The Civil Wars

17, 19, 20, 21, 22/05 – 20:30
18/05 – 18:00
± 2h

In June 2013, the Belgian media published a video showing the decapitation of one of Assad’s officers by young jihadists. The fact that one of them is shouting in the background “Turn him this way” in Dutch with a Flemish accent is creating public attention. Starting with the question of what drives hundreds of Europeans to fight for the establishment of a theocracy and against the dominance of the so-called West in Syria, Milo Rau is staging a four-voice lecture-performance about the premises behind insurrection and political engagement. During the course of their own biographies full of twists and turns, four actors – Karim Bel Kacem, Sara De Bosschere, Sébastien Foucault, and Johan Leysen – question the human condition in Europe at the start of the 21st century. Their private stories reflect the politics that unfold a European picture – the human comedy of our time – using four people as an example. What do belief and family mean in an era of radicalism, with the threat of climate wars and a general decline in values? What is keeping society together? How does a period of cultural upheaval translate into people’s private lives? And is theatre today still as suitable a political medium of reflection as it was back then?

Text & direction
Milo Rau

Performed by
Karim Bel Kacem, Sara De Bosschere, Sébastien Foucault, Johan Leysen

Research & dramaturgy
Eva-Maria Bertschy

Scenography & costumes
Anton Lukas

Marc Stephan

Sound design
Jens Baudisch

Direction assistant
Mirjam Knapp

Research assistant
Aurélie Di Marino

Scenographic & technical assistant
Bruno Gilbert

Production manager
Mascha Euchner-Martinez, Eva-Karen Tittmann

Public relations
Yven Augustin

Corporate design
Nina Wolters

Jonas Weissbrodt


Kunstenfestivaldesarts in collaboration with Beursschouwburg (Brussels), Zürcher Theater Spektakel, Kaserne Basel, Schlachthaus Theater Bern, La Bâtie – Festival de Genève, Schaubühne am Lehniner Platz Berlin, Théâtre Nanterre-Amandiers Paris

Supported by
Stadt Zürich Kultur, Pro Helvetia, Migros Kulturprozent, Goethe-Institut Brüssel, Pianofabriek (Brussels)

Special thanks to
Radouane Attiya, Dyab Abou Jahjah, Saliha Ben Ali, Bilal Benyaich, Dimitri Bontinck, Sébastien Courtoy, Christophe Marchand, Richard Millet, Anne Morelli, Kurt Pelda, Véronique Loute, Herwig Todts, Cécile Vanderpelen, Jan Van Goethem, Françoise Wallemacq, Catherine Wilkin, Els Witte

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“This strange Europe…”
In conversation with Milo Rau

For six months, director Milo Rau and his team in Belgium followed the fate of the young men who travelled to Syria to fight for the establishment of a theocracy. They interviewed their parents and brothers and sisters, their lawyers and their political rivals. What do their life plans tell us about Europe at the start of the 21st century? What battle lines are being drawn? What does this say about the oft-cited loss of identity in western societies of which conservative intellectuals such as Thilo Sarrazin in Germany or Richard Millet and Alain de Benoist in France remind us? Is the European project really on the verge of being “pulverised between Islamists and nationalists”, as Anders B. Breivik predicted in Milo Rau’s controversial theatre project Breiviks Erklärung?

In The Civil Wars, Milo Rau concludes his much-discussed cycle You will not like what comes after America and at the same time returns to the issues on which he focused nearly 10 years ago in his meta-agitprop play Bei Anruf Avantgarde (2005) and in his adaptation of The Bacchae performed at numerous festivals, Montana (2007). How are social crises translated into citizens’ biographies? What do revolt and extremism really mean? And how are theatre and politics actually linked?

Rolf Bossart The current and concluding project of the series You will not like what comes after America is called The Civil Wars. Fittingly, apreview is being held the night before the European elections in Europe’scapital, Brussels. All across Europe, radical right wing, fundamentalIslamist or anti-Semitic ideas have become increasingly popular overthe last decade. Is political engagement still possible without the adoptionof extremist views?

