Unless you’re a meticulous researcher or watching a Broadway classic, theater-going is a bit of a betting game. You try to decide from a short description whether the play will be worth the money and time. You skip a full dinner or lunch to arrive early, as advised. Then, as the lights dim, after having had your expectations lowered by one too many mediocre performances, you pray today’s will make you feel any emotion other than boredom at least once.
Thankfully, and to my surprise, The Repetition, Swiss director Milo Rau’s first production after last May’s release of his Ghent Manifesto — ten rules informing his company’s theatrical practice — was a good bet. (Full disclosure: I went on a press ticket.)
At first glance, the premise of the five-act play, which ran for three performances last weekend at the National Theater in Taipei, looks like a public relations, and potentially legal, disaster waiting to happen. Based on the homophobic murder of Ihsane Jarfi, a 32-year-old Muslim man, on April 22, 2012 in Liege, Belgium, the play builds up to a reenactment of that heinous crime.
Photo courtesy of the National Performing Arts Center
Treated with less than the utmost care, it would have been controversial at best and traumatizing — for audience members and Jarfi’s family alike — at worst. I suspect the emotional weight of the story, as well as competition from other shows during the Taiwan International Festival of Arts season, was why the show did not play to a full house on opening day.
A projector screen placed center-stage broadcasts close-up interviews with Jarfi’s parents (played by Suzy Cocco and Johan Leysen), one of the murderers, Jeremy Wintgens (played by Fabian Leenders) and Jarfi’s ex-boyfriend (played by Sebastien Foucault). But though it feels eerily like a true crime documentary, The Repetition is not just a reconstruction of the events that led up to and followed the night Jarfi died.
Instead, it also recreates its own production. Before act one even begins, we see the auditions of Cocco, Leenders and Tom Adjibi, who plays Jarfi. The performers are so natural it is as though they are speaking to the casting panel for the first time.
Photo courtesy of the National Performing Arts Center
By approaching the subject from the periphery and then spiraling into the murder around which the play revolves, The Repetition humanizes itself and shares with the audience the intricacies of theatrically representing a real-life tragedy. It addresses, and in so doing begins to heal, the collective trauma of knowing such violence exists.
The show reaches an inevitable death — we know this. But Rau still finds a way in the end (no spoilers, as the show is still touring) to preserve the intensity of the loss of life.
The delicacy with which Rau and his cast guide the audience through a 100-minute meditation on violence turns what began as a deconstruction of theater into a work that even Jarfi’s father, Hassan Jarfi, described as “better than a monument for the dead,” according to NTGent, the theater where Rau serves as artistic director. On stage, and in our memories, Jarfi lives.
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