum of Sleep, Societas Raffaello Sanzio, creator & director Romeo Castelluci; music Scott Gibbons; State Theatre, Victorian Arts Centre, Oct 27

RealTime issue #52 Dec-Jan 2002 pg. 4

© Richard Murphet; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 December 2002