In 2012 Ihsane Jarfi was beaten to death in Liege, the victim of an apparently random homophobic attack. There is a moment in Milo Rau’s production when Jarfi’s ex-boyfriend talks about remaining in the courtroom during the trial when pictures of Jarfi’s broken body were shown to the jury. He stayed, he said, because he did not want Jarfi to be alone in that moment.
Rau never lets Jarfi be alone in a piece that understands that theatre is a place where we can hear dead voices. At its most potent it is a place where ghosts can be summoned, and through repetition the absent made present and tangible. Rau has recently issued the Ghent Manifesto, perhaps doing for theatre what DOGMA95 did for the movies. Point one declares: “It’s not just about portraying the world anymore. It’s about changing it. The aim is not to depict the real, but make the representation itself real.”
That certainly happens in a piece that combines Rau’s forensic training as a sociologist with his skill as a theatre-maker. It constantly points to its own artifice as it sets live action alongside projected video feeds. The more Rau reminds that what we are watching is theatre, the realer it seems, particularly in a long, gruelling sequence in which Jarfi’s murder is enacted in gruesome detail. It is uncompromising, and agony to watch, but Rau makes us bear witness, almost daring us to look away.
Placing professional and non-professional actors side by side, and putting documentary evidence and verbatim text cheek by jowl, this is a show that never puts the brakes on in its determination to lay bare its own processes. At one point the actors playing one of the murderers goes to visit one of the perpetrators and reflects how similar their lives have been and how easily they could be sitting on different sides of the table. Perhaps the violence visited on Jarfi was the external manifestation of the internalised disappointment that stalks a city in industrial decline.
There are moments when La Reprise feels too full of itself, too tricksy. But this is bold theatre-making, vividly deconstructing our conception of tragedy, and constantly pointing up the way that acting is a form of ghosting. Towards the end when Tom Adjibi sings Purcell you would swear you can hear the dead rustle all around us.