The work of the prolific Swiss theatre director Milo Rau is best known for its un-apologetically political, often controversial content. In his performances and films he searches out the darkest corners of the human experience, focusing on themes like war, genocide, paedophilia, hate crimes, suicide, corporate corruption and fascism. Yet his work is never cynical, and always looks for the humanity underneath all that suffering, and the potential of community, solidarity and activism. Is there sensual pleasure to be found in gazing into the abyss and repudiating the darkness? When I meet him to ask about the role of sexuality and eroticism in his work, Milo looks a bit nonplussed. To be sure, eroticism is not the first thing most people think of when it comes to his performances and films. Starting from his international breakthrough with Hate Radio (2011), which portrayed a government-aligned radio studio in Rwanda on the eve of the 1994 genocide, Milo has often focused primarily on the question of violence, war and death. In subsequent works, he would delve into the contemporary exploitation of the Congo and the corruption of its government in The Congo Tribunal (2015), the national impact of the notorious case of child rapist Marc Dutroux in Five Easy Pieces (2016), the collective suicide of a Belgian family in Familie (2019) and, most recently, in 2022, the mistreatment and economic exploitation of refugees in the Italian south with The New Gospel.
More than the themes themselves, it’s Milo’s artistic choices in presenting them where the question of sensuality finds fertile ground. In the interplay between his political ideas and their theatrical, sometimes even baroque translation to the stage, Milo reaches for a connection with his audience that goes beyond the purely rational, and moves closer to the realms of the experiential, the immersive, the sensorial. When he forces you to listen for hours on end to fascist propaganda in Hate Radio, the contrast between the joviality of the people in the studio and their hate-filled monologues functions as a kind of short circuit of the brain: it makes the banality of evil tangible, it’s as if you have been hooked up to an IV drip of pure poison for the duration of the performance. When he worked with child performers in his piece on the legacy of the Dutroux case, he both makes you feel acutely how vulnerable children are, and how much more children are able to process and deal with than we often give them credit for. And in The New Gospel he leans heavily on Catholic imagery, more specifically the life and the passion of Christ, to communicate the power of moral resistance and the suffering of the exploited refugees.
Of course, an embodied experience of something does not automatically make it into an erotic experience, so Milo and I agreed to look at our conversation as kind of an experiment, to try to find the role of the sensual in his artistic practice and see what emerges.
…When it comes to the relationship with the body, violence is far more present than any kind of positive approach…
Marijn Lems: Maybe we can just start with the general question: do you see a relationship between your work and pleasure, eroticism and sensuality?
Milo Rau: I think that on the surface there isn’t. There are all kinds of stories of a sort of erotic attraction of artists to their performers for example, but I have never felt that way – that relationship for me is much more defined by friendship, common interest and shared activism. When it comes to the relationship with the body, violence is far more present than any kind of positive approach. The politicised body in my work is often under attack: by structures of power, by society, by racism, by homophobia, by child abuse. Of course, you have, on the other hand, and this is maybe due to my catholic roots – I’m half-Italian and half-German – some echo in my work of the religious idea that the body is punished for a reason. The idea that every life and every story is a version of the passion of Christ; after the destruction of the body comes transcendence, and then you arrive somewhere else. The idea of the saviour who is destroyed, who becomes a victim, is central to this approach to the body, and is somewhat of a recurring theme in my work. You see it in La Reprise (2018), which is about a real-life homophobic murder, where a man is punished to death. And then in The New Gospel the Christ-like avatar of criminalised and exploited immigrants literally has his body destroyed.
When I was a child, my family moved around a lot. My parents divorced, and I encountered extreme violence in my school and social life. I was bullied constantly because of my accent. This formative experience led me to be very conscious of the violence that is present in any relationship based on power, and so I’m wary of eroticisation being present in my working process. You could say that all my plays attempt to work through the trauma of the power relations which structure the society we live in. In essence, I focus on keeping relationships based on power and emotional relationships separate as much as possible.
I have to say that I’ve never had the sense of the erotic or the romantic as something liberating, but perhaps that’s also my personal perspective.
I can’t say I try to discourage romantic relationships on set, as everyone can do what they want, of course. For instance, one of my actors married my former assistant. But for myself I guess I’m too sociologically informed to believe in the ‘realness’ of work relations that turn romantic or erotic.
