The International Theatre Festival of the Venice Biennale Kicks of in Grand Style with Rigola’s World Premiere and Ute Lemper

Iante Gaia Roach  08.03.2013

The world premiere of Àlex Rigola’s adaptation El policia de las ratas, taken from Roberto Bolaño’s short story Rat Police, inaugurated the 42nd International Theatre Festival of the Venice Biennale on Friday 2nd August 2013, ten years from the Cilean author’s premature death. It was the first work presented by the Catalan theatre director at the Festival. Rigola, who is also the director of Barcelona’s Lliure Theatre, has previously worked with authors as diverse as William Shakespeare, Woody Allen, Georg Buchner, Tennesse Williams, Tom Stoppard, Franz Kafka among others, in the most important Spanish and European theatres, and has previously adapted Bolaño’s cult novel 2666 for the stage, winning a plethora of awards. The play took place at Teatro alle Tese, located within the Arsenale (the second big venue of the art Biennale, alongside the Giardini), in an intimate setting.

Rigola chose a minimalistic staging for El policia de las ratas, with two actors on a stage furnished only with two chairs, two microphones, a blood bag, a small hidden white plastic mouse, and a big silver foil structure – which is uncovered towards the end of the 55-minute play to reveal the unseemly, bloody corpse of a giant rat. The acting of Spanish virtuosos Andreu Benito and Joan Carreras was excellent. Together they told the story of rat-detective Pepe el Tira, interpreted by Carreras, and his quest for a serial killer, whose actions contravene the natural law whereby rats do not kill members of their own species, in a dystopian rat world, a sad metaphor of our own. El Tira’s sensitive personality is explained to derive from his singer aunt Josefina, who in Bolaño’s text represents an homage to Kafka’s last short story Josephine the Singer, or the Mouse Folk. This occasions a series of humorous reflections on the role of artists in society, perceived as weirdos by El Tira’s companion ­– and thus society at large. As the story progresses, El Tira gets more and more involved with the lives – or rather deaths – of the serial killer’s victims, and by the end dreams that he himself has killed another rat, putting into question one of his fundamental beliefs, that members of the same species do not kill each other. The play ends with both actors exiting from the stage through a door in the backstage wall which gives onto the outside world, revealing the sunset on the canal surrounding the Arsenale, leading the audience from the darkest recesses of humanity to the shining light of the
Venetian summer.

The dramaturgy of El policia de la ratas is beautifully crafted: the story and the themes become apparent through the actors’ gripping narration, not through a physical re-enactment of the plot. Their limited physicality is highly symbolic, and the characterization is entirely convincing, with Carreras playing a tormented, sensitive soul, and Benito a more solid, ironic type. The play raises fundamental questions regarding human relations, killing, death, and the role of artists, but the ironic metaphors and elements tend at times to supplant the seriousness of the themes rather than enhance their urgency.

Ute Lemper’s recital Ute Lemper sings Brecht-Weill at Venice’s famous opera house Teatro Fenice closed the Festival’s opening night. The celebrated and versatile actress, dancer and singer came on stage when her musicians (a pianist and a bandoneon player) had already began playing, sporting a long black sparkling dress, elegantly toying with her black hat. She began the show by singing Kurt Weill-Bertholt Brecht’s Falling in Love Again. Then Lemper addressed the public, reminiscing about her previous performance in the same theatre some twenty years ago, before it was renovated ensuing arson in 2001. She announced that she wouldn’t ‘respect’ the deal and sing only Weill and Brecht, but would bring the audience along with her on a journey across her favourite pieces and genres, ranging from the chanson française of Jacques Brel and Léo Ferré to Astor Piazzolla’s tango and even to Nino Rota. Lemper interspersed this wide and varied repertoire by recounting stories and reflections to the public with her mesmerizing warm voice, even singling out a male member of the audience, a certain Luciano, whom she playfully invoked during her love songs. She demonstrated great talent and showmanship in alternating the various genres, from 1920s-30s Berlin kabarett style singing and dancing, for which she is perhaps most famous, to imitating jazz musical instruments. The rapt audience, who gave a standing ovation, was prized with a beautiful encore: Avec le temps by Ferré.

A brilliant performer, the artist stood out perhaps more during her truly enchanting storytelling, which appeared more original and contemporary than much of her nostalgic singing, despite its virtuosity. The recital marked an odd note within the Theatre Festival’s outstanding program, which showcases the best of European and international theatre, mostly experimental and avantgarde. Lemper’s references and style don’t seem a particularly apt musical insertion, though she might attract a wider audience. However, the masterclass she gave as part of the Biennale College – Theatre on the same day was undoubtedly highly beneficial for her young disciples.

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