Milo Rau To prepare for the project, we researched Belgian Salafists and the country’s radical right-wing scene, because You will not like what comes after America is essentially a series about extreme thinking, from Breivik to Dieudonné, and from 9/11 to today’s jihadists. But we also asked a group of people chosen more-or-less at random what ‘Belgium’ and ‘Europe’ actually mean to them. And the answers obtained in this preliminary research evoked a dual image: while extremists on the Salafist side, or radical right, naturally wanted to revert to traditional models (to a theocracy, on the one hand, and an ethnically defined nation state, on the other), the common denominator of the bourgeois centre-ground, of which I am part, is primarily negative. No one wants wars between states and great empires anymore, but other than that, not much has occurred to people. Today’s Europe, therefore, almost seems like the key to preventing the old Europe, just as Belgium, when it was founded, was quite simply intended to be a buffer between the great powers – a peace-making medium with a difficult, ultimately impossible identity.

RB Is that all that’s left of the European idea?

MR We’re the first generation for whom Europe is no longer an idea, but a ‘reality’; that’s what Karim Bel Kacem, one of the actors in The Civil Wars said when I asked him for a statement on the issue. And that’s exactly it: Europe is a reality, even if it’s an extremely disparate one, and like the outcast bastards in Shakespeare, we have to learn to deal with it. The Civil Wars is therefore not just heralding a catastrophe or a lament from post-history. It’s not a culturally pessimistic concoction either. Rather, it’s a label for the possible filling of a specifically European gap that, in the way we want to show it, is actually a private and very personal gap.

RB So The Civil Wars is basically not about Europe falling apart or about European jihadists, but about the actors’ biographies – and ultimately, about their respective relationship to their father, to God, to their career…?

MR Yes, that’s right. The Civil Wars has gone a very long way: from jihadists and Belgian national consciousness to the actors’ biographies. But that’s why research and rehearsals are there: to make inroads into the narrative core of objective events. You suddenly notice that the symptoms are uninteresting, that the dramatic interest is hidden somewhere else. In concrete terms, Islamic danger and European disintegration – and this is actually my political realisation from You will not like what comes after America, in the course of which we interviewed a whole host of extremists – do not present a real and deadly danger for the continent, but an extremely effective public narrative, and consequently, a biographical one too. But to understand why that’s the case, it’s worth understanding this gap I was talking about as a universal, existential topic. And indeed both in Europe’s imaginary entity and in the personal privacy of its inhabitants, regardless of whether they’re jihadists or actors. Why is it that suddenly something that concerns most people, this hole in their own existence, has to be filled with a strange role or a strange text? And what determines whether it is something monstrous or something beautiful or a bit of both? And so everything has been reduced in scale like in an ancient myth: of all the huge topics that have worried us the last few years – the Breiviks and holy warriors and right-wing populists who we’ve bidden on stage and in front of the camera – it’s the ‘little things’, the innermost stories that have remained. Because it was predetermined by the mothers and primarily by the fathers: the dominant and the absent, the existential characteristics and what we make of them.

RB Does that mean the actors are virtually speaking in their own words? Talking about ‘their’ Belgium, ‘their’ jihad, ‘their’ civil war, ‘their’ Europe?

MR Precisely. Suddenly it made no sense to me anymore to ask them to read the words of a young fighter in Syria or an old SS officer (of whom there are still some in Belgium). It has something to do with them. Something is explained through this. Sara De Bosschere, Karim Bel Kacem, Sébastien Foucault, and Johan Leysen are four European actors with quite ‘typical’ life stories. And that’s why The Civil Wars is about us: a picture of Europe, the entire human comedy of our time using the example of four people – four actors, their parents, their fantasies, their work…

RB So what kind of time are we living in?

MR It’s a fatherless time because it’s very much without role models. When Nelson Mandela died, one of the last genuinely political figures departed this world. What we have left is a whole load of technocrats who perform their service in anonymous organisations like the European Parliament or the UN, without anyone understanding what they’re actually doing there, let alone what their political convictions are. Our fathers, the actors’ fathers, have all come to grief in the liberal market economy they grew up with – or they’ve gone crazy with it. Our mothers, on the contrary, have untiringly sought to cope with the conflicting demands of the age, to rescue their families and to love their work. And now we’re at a point in the history of Europe when hundreds and thousands of young men are devoting themselves heart and soul to ultraconservative religious convictions and would rather die in Syria for a theocracy than continue floundering in the suburbs of Brussels or Paris where there is an absence of utopia altogether.

