Hui Li on On the difficulty of telling the truth, May 28 2024

Voicing the Unspoken: A Monologue Inspired by Brecht
李慧 Li Hui, May 28th 2024

Contribution created as part of the workshop OBSERVING THE CATASTROPHE, led by Tom Mustroph during POLIS 2024, thanks to the collaboration with Dipartimento di Beni Culturali dell’Università di Bologna and in particular with the Master’s program in International Cooperation on Human Rights and Intercultural Heritage.

“Disembodied noises emerging from the shadow, photographs with woman protesting on the street, red hoods over the monologue artist–these are the images that linger most from ErosAntEros’s latest production, “On The Difficulty of Telling the Truth” at the Polis Festival in Rasi Teatro, Ravenna.

This theatrical performance intertwines art, politics, and truth, blending sound, voice, and live performance to breathe life into Bertolt Brecht’s seminal essay “Writing the Truth: Five Difficulties.” Far beyond a mere play, it emerges as a vivid and dynamic political manifesto resonating deeply in today’s socio-political climate.

Drawing inspiration from Brecht’s 1934 essay, crafted amidst the chaotic aftermath of Hitler’s ascent to power, ErosAntEros transforms Brecht’s strategic guide for truth-telling into a 60-minute long theatrical narrative. Featuring the stage presence of Agata Tomsic and the live electronics of Davide Sacco, the production encapsulates Brecht’s core message: the indispensable virtues of courage, keenness, skill, judgment, and cunning in the pursuit of truth.

ErosAntEros employs Walter Benjamin’s “citation” technique, weaving threads of the past into the present tapestry to illuminate contemporary issues. This method transcends mere homage, offering a vibrant recontextualization that implores the audience to contemplate current realities and the enduring struggle against oppression and falsehood.

Agata Tomsic’s performance is nothing short of mesmerizing. Her mastery of voice modulation and facial expressions crafts a compelling and immersive experience. Tomsic effortlessly traverses various emotional landscapes, embodying the resilience needed to confront truth in the face of adversity. Her dynamic presence captivates the audience, fostering engagement and reflection throughout the performance.

A particularly memorable scene is when Agata Tomsic dons a red hood and uses a handheld speaker to yell out her lines. I tried to look at the English translation on the prompter to understand her words better, but I couldn’t avert my eyes from her. The raw emotion in her voice transcended the language barrier. Her cry for the truth to be told was palpable, resonating deeply with the audience and underscoring the universal struggle against deceit and suppression.

Davide Sacco’s live electronics provide an atmospheric backdrop, at times haunting, to the performance. The sound design enriches the thematic depth of the play, with electronic distortions and live manipulations underscoring the urgency of Brecht’s words. The synergy between Tomsic’s voice and Sacco’s soundscape creates a sensory journey, heightening the narrative impact.

The use of historical figures Confucius and Jonathan Swift illustrates the cunning required to disseminate truth by reinterpreting history. This clever manipulation serves as a poignant reminder of the power of language and narrative in shaping political realities.

Swift’s “A Modest Proposal” is a well-documented satirical pamphlet from 1729 that used extreme irony to criticize British exploitation of Ireland and to shock the audience into recognizing the severity of the situation. Swift’s method was indeed a cunning way to highlight and critique social and economic issues.

However, a deeper examination towards Confucius reveals an intriguing ambiguity. Despite my efforts to pinpoint a historical reference to “Ruler Kun” (in Brecht’s text ‘Ruler Hun’) mentioned in the play, none align with rulers during Confucius’ era (鲁襄公 (Lu Xianggong), 鲁昭公 (Lu Zhaogong), 鲁定公 (Lu Dinggong), and 鲁哀公 (Lu Aigong)). Also, the specific act of altering historical records in the manner described by Brecht is not documented. Yet, using historical figures in theater while taking creative liberties is a common practice. Perhaps the writer blends historical facts with fiction to serve his pedagogical goals, or maybe it is a deliberate challenge to the audience to discern the truth. I do not have a definite answer for that.

What I do know for certain is that art can be a discourse too. Just like how it’s portrayed in the monologue: “That is exactly what artistic creation is about: making something important.” When talking about discourse, people immediately think about how development reflects power relations in politics, but rarely about art. For the longest time, art has been seen as a source of comfort and relief, providing a refuge from the harsh realities of life or an oasis with therapeutic benefits. Even when one thinks of art as a means to convey truth, it often relates to personal and emotional truths, like Frida Kahlo’s self-portraits. But I never thought of art as a discourse involving power relations, which is especially true with theater. To be more specific, I think deep down I knew this to be true but had forgotten how powerful art can be in telling the truth since I’ve been marinated in Chinese theater for so long, which is all about literatry and immagination and does not portray power relations in the political status quo.

“On The Difficulty of Telling the Truth” emerges as a bold political statement, urging audiences to grapple with the complexities of truth-telling in a world tainted by oppression and suppression. As I watched Agata Tomsic’s performance with Davide Sacco’s soundscapes, I was reminded of the enduring power of theater to challenge, provoke, and inspire. This production didn’t just tell a story; it sparked a personal reflection on my own perceptions of truth and the role of art in our lives.

Having been immersed in Chinese theaters, which often lean towards escapism, this experience was a stark reminder of how potent and transformative theater can be when it tackles pressing social issues head-on. ErosAntEros’s daring approach made me reconsider the boundaries of art and its capacity to influence and reflect our socio-political realities. It was a deeply moving and thought-provoking experience that I won’t soon forget. It reignited my belief in the power of art to not only provide solace but also to serve as a powerful discourse, challenging us to confront the uncomfortable truths of our world.”