Making the ungraspable tangible. Or how Romeo Castellucci gets his ‘Minister’s Black Veil’ right the second time

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When was the last time these people had been queuing up to get into a church? Not to admire a unique painting or a stained glass window, but for a real service? Just a thought, as I was standing on the steps of Antwerp’s Sint-Michiels church, watching the crowd, waiting for the doors to open, thinking about religion, theatre and rituals. Three things I was sure this evening was going to be about. The Minister’s Black Veil. Five years ago Romeo Castellucci tried to stage it, but he failed. So I was really curious to see what he would do this time, with the help of American actor Willem Dafoe.

Preparatory Meditation. That was the title of the book I was given upon entering the church. A black book, with a red ribbon marker, looking like a bible. As I opened it, after I had taken a seat, I saw some hundred pages of text, in Dutch and English, with a couple of Gregorian staves at the end. Someone was playing the organ, and I heard the faint sound of people singing.

theministersblackveil_photo_bradtrentThen the priest entered, he greeted the tabernacle at the back of the church, and chimed a bell, before walking towards his parish. It was the moment at which those who had bought a ticket to see a certain well-known Hollywood actor, will have let a curse out. Because, as could be expected, Willem Dafoe was wearing a black veil, hiding his eyes and his nose. His mouth was all one could see, enough to know that it was really him, standing there in his black cassock. He took his place at the pulpit, and started talking.

“Let no man deceive himself.
If any man among you seemeth to be wise in this world
Let him become a fool, that he may be wise;
for the wisdom of this world is foolishness before God.”
1 Corinthians 3:18

The Minister’s Black Veil is based on a short story by Nathaniel Hawthorne, published in 1832, in which Reverend Mr. Hooper shocks his congregation (and his fiancée Elizabeth) by suddenly wearing a black veil. That first day he delivers a sermon, about which Hawthorne writes almost nothing. Castellucci decided to fill that gap and asked his sister Claudia to write that sermon. It’s an enigmatic text, in which fragments of the bible are cited. Each time Dafoe opens a big book and looks it up.

“Because you have seen, you believe, o Thomas?
Blessed are they that have not seen,
and yet have believed.”
John 20:29

It is Castellucci’s second try at staging The Minister’s Black Veil. In 2011 he already tried to do it, also at deSingel (Antwerp). That first version had a short run there (Utopia review here), only for Castellucci to decide that he wasn’t satisfied with the piece and he cancelled the tour.
The differences between that version and this one are enormous. Was the 2011 version completely over the top, with loud noise, special effects and impressive sets designs, the 2016 version is the opposite. It’s just Dafoe delivering his sermon, with a bit of a soundscape added near the end, as if the earth starts to rumble, and some minor directorial interventions. It was all about theatrical means the first time, now it’s all about the words.

“Peter said to Jesus: Master, it is good for us to be
here.”
Mark 9:5

That first version puzzled me completely. I didn’t have a clue as to what Castellucci was trying to say. The amazing thing about this version is that it still remains impenetrable and mysterious – sometimes annoyingly so – but at the same time Castellucci succeeds in making you feel that he’s talking about something utterly essential. He makes something ungraspable almost tangible. Something, about seeing, hiding, faith, religion, guilt, responsibility; about you, me and the other. Between the lines this piece somehow starts to vibrate. And for once, Castellucci doesn’t need some sort of big theatrical gesture to do that.

That which is good, is still. Amen. After he had spoken his last words, Dafoe walked away, past us, through the long corridor. One by one, the lights went out. We were all left in the dark. With our thoughts, and just the faint shimmering of a single candle, in the far distance. You felt the whole church wondering: is it OK to applaud here? Then the flickering light of a couple of flashlights, guiding us all out. There we went, shuffling silently, from the dark into the dark. From the silence of the church into the sounds of the city. Just as everybody else I wanted to hold on to my black book, but had to give it back. Then I noticed stacks of little booklets lying on a table. I picked one up, only to discover that it was not Dafoe’s text, but Hawthorne’s story. Of course.

You’ll find a pdf of Claudia Castellucci’s text on the website of deSingel, here. Utopia Parkway review of the 2011 version of The Minister’s Black Veil here. You can read Hawthorne’s story here.

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