Alessandro Serra credit Fiorenzo Niccoli
Alessandro Serra (credit) Fiorenzo Niccoli

Alessandro Serra: ‘Theatre is the place where you can save your soul’

Once again, Alessandro Serra and his company are coming to Budapest at the invitation of MITEM to perform Shakespeare’s The Tempest twice at the National Theatre as part of the Theatre Olympics. We spoke with the Italian director about his Hungarian experiences, the play, and the role of the theatre. 

– It’s time again for the Theatre Olympics, this time in Hungary: what kind of experience did you have in our country and what do you expect, what kind of meaning does the opportunity to be at the Olympics have for you?

– Being at the Olympics means connecting with the ethics of the founding masters of this extraordinary adventure. It is a great responsibility towards the spectators who expect to see theater honored by the means of theater, by putting the actor at the center of stage art. We were guests of Maestro Suzuki in Toga Mura in 2019 and now we return to Budapest after we presented our MACBETTU last year in the same theater, which was received with much human warmth by the Hungarian audience. 

– You are presenting at the tenth edition of the Theatre Olympiad with your fourth Shakespearean mise-en-scène, among which Macbeth (Macbettu), performed in the language of your ancestors, the Sardinian language, has won countless awards. This time you directed a true classic, The Tempest: this is the author’s last independent work, which is still the most popular and has already been performed in many ways – as an allegory for every political and psychological situation. What is the ‘Serra characteristic’ of this direction that distinguishes it from other adaptations of The Tempest?

– Actually, The Tempest is my second Shakespeare. There is no ‘Serra characteristic’, the theater classics contain the archetypes that govern the world and human relations, reading a text in depth means bringing out its image. The text is not the words, which are only a means to access a deeper level. Shakespeare is an ancient and stratified mountain, it needs to be dissected so that the geological and psychological lines can emerge, so that the pettiness of human relationships, the fragility of great and small men, the heroism of small everyday gestures, the great story and the small everyday stories can be unmasked. I, together with my companions, merely expunge these auras, distill the universal sentiments and show them to the audience as if they were reflecting mirrors. We must hold up the mirror, Hamlet says, and it is as if Shakespeare were saying it. It is the same thought as Chekhov: man will only become better when we show him as he is. 

– According to you, Shakespeare’s plays have a strong meaning ‘behind the text’, which makes their staging really special. What caught your eye in The Tempest, why did you choose this particular play?

– During the lockdown, theaters were closed and we were tempted to be seduced with online theater. But as it was with the birth of cinema, TV and the internet, with each new challenge theater has always emerged and regenerated, regaining its human and ritual nature. Re-reading The Tempest, I was deeply moved by this hymn to theater made with the means of theater. It is a perfect metaphor for how a stage device, with all its tricks and crude conventions, can make the deep nature of the human being emerge from the illusory surface we call reality. 

Later, in the course of rehearsals, in addition to the magical and theatrical nature, a disruptive political force emerged. When the text became flesh and I started listening to those fiery words every day, I had to adapt. So perhaps I would say that it was not I who adapted the text but the text that adapted me. Then the war broke out, which like all wars, is a fratricidal war. This land is mine! I was here first! Palestine, Ukraine, the whole world, every border, the fence of our terraced house… Prospero’s island is the world, an endless, tiny space surrounded by a Mediterranean (still full of corpses) that everyone wants to conquer, possess and destroy. The Tempest presages the history of the West and in doing so Shakespeare gives us a great lesson: he tells us that the thirst for power, which moves everything, must give way to forgiveness and if we want to change the world we must first change ourselves. Growth is always internal. Prospero renounces revenge because Ariel, one of his slaves, teaches him compassion. He learns to forgive his enemy. The king of Naples kneels and asks for forgiveness and thus ends the war between the two peoples. And perhaps the union of the two young men is the hope for the future. The hope is that we Westerners can one day kneel before the South and ask forgiveness for the evil we have done.

– You do not use sets and do almost all the technical work (lighting, sound) as well as the design of the sets and costumes – you once said that directing is only the last stage in the construction of the performance. The staging of The Tempest is very special: can you tell us how you got from idea to realization?

