Seeing is believing (or not): Romeo Castellucci’s ‘The minister’s black veil’
Suddenly it hit me, as that kneeling, naked guy was trying to put a shard of glass in his – pardon me – anus, and a voice was repeating just that one word, Jesu, Jesu, Jesu, and as that image was sending shivers through the audience: how close Romeo Castellucci‘s theatre comes to religion and a religious service. You have those who believe and those who don’t. Some miracles are performed in front of your eyes, and at a certain point there’s a moment that serves as some sort of communion. But: The minister’s black veil, based on a story by Nathaniel Hawthorne, at deSingel, Antwerp. A couple of days after I saw this performance, the Italian director decided to cancel the complete Black veil-tour, as he was not satisfied with what he’d come up with.
First of all: I hate it when they hand out ear plugs at a theatre performance. The art of noise? I just don’t get it. Loud? OK. But why the volume needs to be put up unbearably loud in a theatre? Beats me. But anyway: Hawthorne’s Black veil (you can read the parable here) is about a minister who one Sunday decides to wear a black veil. He offers no explanation and never takes off that veil again until the day he dies. He will even be buried wearing it.
As you enter the theatre, you’re looking at that same ‘veil’: a big black rectangle. As if Castellucci is hiding the stage from everybody’s view. Unexpectedly, loud noise sets in. And gradually one of those impressive images that the Italian theatre director is known for, becomes visible to the eye: amidst some sort of tornado a guy is waving a flag. The noise continues, the tornado rages, and slowly the image fades again.
Then words start to appear on that black rectangle. Fragments from Hawthorne’s story. You hear Johan Leysen’s voice, reading them. And then another image appears. One of a meticulously rebuilt rectory from the 1800s, in mysterious semi-darkness. The light is changing, but the minister isn’t moving. And then a huge monster – a machine vehemently blowing steam – arrives.
Either you believe, or you don’t. Either you let the effect of those powerful images get to you, or you don’t, and you just end up with a series of incredibly well-constructed sets and scenes. It comes close to a religion. And then something happens: that guy. And either you ‘participate’ in this ‘consecration’, or that becomes the moment where you disconnect, for good. Even though that last scene – I won’t spoil it all – is again a beautiful one. What is clear though, is that it’s all about being there, together, in that theatre hall, about the togetherness of experiencing something. About that energy. As I said: it comes close to a religion. Especially this time, with a performance that, as Castellucci admits, is about the face of Jesus.
Apart from all this: the premiere of The minister’s black veil in Antwerp had to be postponed with one day. At the evening of the premiere the performance started with a delay of at least 30 minutes, due to technical problems. Castellucci clearly wasn’t ready yet. And that’s the feeling you get from watching this Black veil too: a lot of technical and theatrical wizardry, but in the end Castellucci doesn’t succeed in clearly conveying his thoughts, and consequently, as a viewer, you’re lost. Even if you’re a believer.
After the performances in Antwerp, Castellucci cancelled the tour of ‘The minister’s black veil’.
Postscript December 2016: A new version of “The minister’s black veil”, with actor Willem Dafoe, has premiered at deSingel, Wednesday December 14. Utopia Parkway review here.