Johan Leysen: "With Milo Rau, we are more of a witness, we tell what we experienced"

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This is the third time that the magnetic Johan Leysen plays at Milo Rau. His great silhouette that takes place in the middle of the stage, this way of looking at us face to face and to tell us, simply, with humanity, selected facts, in more or less direct connection with the play, and sometimes drawn from his own past, has become almost reassuring. We are well in hand, we say, as we sink into the heart of darkness. At least there is the assurance that the following has been done with the correctness in mind, a certain truth: this is the effect that the Fleming produces. For Oreste at Mosul, he went to Iraq twice with Milo Rau; he is coming back for us on their way of working together, at this place and elsewhere.

Read also"Orestes in Mosul", myth and limits

This is the third time you play in a Milo Rau play, why are you coming back?

I've been working for a while, and in my old age, what interests me are the adventurers. I started this job for adventure. I'm not unhappy, I've had a good time with Cassiers, Goebbels … But there's too much narcissism in the position of comedian, people who play for themselves, and in the long run, it's not not interesting. I told myself that with a sociologist a little melancholy like Milo, we are in another position. We are a witness, a smuggler, we tell what we have lived, what we have seen, what we think. He asks us a lot to talk about ourselves, sometimes even a little too much. But that makes what matters, ultimately, to be a witness, it is not the job. Milo does not require virtuosity, know-how. He asks us to be righteous and to let ourselves be impregnated by the subject, then to communicate it, or finally to try. I find it interesting, and ultimately very complicated, to put nothing between the public and me, just to be there. I even think it's the most interesting position for a comedian today. And there is another element in his work: he has a great curiosity, unlimited even, he wants to know everything, but he also has empathy. It's not just someone who takes it; he does something to make it so that the people who talk to him are highlighted, that they are heard, and that's fine. For me, theater makes sense here.

How did you work with the people of Mosul?

We went there twice, first as a small team, to create links, find interlocutors. And we discovered this theater school – or what's left of it, but they are trying to rebuild – and these young comedians. We made them work a little, to see what was possible. And then we came back with a larger team, which was a bit more dangerous – we were in the heart of the city, there were still attacks, without knowing who committed them. It's complicated this city – the one with the most important militia has power, even if there is Baghdad. Officially, everything is settled, but this is not the case, there are monstrous sequels, such destruction! It was violent to confront that. Upsetting.

What has this changed in your way of doing things?

There, the big problem was that the artists could not come with us to play the piece on tour: we tried, it was not possible – especially for young people, the authorities are too afraid that they will not come back, without doubt for good reason. So it was already necessary, which is exceptional for Milo, to have the piece in mind before leaving, to find out what images one would need to shoot with them there, and that one would use once returned to Europe.

For the other two shows I did with Milo, I think the final version of the play was found five minutes before the first … It's good, by the way, that a show did not no rules, be it based on what happens, like a documentary. Sometimes, Milo comes across people who tell stories that he did not anticipate and finds interesting. And others he had in mind do not work that much in reality. For Oreste… we could not return to Mosul quickly to return a scene, so we were condemned to use, or not use, what we had shot.

The Flemish actors are in the non-game, you had to find a point of agreement with the game practiced there?

Yes, their game was very different, very demonstrative, it's another approach. While we in the North have been trying for a while, with TG Stan and others, to reach the zero of the game. It's dangerous sometimes, because it can become a kind of Mannerism, but when you get there, it's great: someone open who tells, it's very beautiful. You have to have humility, and understand that it's not about you. With Marijke Pinoy, we have, in the limited time allotted to us, a workshop with the young people. But you really had to teach them to focus, to turn off the laptops! We felt they were not used to it. It was necessary to say: "Now we stop everything, no one comes home, no one comes out!" But I think they liked it, it was brief, intense and interesting, and for me too. There were complicated things too: to physically touch each other, for a man and a woman, even if they play a brother and a sister, it does not happen. There are cultural barriers.

And Milo really sought, not the provoc for the provoc, but to find the limit. He has somehow replaced the character of Electre by Pylade, who in the original has a small role, to arrive at this kiss between men. Because in Mosul – and this really shocked us – under the Islamic State, homosexuals were thrown from the top of a building. So Milo wanted to say that here, we can show a kiss between men on stage. It made history, we were really at the edge of what is possible. But imagine, if here in France, we had not done things every time because it was not "done"? At one point, you have to rush a little bit of it. Milo did it, while being full of empathy.

Elisabeth Franck-Dumas

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