– It is a process that starts with craftsmanship but then loses itself in an alchemical journey between matter and humanity. What I can say is that even with The Tempest, the process of preparation and study took many months. I translated the text, selected objects, costumes, sounds, music, and then I designed the stage space: an empty space with a platform assembled with the boards of a stage in the center: a floating island but also a counter plane from which emerge the human frailties that Shakespeare masterfully activates with his writing. In my work there is never an idea but only images that must be transformed into matter. When the preparation process is complete, then I can meet the actors. From that moment, what I call ‘scene writing’ begins. There is no director imposing his vision. The actors are literally thrown into the material, and I am always willing to lose myself with them in this floating cloud that is sometimes dizzying. During the improvisations, judgment is suspended, everyone can feel free to be ridiculous, to dare, to expose themselves. When the actors stop protecting themselves and begin to trust, then the real creative process begins: we animate the material, we excite it and what remains is passed over for dramaturgy and then rhythm, which is perhaps the director’s only real prerogative. 

– You have been directing since you were a child. Although you initially wanted to work in film because you thought theater was dead – how can you apply your cinematic vision to your theater productions now?

– From cinema I take with me the editing and the handling of light, for the rest I am careful not to ape a sublime art but very far from theater. They look terribly similar but really they are two completely distant art forms. The fact that the world’s theaters are full of microphone actors acting as if they were in front of a camera is a sign of a great moment of confusion. The same goes for the use of cinematic images, which decorate the stage and extinguish the inner vision of the spectator who, seeing two-dimensional images, stops imagining. This drift is somewhat emblematic of what is happening to our society: images are eating our souls. In this sense, theater remains the place where you can literally save your soul. Provided, however, that we return to creating myths and igniting archetypes, thus stimulating our inner vision of the world. Film is a place where one can dream, theater a place where one can awaken.

The Tempest credit Alessandro Serra

– One of your first theatre directions, In the city of K, is based on texts by Ágota Kristóf, a Hungarian-born writer who made a name for herself with her work in French. She is considered one of the best-known writers of Hungarian origin internationally, but is little known in Hungary. Why did you choose her? What struck you in her work?

– First of all the writing, firm, dry, sharp, poetic, musical. It was an incredible shock, I was quite young and as soon as I finished reading The Big Notebook I decided to put it on stage: that book was about my childhood. I wrote her a letter and she immediately granted me the rights: we did one performance. As well as directing and writing for the stage at the time, I was still an actor, I played Claus, and it was a very painful experience, but also extremely liberating: while I was rewriting her words, whole pages from my childhood inadvertently slipped into the script, and so my mother became my mother, my grandmother my grandmother, Lucas the daimon who saved my life on those bottomless black nights… each of those wonderful characters became part of my childhood and accompanied me on a path of knowledge and liberation. We rehearsed for a whole year, without any compensation, without any hope of being able to show our work, driven only by the need to tell and embody that deep wound within each of us. 

– You are often asked what you think about the future of theater: in your opinion, people will always need the kind of encounter and connection that theater represents. What would you bring to the 22nd century from the universal culture of theater?

– I am in perfect harmony with the founding masters of these Olympics. I feel invested with a great responsibility: to embrace the wisdom of the masters of the past, to uphold and practice ethics, discipline, rigor and absolute self-denial. This is the only way to unleash the Dionysian forces that are the only source capable of keeping us alive.

Today, the theater is ashamed to be a theater and mimics Netflix, a lot of money is spent in big theaters to ape cinema, you leave the theater and nothing remains. Maybe the show is also a good show, but if you leave out the essentials for the transient, all that remains is a bitter feeling of something already seen, something dated and dusty, and the more you strive to be contemporary the more the result is something already old and gone bad, like a Facebook post, from the moment you post it, it is already dead. 

Theatre is an encounter between human beings, it is an ancient ritual that reaffirms myths and finds reality. Every time the ritual is performed, life is unleashed and death is tamed, because in theater one can look death in the eye and look it in the eye and understand that, deep down, it is only eternal rebirth.

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