RB So is there no longer a political utopia for Europe?

MR Well, we shouldn’t stop looking for it. The Belgian-Lebanese political activist Dyab Abou Jahjah, who helped us with our research, prophesied in the second version of Die Berliner Gespräche: “Either we find a common story or in a few years there’ll be civil war in Europe.” And in my opinion, that’s still putting it rather optimistically. As a NASA study recently established, there’s no avoiding an ecological catastrophe, and the 21st century will be one of massive climate wars. Anyone interested in a more or less apt description of what our planet is facing from the middle of the century onwards: it is described quite accurately in the Apocalypse of John.

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Milo Rau was born in 1977 in Bern. He trained in sociology, German, and Romance studies in Paris, Zurich, and Berlin under Tzvetan Todorov and Pierre Bourdieu, among others. In 1997 he started his first reporting trips (Chiapas, Cuba); from 2000, he worked as an author for NZZ, and from 2003 as a director and author at home and abroad with the Maxim Gorki Theatre in Berlin, Staatsschauspiel Dresden, HAU Hebbel am Ufer Berlin, Theaterhaus Gessnerallee Zurich, Teatrul Odeon Bucharest, Beursschouwburg in Brussels, and others. In 2007, Rau founded the theatre and film production company IIPM, which he has been running ever since. His films and theatrical re-enactments have formed part of some of the biggest national and international festivals: in 2012-2013, the Berliner Theatertreffen, Noorderzon Performing Arts Festival (Groningen), Wiener Festwochen, and the Radikal Jung Festival, where he was awarded the critics’ prize for direction. Alongside his work for stage and film, Milo Rau lectures on directing, cultural theory, and social sculpture at universities and colleges. His productions, campaigns, and films (including: Montana, The Last Hours of Elena and Nicolae Ceausescu, Hate Radio, City of Change, Breivik’s Statement, The Moscow Trials, and The Zurich Trials) participated in the Festival d’Avignon, among others, and were nominated for the Prix de Soleure, while also touring the world. The Swiss newspaper Tagesanzeiger recently named him as one of the “most sought-after directors of today”, with the German weekly Der Freitag calling him “the most controversial theatre director of his generation”.

Karim Bel Kacem was born in 1985 and has Berber roots. His father emigrated from northern Morocco to France in the 1980s. Karim Bel Kacem studied drama and fine arts in Paris (Conservatoire du 6e arrondissement) and in Lausanne (HETSR, Manufacture). As an actor he has worked with the likes of Árpád Schilling. As a director, his productions include the lecture-performance You will never walk alone. He also runs the Geneva creation structure THINK THANK THEATRE. He is artist-inresidence at Théâtre Saint-Gervais.

Sara De Bosschere first appeared on stage as a child, playing one of the lead roles in Lucas Vandevorst’s production of Wedekind’s Spring Awakening at the age of sixteen. After studying drama at the Royal Conservatoire of Antwerp, she joined the theatre company Maatschappij Discordia, which broke new ground in Dutch and Flemish theatre. With four fellow students she eventually set up the Flemish-Belgian theatre company De Roovers, which has performed in Belgium’s leading theatres and elsewhere in Europe since 1994.

Sébastien Foucault studied acting and directing at the Liège Conservatoire following studies in French literature at the Sorbonne in Paris. During his intense collaboration with the Belgian theatre director Françoise Bloch at the Théâtre National, he specialised in documentary theatre formats. In the play Hate Radio by Milo Rau, he played Belgian radio presenter Georges Ruggiu, reconstructing all the facets of Ruggiu’s career as the ‘white Hutu’ in Rwanda, through extensive research for the play.

Johan Leysen began his acting career in Belgian and Dutch theatres. In 1983, following early film roles, he met Jean-Luc Godard who then hired him to play the part of the teacher in his film Hail Mary. Leysen has had numerous film roles in French and international productions, winning several awards while still remaining loyal to theatre. His collaboration with theatre makers such as Guy Cassiers, Johan Simons, and Heiner Goebbels has made him one of Europe’s leading and highest-profile stage actors.

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