Edinburgh Festival 2019: La Reprise, Are we not drawn onward to new erA

Milo Rau’s ‘La Reprise’ is a deeply humane look at trauma after a senseless murder while the fiendishly clever ‘Are we not drawn onward to new erA’ is about climate change

Holly Williams
Wednesday 07 August 2019 13:21
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Milo Rau’s ‘La Reprise’ restages the brutal murder of a young man, Ihsane Jarfi, by drunken homophobes in Liege in Belgium in 2012
Milo Rau’s ‘La Reprise’ restages the brutal murder of a young man, Ihsane Jarfi, by drunken homophobes in Liege in Belgium in 2012

La Reprise: Histoire(s) du Theatre (I) ★★★★☆ / Are we not drawn onward to new erA ★★★☆☆

Milo Rau is one of Europe’s most famous directors, but his work is seen comparatively little here – and La Reprise (Lyceum Theatre), performed by his Belgian company from NTGent has a criminally short run at the Edinburgh International Festival. Like much of his work, it could sound provocative. La Reprise (The Repetition) restages the brutal murder of a young man, Ihsane Jarfi, by drunken homophobes in Liege in Belgium in 2012.

In fact, it’s a deeply humane look at trauma, drawing on interviews with Jarfi’s family and former partner. But it’s also an inquiry into art and theatre, the human need to repeat things. How we use the tragedy, as an art form, to try to make sense of actual tragedies. La Reprise also accepts we will never really know what happened that night, and highlights its own artifice, asking what it means to reconstruct a “real” story. And on top of that, I think, it forms an invitation to question why we want or need to watch sex and violence – and what the enacting of such things might mean for performers.

So, it’s a lot. But Rau’s production takes a calm approach. It’s almost too slow, but I liked how it felt respectful and measured, rather than flashy or clever-clever. There’s also a gentle, deadpan humour that seams throughout it, and a sense of stripped-back honesty.

The cast is a mix of professional and non-professionals actors; all of them speak to the audience (sometimes down the lens of a camera, in live projections). They stage a fictionalised version of the casting process for the non-professionals, with droll chat about what theatre means to them, and what the production might demand – kissing, nudity, staged violence. From stage mist to how a soundtrack is constructed, La Reprise shows the audience theatrical building blocks, before it reconstructs Jarfi’s death out of them. But it’s still harrowing, even when you know how it’s done.

The cast are uniformly very good, and their recreations of the interviews beautifully understated. But for all the insights you get into the socio-economic deprivation of Liege – a post-industrial town strangled by unemployment – and of the trial and the killers, it still remains a senseless death. The banality of the brutality hits you powerfully, and surely drives the desire to repeat, to try to understand. The question Rau seems to be asking is: can art ever be enough to help us understand such things?

Another Belgian company, Ontroerend Goed, are a staple of the fringe – but their work provides a regular shot in the arm. Their new play Are we not drawn onward to new erA (Zoo Southside) is, on a technical and formal level, fiendishly clever and well realised. And it speaks – softly, but powerfully – about one of the main themes of the fringe this year: climate change. Minute-by-minute, however, it can be a bit of a slog.

The sharp-eyed will have noticed the title is a palindrome. So is the play. You begin wondering what garbled language they’re speaking; soon it becomes clear they’re talking backwards, sometimes walking backwards too. The first half of the show sees an apple tree pulled apart, a pot smashed with a hammer, plastic bags dropped down onto the stage, a giant golden statue erected (the show nods to the destruction of democracy, and the destruction of historical artefacts, as well as the destruction of the natural world).

Then one actress steps forward. The curtains close. “This is where we stop. This is where we are now. We can’t undo what we did. We can only go forward.”

Onto a gauzy screen, a video of the first half is then played backwards – which dramaturgically actually just contradicts what they literally just said. Then again, now the action feels like it’s going forwards, their actions and words all making sense. Some of the actions needed to clean up the mess humans have made are “impossible”, one of the actresses complains – it’s still worth a try, says another. There’s an optimistic joy at watching a broken branch spring back into leaf, at plastic bags magically rise up off the stage and disappear. Or maybe it’s depressing wishful thinking?

The skill involved to make this work is mind-bending, and the company pull it off with astonishing accuracy – as well as throwing in the odd well-earned little meta-theatrical jokes about the technical challenges. In fact, it could have done with maybe more of these: the pace of the show is quite treacly and portentous, and the slow, off-kilter first half feels like it asks for a lot before delivering its pay-off. But – as with La Reprise – the slowness is surely an intentional response to an overwhelming topic, one that we arguably need to really sit with. And both these shows are a form of theatrical bearing witness.

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