The ravishing images in Hyperion: Letters of a Terrorist, the Italian Romeo Castellucci’s stage adaptation of a Romantic epistolary novel by Friedrich Hölderlin, accrete as optic poetry, awakening thoughts about revolution, civilization, childhood and the act of seeing. Castellucci and his collaborators in the Cesena-based theater collective Socìetas Raffaello Sanzio have created dozens of well-received, visually stunning performances at venues around the world since the 1980s. Hyperion, for which Castellucci alone is credited as director and costume, lighting and stage designer, premiered at the Schaubühne as part of its Festival of New Drama in 2013 and is now part of its repertory. Hölderlin’s 1797 novel, Hyperion, or the Hermit in Greece, idealizes the innocence of youth, the undying truth and beauty of nature and the desire to be free of tyranny, as its protagonist, Hyperion, joins the struggle to liberate Greece from the Ottoman Turks.
Castellucci’s performance opens with a shadowy view into a spare, attractive, contemporary home, whose occupant departs in darkness. A squad of heavily equipped security police bursts in and destroys the stage set during a raucous raid. The police rush the audience out of the theater, repeating, “There’s nothing to see here.” This violent opening is followed—once the audience is allowed to reenter the theater—by a series of mesmerizing, almost still images, orchestrated within a sterile white cube, freshly constructed on the stage. For the most part, an actress poses onstage while reciting text from the novel. A handful of successively older women portray the eponymous Romantic hero and possibly also his beloved, Diotima.
The tableaux are slightly animated by controlled effects, such as a reverse-spotlight (a circle of darkness in the light) that follows an actress across the stage, or an onstage crew painting black over a backdrop printed with images of clouds. In one scene, a woman stands on a pedestal clad only in a translucent fabric. In a later scene, another woman films her own eye while holding a glowing vibrator with her feet; the eye is projected as a huge image on the back wall of the stage.
Castellucci adds strangely affecting live action. A blind dog occupies the stage for a scene. A middle-aged woman helps the youngest actress into her costume, places a wreath on her head and takes her backpack. This motherly moment quietly exposes the artifice of theatrical representation and speaks to the innocence of childhood, one of Hyperion’s obsessions. Between tableaux, the riot police from the opening scene make the set changes. In the end, they mop the floor of the stage, revealing a large painting of a pistol.
The use of fluids and the way the set is altered during the show call to mind the process of creating visual art, as a painting or sculpture is formed live before the audience. Castellucci’s characteristic mixture of antiseptic minimalism and mess often, though not here, involves large quantities of bodily fluids. In his 2010 On the Concept of the Face, Regarding the Son of God, a man cleans up after his aged, incontinent father.
Castellucci has commented that in Hyperion he is battling to free the mind from the domination of mass culture. His stage pictures are presented in dry succession, without any assistance in helping connect them, and the viewer is eventually overwhelmed by the effort to recall and interpret them. The surrender to excess within this finely rendered minimalism is sublime and liberating.