It seems that’s sometimes a dis-appointment for people who come to work with me, because they think, ‘OK, the outcome is so extreme – to prepare the show we must be about to go into a crazy nightmare, a sadomasochistic nightmare.’ And then they encounter a work environment that’s not necessarily structured – because it can be chaotic – but not chaotic in an emotional way. And my plays are not physical at all. If there is physicality it’s a choreography instead of anything realistic.
Marijn: One possible exception is the sex scene between Adam and Eve in your performance Lam Gods (2018).
Milo: But that’s about tenderness.
…This is the essence of what I’m trying to do: confronting scenes of violence, but in a context of tenderness…
Marijn: I mean, it is a positive ‘approach to the body,’ isn’t it? Like a sort of physical togetherness that feels like a revolt against the external violence against the body. It is portrayed as something beautiful and something pure, which is enhanced by the child performers watching them.
Milo: I think that’s right. The repetition of violence in my work only makes sense if it makes space for togetherness. In all my plays there are strong ties of solidarity between the actors, in how they perform the piece together. Even in La Reprise, when Ihsane Jarfi is killed, the parents watch. Witnessing an act of violence is very important, because that moves what happens into the realm of reconstruction, into an event we make happen together and that we can then learn from. No one in my plays takes anything personally because it’s all a collective ‘enactment.’
And so that scene in Lam Gods is an example of when things were taken out of context by people who had not seen the play and who were scandalised by it. ‘You make children watch sex, are you a complete pervert?’ So then the parents of the children participating in the scene – who were, by the way, completely bored watching the ‘sex scene,’ because of how choreographed it was – wrote an open letter to the protesters saying, ‘Children are confronted with violence every day, and we give you one scene of tenderness, and you can’t take it? What is wrong with you?’ This is the essence of what I’m trying to do: confronting scenes of violence, but in a context of tenderness.
It’s the same thing in Five Easy Pieces – of course there’s oppression, but, in the end, there is liberation. The children show that they are exactly aware of what they’re doing there on stage, which allows them to play and experiment with these dark themes without fear of trauma. This Brechtian approach to me is far preferable to the Stanislavsky method, where you have to go without sleep for five weeks when you’re playing a homeless person in order to teach your body what exhaustion feels like. Our bodies already know everything. It’s sad to say, but we all carry trauma, we have these memories and we don’t need to recreate them.
So there’s all these approaches to the body in my work, but I still wonder what the role of eroticism is.
Marijn: Could we look at the role of violence in your work, and see that sometimes there is also a visceral joy in it which is connected to the erotic? In Hate Radio, for instance, the men in the studio talk about murder and genocide while joking around with each other, while goading each other into saying worse and worse things, and there is a pleasure in it, a sort of virility. Maybe this is something that you’re also trying to make sense of in your work – the attractiveness of violence, the ecstasy of transgressive behaviour?
Milo: Yeah. For instance, I don’t believe in Hannah Arendt’s theory that when you commit violence you disconnect from your real personality. This is evident in interviews with Eichmann. Before he was apprehended, he had an interview with an SS man called Willem Sassen, and he clearly experienced a lot of pleasure talking about the atrocities he committed. Sadism is a very strong feeling. You see it already in children – there is a scene in Five Easy Pieces in which the children burn ants, which is something that most children do and derive pleasure from.
Marijn: You said earlier that your creation processes are ‘chaotic – but not chaotic in an emotional way,’ and that you try to be as conscious as possible of the power relations that are present. How do you balance the need for safety and transparency in your artistic practice with the need for unpredictability and productive chaos?
Milo: I think in the field of art, the ‘independent’ position of the artist is being questioned more and more. The younger generation especially doesn’t accept that anything the director says, goes. And I agree with that: I’ve always tried to create an atmosphere in which there is a shared artistic responsibility, where everybody feels safe to contribute. Recently, I’ve started working with an intimacy and consent coach, just to have someone there who can make sure that everybody really, really, really agrees with what is being asked of them. So that there is no hidden eroticisation where somebody could think, two days later, ‘What the fuck did I do?’ Avoiding any sexual undercurrent is becoming more and more mainstream, which is why I’m somewhat surprised Extra Extra magazine still exists.
Marijn: I would say that even though this kind of increased focus on transparency and consent is often put in opposition to eroticism, I feel that that’s a limited way of looking at it. Could we also look at considerateness, asking each other what we’re comfortable with, feeling safe and being careful with each other as being erotic in and of itself?
