The Chronic Life Text: Ursula Andkjaer Olsen and Odin Theatret, Dramaturg: Thomas Bredsdorff,Literary Adviser: Nando Taviano, Lighting Design: Odin Theatret, Scenic Space: Odin Theatret, Scenic Space Advisers: Jan de Neergaard, Antonella Diana, Music: Traditional and contemporary melodies,Costumes: Odin Theatret, Jan de Neergaard, Giulia Capodeci, Technical Director: Fausto Pro, Director and Dramaturgy: Eugenio Barba, Production: Nordisk Teaterlaboratorium (Holstebro), Teatro de La Abadia (Madrid), The Grotowski Institute (Wroclaw), World Premiere: 12 September 2011 in Holstebro.
The Chronic Life is the kind of production typical for Odin Theatre: inspired and organised by Eugenio Barba, it was created through laborious exercises which give form and structure to the individual creations of the actors. In its Odin style, this production is similar in some respects to previous ones, and yet different.
It is similar in the sense that the actors began their work without a finished script, with only a vague idea of the performance that would develop. The starting point for the actors was a search for their characters, their histories, their aspirations and attributes, working with the notion that a prop, a gesture or a characteristic movement would manifest their essences.
It is also similar in that, as usual, the Odin Theatre artists express their opposition to the world which refuses to recognize basic needs and human rights. Hence the conspicuous dedication of the show to the memory of Anna Politkovskaya and Natalia Estemirova, Russian writers and human rights activists, who were murdered by unknown perpetrators for their opposition to the conflict in Chechnya.
And yet this production is also different, because after almost half a century of joint work, the Odin actors are aware of the weight of both their achievements and the looming prospect of an inevitable end.
It is hard to ignore that the Odin Theatre actors have been a band at Eugenio Barba’s side for the nearly fifty years during which he has been the group’s leader and director. Barba himself calls this a kind of “overrun,” and notes with some surprise in his latest book, On Directing and Dramaturgy. Burning the House (Italian original 2009): “There is the normal theatre, where he works throughout his life, always with the same director and actors. As I write, these words just disappear, forty-four years from when we started. It is not normal, but not a disability either. We have fought, and still fight, not to become a prison for ourselves, but a theatre.”
This production took an exceptionally long time, working at intervals over a four-year period. The artists of Odin Theatre are constantly participating in dozens of projects, programs, laboratories, lectures and workshops, and it is therefore difficult for them jointly to focus on a new task. This was especially true this time, the artists being filled with despair as they sought a form for how to express being lost in the world, outside the definitions that prevail, as well as for ways to distance themselves from the widespread culture of violence that prevails, together with war, unemployment, displacement and resentment.
In the coming years, the work of these artists and the creators of Odin will be gone forever: biology claims its rights; time runs inexorably in one direction. Provocatively, this production begins with Barba’s “funeral.” In a way, it is about taming the thought of death, but also about overcoming death. Barba shows us an escape, into the future. The 75-year old director locates the action in the year 2031, twenty years from now, when we will celebrate his 95th birthday.
Barba’s work collides with the most challenging subjects: life as a chronic disease, the drive for immortality. The characters are carved out by his actors: the Black Madonna with Latin roots, the Basque widow, a refugee from Chechnya, a housewife from Romania, a Danish lawyer, an ageing rocker from the Faeroe Islands, and the boy from Colombia who comes to Europe in search of his missing father—they are all shadows of the past that have returned in the future. Each of these characters has an authentic story consisting of the times and fates of several people, often those close to the actors and director: relatives, friends. The show gathers the fragments of memories, gives them symbolic significance, and raises difficult questions.
Here are the successive disasters: civil wars, raging unemployment, waves of hatred and intolerance. Mercenaries roam and stray bullets fly. The world lives, with difficulty, in a state of madness, and the one with the highest hopes is a mere boy from Colombia, vainly searching for his father, trying to open yet another door, but there is no one behind it. The boy stubbornly repeats a sentence from Juan Rulfo’s cult novel Pedro Paramo (1955): “Because I came and told you my father lived here.”
Others, caught up in their own obsessions, try to dissuade the boy from continuing his search, which they believe futile. But the boy is adamant, and he finally comes across a door that opens. Even though he does not find his father there, he nevertheless finds a path along which he can go farther, to cultivate the “chronic life.” The door, of course, resembles that in the short story by Franz Kafka, Before the Law, but as usual in Barba’s productions, not everything is clear, but even deliberately murky, mysterious, difficult to explain. He even fights against brightness, calling it a variant of totalitarianism in our time. The cult of clarity, Barba says, which served to enlighten minds, today serves also to darken it. The watch for truth is a long one, and so is the struggle with oneself and against one’s demons.
So it is also with the characters in The Chronic Life. Each has his own rhythm and characteristic ways of relating which constrain them while promising to liberate them. The widow of a Basque officer (played, incidentally, by a male actor, Kai Bredholt), dwells on the day her husband died: “What a day of disorder is today” and still sends their son for a block of ice to control the fever of her dead husband. The refugee from Chechnya recalls the last moment she saw her husband, who assured her: “You are the only country I want to belong to and defend.” The Danish lawyer repeats so as to remember: “Everyone has a right to live, and the right to die, and the right to wash up, and the right to shop.” The rocker in the Faeroe Islands adds with conviction: “Those who have knowledge do not need to sacrifice themselves.”
Overwhelmed by their tragic experiences, these heroes however cling to music, to singing and dancing for the duration. Even when they die, they rise again. In the middle of the stage there stands a crystal coffin with live eels in it, and a block of ice, which, as in the Andersen fairy tale, can penetrate the human heart, where it will finally melt. Therefore, one can have hope. “Without hope, we cannot live,” says Barba. It is the most important message of his deeply human production.
Edited by Matti Linnavuori and Lissa Tyler Renaud
 Tomasz Miłkowski (1947, Warsaw, Poland) is Ph.D. in Polish philology, at the University of Warsaw, journalist, literary and theatrical critic, author of several books, essays, and reviews. He is also Editor-in-chief of the Internet theatrical quarterly Yorick (www.aict.art.pl).