Cruelty, thy name is Cenci...

Artaud's 1935 play `The Cenci' was years ahead of its time: is the time right for Giorgio Battistelli's reinterpretation? By Nick Kimberley
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However ill-used we may feel after a particularly purgatorial experience, the Theatre of Cruelty doesn't really exist. Even Antonin Artaud, its accursed progenitor, admitted as much, although it wasn't for want of trying. What Artaud strove for was to free performers and audiences alike from the tyranny of text, to redefine the theatrical space, to revolutionise every aspect of theatre. Artaud envisaged the use of new instruments, of noise itself, of lighting that worked like "arrows of fire": the audience should experience theatre "with their souls and their nerves".

Artaud hoped to achieve his ideal with his 1935 Paris staging of his own play, The Cenci, derived from a text by Stendahl and from Shelley's verse drama. Artaud's collaborators on the production included the painter Balthus, who designed the set, and the composer/conductor Roger Desormiere (best known now for conducting the first recording of Debussy's Pelleas et Melisande), responsible for what we now call sound-design, a collage of sound effects presented in what may have been the first theatrical use of stereo.

Artaud himself took the role of Count Cenci, a 16th-century nobleman who raped his daughter, Beatrice, and was murdered by two of his servants, who hammered nails into his throat and eyes. The writer/director boasted that the piece had attained "the last degree of violence". Add an unmistakable vein of anti-papism, and it was clearly not the kind of thing le tout Paris was going to flock to: it closed after 17 performances. The failure devastated Artaud, who fled the country a few months later (only to return two years later in a strait-jacket).

This week, as part of the Almeida Opera festival, The Cenci returns to the stage, not in a historical re-creation of what Artaud intended, but as a new collaboration between the Italian composer Giorgio Battistelli and the British playwright/director Nick Ward, who have together produced their own text (working from a translation by the conductor David Parry), which will be realised with the help of "image creation and direction" by Studio Azzurro of Milan, and live electronics by Centro Tempo Reale.

Nick Ward admits that Artaud's staging of The Cenci was one of the most famous disasters in theatrical history - "But people underestimate his huge influence on ways of looking at theatre, of looking at reality," he says. "He was a visionary, almost a prophet, but he lacked collaborators. What was unique about Artaud is that he was both a poet and a great director. That's been completely absent from British theatre in the past few years, where there has been a plentiful lack of experiment, apart from experiments in greed, in directors taking established plays and giving them a supposed Artaudian spin. His idea of creating a dense experience, as opposed to the thin linear experience that theatre offered, and continues to offer, was far ahead of its time; and his invitation to technology, image, recorded sound, has had an enormous influence."

That invitation has been gladly accepted by Battistelli, a composer already familiar at this address from his 1995 visit with Experimentum Mundi, a living musical craft museum in which 20 artisans from his home town of Albano, south of Rome, went about their daily tasks - pasta-making, knife-sharpening, brick-laying and so forth - in time to the beat of the composer's baton.

Battistelli calls his stage works "teatro di musica", a term which, he admits, is difficult to translate. "It's not `music drama', or `music theatre', it's `theatre of music': the music is the dramaturgy. With this new piece, Artaud was my starting-point, not only the Artaud of the play The Cenci, but the Artaud of the essays he later published as The Theatre of Cruelty. For me, that was an important concept, not just for theatre, but for my teatro di musica. He spoke about the relationship between the play and the space in which it's performed, and my score explores just that relationship. We have several dimensions to work with: a dimension of the visual, a dimension of the sound, and a dimension of the sound in space."

Which is where Studio Azzurro comes in. Battistelli has worked on several other pieces with this Milan-based group, which brings together film, photography, graphics and animation so as to redefine the possibilities of visual art. "What they contribute is more than decor," he says, "it's an integrated dramatic element." For The Cenci, their contribution extends the performance beyond the last sound of Battistelli's musical score by means of an interactive installation within the stage space. As Battistelli suggests, "The drama never stops, but continues, begins again the next day."

Ward, too, is clearly excited about working with Studio Azzurro. "They make images come out of the air, they create magic. British theatre has not seen anything like what these people do." The installation is, he says, an attempt to get close to memory, and how it functions. "Artaud's play is about incest, about love and anti-love, love's opposite," he explains; "the installation is a way of finding a metaphor for the play's theme, of re-creating the theatre and what Artaud called its `double'. It's about the audience becoming participants".

`The Cenci': opens 8pm Friday, then 12, 14, 19, 20 July, Almeida Theatre, Islington, London N1 (0171-359 4404). Pre-performance talk 6.45pm Sat. Installation also open 2.30-6pm 12 July, 2.30-7pm 20 July