Milo: I absolutely agree. That’s what I’m preaching, what I’m really trying to do and to explain. Many people grew up with relationships characterised by domination, exploitation and violence, so they can’t believe that there is anything beyond that. Art, and also activism, can be a space of refuge, where one can be free from these forms of oppression. Like Kant said, art has no necessity in and of itself, beyond the instinct to play, to try out new ways of being. Creating frames in which this instinct can flourish is my impetus. As a director, I don’t direct the players as such, I create the frame, and it’s the frame that directs all of us.
For a special edition of the Theater Journal published by Yale University, all of my collaborators were asked if they could describe my method. And one of them said, and I think that this is very true: ‘Milo’s method is friendship.’ I have a relationship with my collaborators like friends have a relationship – not lovers, but friends. This is an important distinction because love is often focused on claiming another person and wanting to always be near them, whereas if I don’t see a friend for ten years I will not cry.
And when we work together in this mode of friendship, we are more than the sum of our parts. It’s the third space between being purely professional and business-like and being transgressively ‘erotic’ towards each other.
Marijn: I wanted to go back to what you said about your childhood experiences of being bullied and your family’s Catholic background. Do you think that those experiences awakened a love–hate relationship with suffering in you, and does that account for the focus on violence in your work?
Milo: Hmm, I don’t think so. Certainly, on a personal level, I don’t necessarily find pleasure in my own suffering. Sadomasochism is not part of my life. But the history of theatre itself is, of course, full of suffering. At the moment, I’m involved with a festival that’s focused on the Greek classics. We’re staging all the tragedies, which are so extremely violent – they end with the suicide of basically everybody. And whoever is not dying by suicide is murdered. The same is essentially true for most of art history. Even when you look at contemporary formalistic art students – they are always violent, they are always naked [laughs]. I mean – why is that? It’s a good question.
Marijn: Maybe it has to do with the feeling of being alive that comes with being confronted with violence and suffering? To speak for myself, I can really enjoy horror films for that reason. There is something sensual in surviving terror, or being confronted with the abject, and art can give you a controlled way to do that.
Milo: Personally, I can’t watch horror films because I am repulsed by them, so it’s not an obsession with violence per se. Actually, I am fascinated by the opposite side of the spectrum, like melodramatic comedies starring Hugh Grant. I love the simplicity of an extremely predictable, naïve plot. So now I’m wondering why I never made a film or performance in that genre, because I know a lot about it!
Marijn: Yet you always return to themes of violence. So why is that?
Milo: That’s a difficult one. I think I’m really looking for the meaning of violence from a secular point of view. In Christianity, your eternal soul is much more important than your body, and when you die, ideally you get to go to Heaven. And in ancient Greek tragedies, there’s an afterlife as well, albeit not a particularly happy one. But when I was making La Reprise I asked myself: what is the meaning of violence if reality is just random, just one thing happening after the other and then repeating itself ad infinitum? And what would be the use of repeating that in a theatre performance, on a stage? But then I came across an idea of Kierkegaard, who said that ‘la reprise’ is not ‘la repetition’ – it’s not meaningless, it’s an attempt to give something meaning by reprising it. By then I had already made a lot of plays about violence, and perhaps what I’m doing is going further and further in trying to understand how I can give meaning to that which is meaningless.
That question, in my mind, is connected to activism, because the last question in activism is always ‘can you kill the king to bring about a better world?’ – in essence, can violence have political meaning, or is it always meaningless?
Marijn: One interesting thing about La Reprise is that you changed the ending after the premiere. In the first version, the final words were spoken by a union leader who talked about the economic malaise in the region where Jarfi is killed, putting the murder in a socio-political context. But after the premiere that was replaced by a monologue of Jarfi’s ex-boyfriend talking about his love for him – focusing the ending more on the grief of his loved ones and the injustice of this man being killed because of his sexual identity. Did you change your mind about the ‘meaning’ of this particular act of violence?
Milo: It was important to show that the killers were a product of their environment. They had all worked at the steel mills in the region, but these were all shut down, which led to them becoming directionless. That sort of social situation easily leads to frustration, and then to violence. Of course, that doesn’t excuse their actions, and they deserved their sentences, but it’s a bit more complicated than the bourgeois take of ‘these are just low-class, homophobic men.’ In the Marxist view, a person’s labour is something that defines them, and when that is taken away, you kill part of their identity.
But then the reaction at the premiere was along the lines of, ‘it’s such a beautiful play, Milo, but why at the end do you give your stupid Marxist lesson?’
And that’s a lesson I had to learn, and that I also often teach to young activist directors I work with: when you become an artist, you can’t use ideology as an escape hatch – the needs of the performance have to come first, it functions or it doesn’t function.
