Where the look stops. The disturbing black veil of Romeo Castellucci

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The Minister's Black Veil - Romeo Castellucci
The Minister’s Black Veil – Romeo Castellucci

In the beautiful Nathaniel Hawthorne‘s short story The Minister’s Black Veil, a face covered by black crepe veil shocks the entire village of Milford, New England. The fact that Reverend Mr. Hooper, a dignified minister in his thirties, hides his face behind a veil with no further explanations, throws the whole community into a sense of unexplainable terror, into the feeling that the veil can be concealing something horrible and monstrous, a kind of ominous presage.
«[…] This veil is a type and a symbol, and I am bound to wear it ever, both in light and darkness, in solitude and before the gaze of multitudes, and as with strangers, so with my familiar friends. No mortal eye will see it withdrawn. This dismal shade must separate me from the world.»
These are the only words used by Mr. Hooper to explain his act to the fiancé Elizabeth (no one else among the villagers dares to ask him about it). As far as respected, his acephalous figure cannot help but carry sadness and terror and give way to rumors. In the black haze of the crepe veil, the monstrous, the terrible manifests itself before the eyes of the community as well as to the minister himself, always reticent yet strong in his decision.
On his death, the fellow citizens would bury him without taking off the veil, respecting that silence and all the enigmas which has surrounded this extreme act. But the unutterableness stays there: «[…] good Mr. Hooper’s face is dust; but awful is still the thought that it mouldered beneath the Black Veil!»
In that unutterableness revives the new Socìetas Raffaello Sanzio’s creation, Romeo Castellucci’s “The Minister’s Black Veil”, premiered at Teatro Vascello in Rome in the frame of the 26th Romaeuropa Festival. To find a descriptive relationship with Hawthorne’s story is here completely vain. Castellucci does not put the spectator before a “written scene” able to reabsorb the literary text in a field of images-signs, least of all he points to iconographical investigations led by the symbolic elements tracked down along the story. Peculiar is the very creative process the show is based on. Originally imagined as a part of the diptych (along with On the concept of face regarding the son of God), a Black Veil‘s first version was seen in France last March. Only after this run the director decided to reset it up modifying it in its core. Then that vaguely narrative line which had characterized the recent past Castellucci’s works (since the adaptation of Dante’s Inferno and Purgatorio until the Concept of face) is here wiped away by the return to a complete unrepresentableness. If the latter shows apparently were aimed to a revelation, in which, despite its unreachability, the “marvelous element” could work as a “tragic” passport to the liberation and to an afterlife knowledge, The Minister’s Black Veil shows a process of mere concealment.
As well as the black haze hides the minister’s face, so the very creative act looks obscure and enigmatic: the abysmal distance from the original text goes adrift in a montage of dreamy images floating on the surface of the theatrical machinery. The theme of “religiosity” is here embodied by the relationship between a community (the audience) and the lack of answers, the whirling collapse of the sense.

And a whirlpool actually opens the show. A blue curtain hides the stage; two lampshades connect scene and stalls; the proscenium is framed by a green marble arch engraved with the words Eukaryota Animalia Vertebrata Tetrapoda Mammalia, which indicate the exact biological belonging of the human species. The lights turn suddenly off and a deafening noise drags the spectator in a vertiginous fall down to the world of pure image.
Masses of silver and black matter, protected by a transparent screen, swirl on stage like a crazy flight of bats. The theatrical machinery becomes a threshold from which we are able to peep into an inscrutable universe, the dark shade that separates the artistic action from the everyday world. Folded again, the curtain slowly and silently slides back and forth revealing and hiding fragments of images from a different dimension, elsewhere.

And it’s in this very elsewhere – the hidden face of the minister – that Castellucci’s art settles. Scott Gibbon‘s sound design, performer Silvia Costa‘s actions, the dramaturgy of images linked together in a montage of an Eizensteinian cast are just a surface, mirror of a mirror, image of an image. The unveiling of every stage effect – purposely intended by the artist – is useful not in the service of a Brechtian estrangement effect, but rather to underline the importance of an “off-screen” where something completely mysterious is happening, emerging on stage step by step in a dreamlike and transfigured way.
It’s not casual that the very motion-picture imagery seems to permeate the whole performance, straight to the explicit reference to the Lumière Brothers’ very first short film ever showed (The Arrival of the Train at La Ciotat), with the entrance of a real locomotive that slowly moves out of the darkness and brakes the edge of the stage, menacing the spectators in their safe seats.
Something happened: as well as in 1896 the black and white images of that locomotive, characterized by an extraordinary depth of field, had shocked the audience of Grand Cafè in Paris, this train, arriving from an unknown universe and heading for an (as much unknown) elsewhere, suddenly disturbs the look, throws it into a dimension where the sense no longer has anything human. What Castellucci finally investigates it’s the théaomai, the act of seeing, of believing in a vision. This overwhelming quantity of images is in fact hiding their very desperate subtraction. If in Hawthorne’s story the main character is not the mister but the community of believers, the center of Castellucci’s work is the eye of the beholder, dragged on the edge of this provocative black hole.

On stage remain just emotional grips, the poisonous sting of microscopic, confused and unexplainable visions, which are bound to grow in the mind of a community and to eventually turn into a disturbing worm. There’s no point looking for a sense, tracking down all the possible metatheatrical dynamics of this performance. There is nothing left to do but to stare at that black veil under which the images, like Mr. Hooper was, “are dust”. To feel a strange terror thinking about how, under this haze, they, eventually, dissolved.

Matteo Antonaci

[translated by Sergio Lo Gatto]

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