By Brigid Graumann
16.06.2008 / The Times
Now this is luxury. I am enjoying a play all to myself - and not because of poor ticket sales for this performance in Brussels. It's by the cult German theatre collective Rimini Protokoll, and it involves me being on the phone to a call centre in India.
There's nobody quite like them in Britain, where they have yet to perform. In fact, there's nobody quite like them anywhere. “Rimini Protokoll are hugely influential in the contemporary European theatre scene,” says Rose Fenton, an arts producer and cofounder of the London International Festival of Theatre. “They have created inspirational and provocative theatre that draws in the audience to become players and blurs the space between reality and fiction. They've been performing to great acclaim across the world. It's high time for their work to be seen in Britain.”
The show I've been drawn into in Brussels, Call Cutta in a Box, is taking place in room 417 of a gloomy office building. I chat on the phone with a call-centre employee while sitting doodling at the desk, or reclining on the couch sipping tea in this anonymous room with linoleum floor and rubber plants. On the other end of the line, a man in India asks if he can ask me a few personal questions. Do I have an hereditary disease? Do I take drugs? He tells me a little about his life. He suggests I might like a cup of tea and somehow switches on my kettle. He sings me a song in Hindi, and as we talk about the Hindu view of death, he sends me a fax.
When my 50 minutes are up, I leave the building buzzing with thoughts - about the way international call centres involve acting and concealment (you're led to believe that the caller is in your city). But also about the illusion of distance and proximity, one's imaginary perception of another person and openness to others.
Rimini Protokoll tends to tackle issues such as war, globalisation, old age, death and unemployment. The company is a loose collective of two Germans, Helgard Haug and Daniel Wetzel, and a Swiss, Stefan Kaegiis. They set out to challenge the notion of stages, performance and actors, casting their shows with old women, unemployed air-traffic controllers, funeral-parlour workers, lawyers and disgruntled politicians. For Call Cutta in a Box, a Calcutta company with a small call centre lends them space, then Rimini pays 25 people to do the calls. Some of them are call-centre workers but most are young people interested in talking to Europeans. They aren't rehearsed, as such, but are trained to talk openly and listen.
The piece was born of a 2005 play, Call Cutta, a guided tour of Berlin conducted on a mobile phone from Calcutta. “We'd been wondering how to do mobile-phone theatre,” Wetzel says. It was scripted, tracing the steps of Subhas Chandra Bose, the Bengali politican who recruited and trained Indian soldiers in 1930s Berlin with the aim of kicking the British out of India.
Also touring Europe is Rimini's Cargo Sofia, in which two Bulgarian truckers drive their audience around town, giving the drivers' backdoor view of Europe. They talk about waiting at borders, obtaining visas and eating at motorway restaurants. Occasionally the truck stops and a screen rises to reveal a container parking area.
In Breaking News, six interpreters, a couple of journalists and a critic are on stage while monitors show live news broadcasts from around the world. “You realise that television news is just mini-dramas,” Wetzel says, “emotional packages that give the viewer the illusion that they know what's going on around the world.”
Karl Marx: Das Kapital, Volume One has eight people who have read the whole book tell their own stories related to it.
What makes Rimini Protokoll special is the way it is constantly looking for new ways of bringing theatre closer to real-life experience. Its next show could even happen over the internet, with the spectator interacting with it at home. “We don't have a message,” Wetzel says, “except that we don't want to bore our audiences and that we want them to have a dialogue with what we do.”
Call Cutta in a Box is at the Project Arts Centre, Dublin (00353 1 8819613), from July 1 (www.rimini-protokoll.de)