And the nice thing was that we actually already had that monologue by Jarfi’s ex-boyfriend, but we didn’t know where to put it in the play. It always felt like the missing piece, like a phantom limb. So when the unionist had to die, the scene could be included again.
Marijn: If we take the Marxist view then, and see your artistic process as labour that has the potential for liberation, is your creation process itself a repudiation of the alienation of modern life, and the resultant violence?
Milo: Yes, and that is why it is so extremely important that the environment is safe and transparent. Only when someone feels liberated in their work can they be their best self. That’s why I also never invite members of the audience on stage, which many other artists do, because you don’t liberate anyone by doing that. You’re trapping them and humiliating them. Of course, there should be confrontation, but that should never go too far.
Marijn: Some critics say that the way you subject audiences to certain images also crosses a line and violates the consent of the audience. For instance, your recent piece Familie ends with a collective suicide of a family with two children, and some audience members felt violated by having to see that.
Milo: I both agree and disagree. I think you should warn the audience if anything happens that might be a trigger, and that’s what we did: it’s impossible to visit Familie and not know about what’s going to happen. We posted a trigger warning on the entrance doors so everybody was warned. But sure, you can definitely go too far in showing certain images, even with a warning. But I do think that audience members have a personal responsibility to try to gauge whether or not they are going to be triggered, so it’s a bit of give and take. Personally, I’m oversensitive to bullying, so I try to avoid or defuse those kinds of situations. And sometimes I overcompensate, so even when the actor being teased is completely fine with it, I feel uncomfortable. But then this sort of sensitivity makes me a lot more sympathetic to other people’s traumas. For instance, if someone really doesn’t want to do something in a performance, I try to work around it.
And, vice versa, it’s dangerous to generalise: you shouldn’t assume other people’s vulnerabilities and try to save everyone from them. You can’t address everything, and so the only thing you can do is be responsive to signals that you get.
Marijn: I had one more question about pleasure. In The Congo Tribunal you organised a staged hearing about the collusion between the Congolese government and large mining companies to exploit and oppress citizens and workers. In one scene, you’re welcoming the local governor to the tribunal, and there’s a glint in your eye, a sort of glee about his imminent downfall. This could of course just be projection on my part, but is there pleasure in making the powerful fall, or ‘killing the king,’ as it were?
Milo: I have a Shakespearian view on these sorts of characters. This specific person played a very important role in the revolution against Mobutu, but, as a governor, his position became somewhat more dubious. You’re right, there’s at least curiosity on my part about how he will perform on the stage I’ve created. But even in these cases I am never dishonest about the set-up of the project, and never try to trap someone. They are free to ask all the questions they want to.
Of course, these are funny moments, with the governor and all the pomp and circumstance, and the theatre of it. But when I am honest about when I feel most involved in a project like this, with every fibre of my being, it is when I hear the stories of people who have been truly victimised by the system. When I hear of people’s lives being destroyed, I feel deeply ashamed about my privileges.
…You can only pragmatically relate to something. You can’t have an idea. You can only construct society in bringing people together and then work on a project…
Marijn: This is interesting – I asked you a question about what is pleasurable for you in your artistic practice, and within a couple of sentences, you’ve returned to tragedy.
Milo: There’s a lot of pleasure in seeing a project like that come together. When setting something like this up, you don’t expect all the officials, like the minister of mining and the governor, to actually show up. And a few days before the tribunal – like with every premiere – I’m tearing my hair out, hoping and praying that everything will work out. There’s an enormous pressure, yet it’s extremely beautiful to see it all play out.
Marijn: And is that feeling part of the reason you became an artist, instead of continuing your work as a journalist and sociologist? Or does the collectivity of theatre play a larger part in that?
Milo: It’s the collectivity. I need to be needed by other people in a process to get out of bed and go to work every morning. But the good thing is that if I go to the studio, lots of other people are waiting for me to tell them what’s next. And that really fulfils me. When I started on Five Easy Pieces I was terrified because I was going to work with children, and I’m not somebody who has an easy rapport with kids. But everything took care of itself. There were psychologists in the rehearsals and two children’s coaches, which gave us a lot of freedom and joy. Working together day after day was so liberating.
This morning I happened to read an article in which I was quoted as follows: ‘You can only pragmatically relate to something. You can’t have an idea. You can only construct society in bringing people together and then work on a project. […] Solitude is not that you are alone, but that you feel incapable of being in a social situation. And that’s the sort of alienation that you overcome in every single moment when you’re making theatre together.’