The take-home message from Milo Rau’s play Mitleid. Die Geschichte des Maschinengewehrs (Compassion. The History of the Machine Gun; 2016), currently on view at Schaubühne, Berlin, seems simplistic in its cynicism: ‘Wir sind alle Arschlöcher’ – ‘we are all assholes’. But effectively, Rau’s play is one of the more complex artistical responses to the European refugee crisis I’ve seen so far (even if, or precisely because, it deals with the subject only in passing and in a somewhat mediated way). It is, at least, a far more intelligent and compassionate response than Ai WeiWei’s reenactment of the image of drowned Syrian toddler Alan Kurdi washed up on the beach of Bodrum, Turkey.
In Mitleid, Kurdi’s image features, too. Actress Ursina Lardi shows it on a big screen, when reporting from a research trip she undertook with Rau to Turkey, Greece and Macedonia. Whereas Ai is trying (and utterly failing) to play the emotional mechanics of Western media, Rau is concerned with laying bare the morally dubious roles compassion and empathy play in a contemporary ‘humanitarian’ European identity. Framed by intro and outro monologues by Belgian-Burundian actress Consolate Sipérius, whose family, she tells us, fell victim to genocide in the early 1990s, for the most part Mitleid consists of a harsh and often borderline racist monologue by Lardi. She is essentially playing a version of herself: an actress on a research trip to the Congo (a trip made with Rau); a woman feverishly recounting her memories as a NGO aid worker in the very same region more than 20 years prior. The script, though, is taken from actual reports and interviews with former NGO workers.
If Mitleid was only about revealing the not-so-hidden ambivalence of Western do-goodery, it would be unbearable: too simple; too cynical, above all. But empathy and compassion mirror the emotional and projective mechanics key to theatre itself. Switching between luring the audience in only to repel it again, Rau turns Mitleid into a meta-play on the very possibility of ‘staging’ authenticity – and the impossibility of being truly political on a theatre stage. In the end, the question of what form compassion might actually take that is not poisoned by curiosity, sensationalism, and what Rau recently termed ‘cynical humanism’ –signing another change.org petition; or watching a play like Mitleid, I am tempted to add – seems increasingly impossible to answer. And there is no right answer anyway. Admitting to being an asshole might not offer a solution – but for the time being it’s as ‘authentic’ a response as most of us can manage.