'I'm not interested in theatre as a kind of light entertainment' - Dylan Tighe on Pasolini’s Salò Redubbed at the Abbey
A new play reframes Irish institutional abuse through a lens of ritualised torture. Has the Abbey gone too far, asks Maggie Armstrong
A few hours before a run-through of Pasolini's Salò Redubbed, the director, Dylan Tighe, writes to tell me that I can leave early, there is no obligation to stay. He's reassuring me, but the kindness instils dread. What could be so bad that someone would have to leave?
Horrifying sexual violence, debasing torture, bodies - you get the picture, if you only put the word Salò into the internet. Pier Paolo Pasolini's final film, completed months before his murder and the film's 1975 premiere, was quickly banned in Italy. It was banned in England until 2000 and it's still banned in many countries, such as homophobic Russia.
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It was never banned in Ireland because it was never submitted to the censor. It did reach film clubs, but it might not have reached you. Now you can see it in full on a national stage, only "redubbed" live by Irish actors. It opened on Thursday, the Dublin Theatre Festival show no one wants to see.
The run-through happens on a Friday evening in the Mermaid Arts Centre in Bray, Co Wicklow where the cast are rehearsing. The chit-chat in the foyer is queasy. Those of us who had heard about the scandalous film were quite happy we hadn't seen it, and are wondering why we were about to see it.
The film is a loose adaptation of the 18th century novel by the Marquis de Sade, which details barbaric acts of cruelty based on Dante's circles of hell. In the film, a group of adolescent boys and girls are incarcerated, ridiculed and tortured by a ring of wealthy fascist libertines and their accomplices. The boys and girls are strikingly beautiful, as is the film. Review's film critic, Paul Whitington, described it as "gratuitously unpleasant" and "virtually unwatchable".
We all take our seats. The screen is behind a row of tables with voiceover mics and small screens for the cast. They come on stage as a punk rock song plays. The song is 'Kill the Poor' by the Dead Kennedys, a significant choice. The actors are drinking cans of Coca-Cola, which will also be a significant drink. Pasolini's film has been read as an extreme critique of post-war consumer culture.
The Republic of Salò was the Nazi puppet state that ruled Italy from Salo in Lake Garda during 1943-1945. The film begins. A road sign, and some word play, turns Salo into Sligo. Two hours of evil and humiliation follow. A shining cast - Peter Gaynor, Will O'Connell, Daniel Reardon, Gina Moxley, Niamh McCann, Lauren Larkin, Thomas Collins - each handle the horrible material with empathic care and still find a way of making us laugh. The script, written by Tighe with the help of Trinity researchers, is 98pc direct quotations from sources on the public record.
It is extracts from the Ryan Report, testimonies from Magdalene laundry survivors, from symphysiotomy survivors, people living in Direct Provision, people who lived for years in psychiatric homes. A rousing rendition of the Irish rugby anthem, and an unmistakable echo of the Belfast rape trial evidence in all its braggadocio. There is mention of a "Harvey Epstein". Accounts from industrial homes. Anti-Traveller rhetoric. Maybe most tragically, a list of migrant teens and children who have died all over the world.
"We need to look at abuse as a systemic thing in society," says Dylan Tighe afterwards. "I think it was convenient for us to blame this on the Church. It was about the State, the family, all of us."
But most people want to turn away from torture, so why project it on a national stage?
"The keyword is torture. One of the reasons is to recontextualise how we're looking at historical abuse. I think we haven't got to the stage where we are actually accepting that it was torture. Ireland has been repeatedly criticised - by the UN Human Rights Committee and the UN Committee Against Torture."
This play is "not a literal translation of the film but it is," says Tighe, "an allegory of human behaviour". The victims in Salò are abused and mutilated, they are forced to eat nails, forced to dress up as a bride and groom, and much worse, then castrated and murdered. Where is the Abbey going with this? Could it be accusing people and institutions as being worse than they actually are, to make such parallels?
"I don't think so. The policies of the State have led to many, many deaths, many suicides, deaths unaccounted for, adoptions, disappeared people, human trafficking.
"There has been a number of deaths in Direct Provision that have not been properly investigated. People who come to this country for protection, and are put in a hotel, being fed chicken nuggets, not allowed to have visitors. People in limbo in depressing, damp, cockroach-infested prefabs staring at the wall for years on end. The film may be in some ways mild compared to the reality."
Having read much of the Ryan Report, he describes it as "monumental and completely inaccessible". "The scale of what happened is so big, it's almost like that quote from Stalin, that if you kill one person it's a tragedy, if you kill another it's just a statistic."
Pasolini's Salò Redubbed would never have come to the Abbey if it weren't for an essay Tighe wrote about the film when he was on Erasmus in Bologna. At around the same time, 1997, the reports of clerical abuse had started emerging.
"It disturbed me, as someone who grew up in a very middle-class culture. What was the role of that middle-class culture in enabling that abuse? I went to a religious school at the same time in the early 1990s that there were people in the Magdalene laundries just down the road."
Tighe, a musician as well as an actor and writer, has never been averse to shocking audience tastes. His play Mise Éire saw him naked on stage drinking a shot of Guinness every minute for 60 minutes before vomiting upon the tricolour. "It was a way of interrogating toxic masculinity and representations in our culture."
His theatre has interrogated systems of power and coercion, for instance RECORD at the Dublin Theatre Festival (DTF) for which he sought his medical records as a case study to critique the medical model of mental health.
No Worst There is None, a promenade adaptation of Gerard Manley Hopkins' poetry, won best production in the Irish Times Theatre Awards 2009 and was described by Colm Tóibín as "the strangest and most beautiful play of DTF".
Pasolini's Salò Redubbed will provoke something else. "I'm just not interested in theatre as some kind of light entertainment. That's not what I go to the theatre for," he replies. "At the same time, I really don't mind if someone leaves. My interest is not locking people in a room.
"The film provokes very strong, often very negative reactions. I'm interested in what that means to be outraged by something that's fake, but not necessarily to be outraged by real facts. The live issue of historical institutional abuse is really under the radar. And maybe this project will allow people to look inside themselves."
What does happen in the course of the run-through (in which four people indeed leave) is that we bear witness to trauma. Maybe we don't want to watch terrible things because we don't want to believe they happen. Strange and beautiful, horrible and tragic - you won't unsee this show but you probably won't regret seeing it either.
'Pasolini's Salò Redubbed' runs until October 5 on the Peacock Stage, Abbey Theatre, Dublin