Angela Demattè during a performance about Etty Hillesum

Angela Demattè: “The authenticity that I do not want to lose”

The actress and playwright re-proposes Giovanni Testori’s protagonist “Redenta” to “accompany” us during this difficult time. She explains her choice, talking about herself, her origins, and about a shadow she has discovered within herself.
Luca Fiore

"Go ahead! Shoot your rockets, bombs, madonnas and antichrists! Go ahead! Go ahead! So then we can all be locked up in a madhouse! That is where your progress is leading us! As if war has not been enough to ruin our nerves!” Thus cries Redenta, the protagonist of Giovanni Testori’s 1961 novel Il fabbricone (The House in Milan). And these are the words that Angela Demattè, playwright and actress, has chosen to read in a video proposed by Casa Testori during this pandemic. All but consolatory words.
These are the very first pages of the novel, where the arrival of a summer storm is described. The rockets she speaks of are those launched to break the clouds of hail that threaten the harvest. Redenta, tenant of a suburban apartment building, still hears the roar of the bombing of Milan. And she rebels shouting: "But then better the flood, better the end of the world!"
It is not Albert Camus’ The Plague or José Samarago's Blindness, nor pages from The Betrothed talking about Lazzaretto. Theme and context seem remote. To explain her choice, Demattè is forced to talk about herself, her origins, and the shadow she has discovered within herself during these dramatic days. But also about what she has seen that is luminous and that does not allow her to stop believing in the usefulness of theatre.

Why read these pages now?
Today, locked indoors, we find ourselves in a situation similar to that of the post-war period in which the novel is set. Despite communication via the internet, our life takes place inside our "house". Life forces us to pay attention to the physicality of our relationships with people, if only to avoid them. But another event also brought these pages to mind.

What was it?
I was born in a village in the upper Valsugana, in the province of Trento. It is called Vigolo Vattaro, it has a population of 2,300. My grandfather was the anti-hail cannons officer of a nearby village. I am a member of a Facebook group where the residents write what is happening to them. I was struck by a mother who wrote to complain because, whilst she was locked in her house with four children, she saw people walking around from her window. She was full of rage and anger, yes, because of the contingent circumstance, but it betrayed something deeper. Something that has to do with a reduced idea of justice, so if I am wronged, or if I am forced by circumstances to do something I cannot bear, then others must suffer the same fate. It is a reduced idea of justice. If there is no good for me now, there must be no good for others either. It is a way of thinking that I hate, typical in small countries, from which I have tried to get away, but that I occasionally see re-emerge.

In the video proposed by Casa Testori

In what way?
The Redenta calls for destruction. She says: since I am unhappy, let it all go to ruin. It is a thought that, in these days, at times, I have been surprised to see emerge in me: "If nature turns against us with this virus, if many are affected and there seems to be no cure, then we might as well..." It is the logic of leveling down, taken to the extreme. I was disgusted by it. These pages by Testori helped me to look at this thought and reckon with it. Because, when there is something buried that, re-emerging, creates a backlash, it means something is unresolved. It means that inside us there is a bitterness, a pain, a frustration, that inside a circumstance like this comes back to the surface. Like a kind of rottenness that resurfaces. It happened to me as it did to the woman in my hometown. But the problem is that, instead of shouting like Redenta does, we use Facebook as an outlet. But to get the rotten thing out, you need have to scream with your own voice.

Testori uses very strong language.
Yes, his language is always theatrical. There is something that always abounds. That cries upwards. And it seems to match the tone of this moment. How adequate was the Pope's gesture of supplication, alone in St. Peter's Square? I said to myself: after seeing this, how can one return to seeing comedies or writing cynical dialogues for theatre? We cannot do this anymore. Perhaps the only way to return to playwriting is to find another language that lives up to what we are experiencing. But...

But I already see signs that, compared to the first few days, we are beginning to get used to all this. And I am sorry and I am worried. Perhaps with starting online lessons (I have three children), somehow, we have returned to a kind of normality. But, at least in the beginning, we had sunk to the bottom of our humanity. We returned to the things that matter. Even family dialogue had become essential.

Is the emergency better than normality?
Of course not, I hope people will stop dying as soon as possible. And I hope the economy gets going again quickly and people do not lose their jobs. I wish us not to lose the authenticity that forced isolation has forced us into. It has been a long time since we have been like this. This has happened because we have had more time in recent days, because we are forced to be instead of running here or there, as we usually do. For men of the past, time had a different rhythm. Everything was prolonged. Just as it is for us these days. And the space for mystery is greater.

Besides Testori, where else do you find such language that matches what is happening to us?
In Oedipus Rex, for example. Before everything was closed, during the last lesson with my students on my drama course, I proposed a simple exercise: take the beginning of that tragedy – where the priest asks Oedipus to do something to solve the problem of the plague in Thebes - and translate it into today’s context. The situation that describes Sophocles, more than a bodily disease, is social disorder. I realized that those were appropriate words.

The unpredictability of the plague allows the sacred to make its way in the world. Like the ancients, today we realize that we do not know. And we may never know. Because not knowing is a human condition. Yes, we have science and medicine... But, in the end, we are that man, alone, in St. Peter's Square who, with a sun carved upon his hand, begs God, begs the cosmos: "We can do nothing but beg You for meaning, we are part of You". That is what we are. No one has been able to do anything like that. It is something that has awakened in me...

The Pope's was a ritual that took us into another time. An ancient time. It brought us back to a time when it was easier for man to be close to God. And you see that man in front of the icon of Our Lady... And you think you need the face of that woman who, in such a mysterious way, accepted to be a mother. Her yes is what you can say when you accept a mysterious condition that is delivered to you. That is, it is the part of you that lovingly accepts that a child enters the world and that your life be altered so that something new may enter the world. These thoughts were numb within me. Instead that evening, through the Pope, I saw what, for centuries, had been the faith of the people. The mystery of our existence is in that living symbol.

And theatre? What is happening to it now that everything is closed?
Today we ask ourselves: how did this virus form? Why is it spreading? How long will it last? Why is there no vaccine? If everything were to start all over again in October? What mysteries are these? Sophocles, Aeschylus, Euripides, and the many other greats (not so many though) who came after them, look at war, the pandemic, political crisis, violence and envy among men and stage a sacrificial rite that, through words and body, seeks to burn fear, violence, and disorder. Theatre seeks to help people restart, bringing them out of chaos, regenerating the amazement of our being in the world. It can do so because it is a ritual made up of body and speech, it acts upon the whole man. The body is important, being there together is powerful. I believe that in these days of absence we are realizing this too. So I think that, later, we will be in great need of theatre. Great theatre, great writing.

If you could choose, what is the first show you would see the day the theatres reopen?
Shakespeare. Hamlet, King Lear or Macbeth. Men so close to the desert and the abyss... Men who seek meaning, who are pointing towards meaning. And I will go there with such gratitude for those acting, without being hypercritical, which we actors usually are when we go to see other people's plays.

Read also - Pupi Avati: "Me, fear and being able to say “I don't know””

A tragedy then?
Yes, although it would be very liberating, when everything is over, to put on a sacred performance of thanksgiving. I hope we will still want to do it, we are so fickle... But I would like to. And then, in 2021, the Teatro delle Albe by Marco Martinelli and Ermanna Montanari will stage Dante's Paradise through the streets of Ravenna. That is a show I do not want to miss.