KVS

The classical canon lends itself perfectly to a rethink on society

Manuela Infante lights a fire under western ideology, using Ovid’s Metamorphoses as basis.

© Danny Willems

What to do about the patriarchal violence that runs through so many western classics? Re-purpose them to create a world in which criticism of misogynistic and binary structures is the norm. That is Chilean theatre-maker Manuela Infante’s approach to Ovid’s Metamorphoses.

I tackle the myths in order to bring ideas of feminism to the stage.

“I don’t have a particular interest in classical mythology,” – a bold remark for someone who is working on a staging of one of the best-known Roman and Greek classics. And, musician, writer and artist Manuela Infante adds that she doesn’t have a particular connection to the performing arts either. It’s clear that she is not a dyed in the wool theatre-maker - she’s far more interested in ideas than in telling stories. “I was looking for a way to explore philosophy and critical thinking outside a purely academic context,” she says, “and theatre is the way I found.” Since then, she has spent twenty years making theatre, both in her native Chile and all around the world.
 
Infante’s work is informed by a post-humanist approach. She sits in that tradition of thinkers, like Donna Harraway, who see human beings not as the measure of the world, but as a part of a system in which animals, plants, minerals and technology all have equal roles to play. It’s no surprise that Infante’s recent production Estado Vegetal included conversations with plants, nor that she will shortly be making a piece in Germany in which rocks and minerals are the stars. But first: Metamorphoses. The choice of work is also no coincidence – it’s practically made for her, given that the characters in it change shape, transform from human to animal or other natural elements.
 
“It was Michael De Cock who suggested the text might be worth looking at,” she explains. “I never really work from classical texts, but I could see right away he had a point. They’re not just beautiful stories that form a basis for western culture – they’re also an opportunity to completely rethink that culture.”

However, there are many alt-right ideologues who draw on the classics for their arguments. Here, politicians like conservative, right-wing Thierry Baudet are doing it too. Aren’t these texts simply patriarchal?

“Well, these stories are certainly easy to co-opt for white, misogynist ends. They form part of the foundations of those ideologies. Classical texts symbolise the binaries that we in the west have constructed around, for example, man and woman, or nature and culture. And, of course, we maintain those hierarchies today, with the attendant consequences: draining our natural resources, enslaving others, considering women as lesser and so on.”

Surely that’s a good reason to set aside Metamorphoses and go in search of other material?

“Well, no – I don’t think so.” She laughs. These kinds of pieces aren’t only about damaging dogmas – the beauty of it is that all the ingredients we need to approach the world in a completely different way are contained within them too. It’s why it’s so rich and useful to work with a writer like Ovid.

© Danny Willems
'We need to deconstruct the canon from within. That’s what I’m doing with Ovid: I take out what I need in order to explore the themes that I think are important.'

In that context you’ve talked about “vampirising” the canon. Can you explain what you mean?

“It was a term I first heard from a colleague in Uruguay and I immediately found it a useful idea. You suck the blood from something in order to make yourself stronger and stay alive. That’s what I’m doing with Ovid: I take out what I need in order to explore the themes that I think are important. 

For example, the stories in the first books of Metamorphoses are often about women who try to escape from men who desire them or want to subjugate them. As punishment, or as part of their escape, the women become rivers or trees or cows. The nymph Daphne literally asks to be freed from what makes her desirable, her female body. It could be seen as violent – those female protagonists’ transformation into non-humans – but I see liberation. Actually, it’s about women who want nothing to do with love and marriage. They want to hunt in the forest. And the men can’t accept that, so they change into other life-forms.”

Ovid more than once describes how they lose their voices during those transformations – but you’re saying we don’t need to necessarily see that as loss?

“I do fight the classical interpretation of what a voice is. We see language as something we own, and something that makes us human and therefore elevates us above the rest of the world. But even the physics of a voice show us it’s not something we can just own: it’s about breathed-in air that we’re pushing back out. A voice is something we share with animals, trees and rivers. They speak too, just not in ways we can or want to understand. I’m also interested in the distinction between communication and noise: is there a difference? I see this piece as a ‘noise-piece’ rather than as an experimental opera."

Diego Noguera, the sound designer I work with, is (among other things) creating digital and therefore non-human voices, through which you get a sort of carpet of sound that erases all these boundaries between the human and the non-human.

Your engagement doesn’t just manifest on stage – in Chile you’re involved in the protests that have been going on for a year already.

The political climate in Chile means it’s impossible not to get involved in what’s going on in the street. And when I’m an activist I forget my post-human convictions: I find it inspiring and encouraging that those mass demonstrations bring together all kinds of different struggles from people facing different kinds of exploitation. The demands are far-reaching. It’s about bringing down a neo-liberal system that has colonial roots. It’s a revolt against ownership and appropriation. And, on top of that, you have the corona crisis demonstrating that the current capitalist model simply doesn’t work. I hope the protests in Chile will have a resonance abroad so that we can start to evolve worldwide towards a more feminist way of setting up society. I mean obviously I do understand it could take a lifetime before that kind of about-turn really beds in. But, you know,” she laughs, “it took a hundred years to overthrow the Roman Empire…” 

    • 17.07.2021
      22:00
      SANTARCANGELO FESTIVAL 2050, Italië
      Nellospazio
    • 18.07.2021
      22:00
      SANTARCANGELO FESTIVAL 2050, Italië
      Nellospazio
    • 13.11.2021
      20:30 - 22:10
      KVS, Brussels
      KVS BOX
    • 18.11.2021
      20:30 - 22:10
      KVS, Brussels
      KVS BOX
    • 19.11.2021
      13:30 - 15:10
      KVS, Brussels
      KVS BOX
    • 19.11.2021
      20:30 - 22:10
      KVS, Brussels
      KVS BOX
    • 20.11.2021
      20:30 - 22:10
      KVS, Brussels
      KVS BOX
    • 23.11.2021
      19:00 - 20:40
      KVS, Brussels
      KVS BOX
    • 24.11.2021
      20:30 - 22:10
      KVS, Brussels
      KVS BOX
    • 29.11.2021
      19:00
      La Rose des Vents, Villeneuve d'Ascq
      Théâtre de l'Oiseau-Mouche
    • 30.11.2021
      20:00
      La Rose des Vents, Villeneuve d'Ascq
      Théâtre de l'Oiseau-Mouche
    • 18.01.2022
      20:30
      Matacuna 100, Santiago de Chile
      Sala Principal
    • 19.01.2022
      20:30
      Matacuna 100, Santiago de Chile
      Sala Principal
    • 11.03.2022
      20:00 - 21:45
      Toneelhuis, Antwerpen
      Bourlaschouwburg
    • 12.03.2022
      20:00 - 21:45
      Toneelhuis, Antwerpen
      Bourlaschouwburg
    • 08.07.2022
      19:00 - 20:45
      Staatstheater Braunschweig, Braunschweig
      Kleines Haus
    • 09.07.2022
      19:00 - 20:45
      Staatstheater Braunschweig, Braunschweig
      Kleines Haus
    • 09.11.2022
      20:30 - 22:00
      KVS, Brussels
      KVS BOX
    • 10.11.2022
      20:30 - 22:00
      KVS, Brussels
      KVS BOX
    • 11.11.2022
      20:30 - 22:00
      KVS, Brussels
      KVS BOX
    • 12.11.2022
      20:30 - 22:00
      KVS, Brussels
      KVS BOX