The Lie Shall Set Us Free!

Death of Theatre, Birth of Law is a discussion-artwork in-the-making.

After Death of Theatre, Birth of Law at Det Norske Teatret on December 15, 2023, the Norwegian-Ugandan performance poet Bertrand Besigye


This text was originally published in Norwegian, as a response to Martin Lervik’s review of the performance Death of Theatre, Birth of Law, «Kunsten å lage propaganda»published December 23. 2023. 


described our event as a social sculpture, using a term coined by Joseph Beuys. That is, a work where the human interaction is the art. I agree. Our performance is a discussion-artwork, in which debate is central. We invited commentators of the work into the work: the German ideology critic and philosopher Wolfgang M. Schmitt; the Canadian postdoctoral researcher specializing in legal theatre and re-enactment Lily Maeve Climenhaga; the Croatian theatre director Ivica Buljan, an expert of «true crime», known for productions such as Bernard-Marie Koltes’s Roberto Zucco (a play about the Italian serial killer Roberto Succo, who ravaged Italy and France in the 80s); and the stage artist Tuva Hennum, who contributed an autobiographical art video about poverty in Norway. We had no idea what their judgment would be: That some of our experts would be critical of our dream of a law against structural violence, enriching the discussion-artwork – a project with no simple solution and that opens itself to difficult questions. However, the performance was not finished when we left the theatre. The conversation-performance is in-the-making in reviews and comments. Can artists comment on their commentators? Should one, as an artist, comment one’s own art? Yes! Academia is a model in which theorists publicly discuss and debate their thinking with each another: Through conversation, the work becomes complete.

The Utopian Theatre

On Christmas 2015, two men from a Brazilian favela robbed us at knifepoint in Rio de Janeiro. Was this violence the initial, instigating input for the discussion-artwork? Because of this event, we, Blaue & Poppy, began to look closer at the global structures that make us complicit in the attacks against us, the privileged, by people who are exploited and poor. We responded with a reverse crime story: a «performance series that will attempt to push through new legislation» against structural violence. If realized, it «drags everyone down in the abyss with us”, as Martin Lervik writes in his review in Norsk Shakespearetidsskrift. The fact that everyone acts out structural violence does not make the collective «crime» more legitimate, nor is it an argument against a law, so long as the punishment is proportional to the offense committed. One would not abolish a law against murder because many people are murderers and if one did, it would – as in the Third Reich – be retrospectively condemned. Likewise, we can proactively condemn an, admittedly often far less cruel, injustice before it becomes illegal. Capitalism for dummies? That we enjoy the World Cup despite its catastrophic consequences for «slaves» in Qatar or the residents of Rio’s favelas is basic structural violence. That there should be an adequate punishment, as our law proposes, is obvious (with much milder punishments for naive viewers seated in front of their TV than for FIFA, of course). The connections are simple. Simply because it is impossible to implement mass punishment does not mean that the principle is, in and of itself, wrong. The law is not popular: not for the critic, not for the audience, and not for ourselves. We all, understandably, hesitate and fear the law’s possible blind spots. We do not formulate our legislative proposal with an exclamation mark as part of a political party’s program, but with a question mark in a theatre, the place for a utopian pre-enactment of (im)possible political futures.

Structural Violence is Not Fake

During our performance, there were «cardboard props with sketches of glasses and champagne bottles hiding the real thing, and on a backdrop is a huge two-dimensional child’s drawing of the room. The theatre is fake, if you didn’t know; even the scenography is just pretending» (Leirvik). Our scenography, created by the artists Pelle Brage and Julia Rosa, is neither an exhibition of the nature of theatre nor some Brechtian Verfremdungseffekt created simply for the sake of alienation or a theatre pedagogy. It is an expression of a very specific desperation: The necessity of the law, contradicted by its practical impossibility. Or the reality of structural violence, a result of the conditions of production for many commodities, and the lack of legal representation for this violence, i.e., its theatrical character. The Swiss theatre-maker Milo Rau, in his recommendation letter for our trial, states: «The issue being that running an official case against structurally violent perpetrators is impossible. Due to our time’s depressing juridical status quo, this trial is fiction and has to be theatre. Through very theatrical flats and a theatre backdrop, Blaue & Poppy bring this to light.” Milo Rau’s own work, The Congo Tribunal, is, however, contemporary theatre, that looks like reality – claiming that it can change the world. In 2014, Rau conducted a «trial» in Congo, with many in the audience believing that the «tribunal» was real. While this is fascinating, it is also problematic to pretend that such political theatre is reality: to hide how powerless such projects are and deny that changes must happen through politics, i.e., by enacting new laws in Congo. In the worst case, such a strategy becomes an ideology that obscures paradoxes: it claims that theatre can do what it cannot, namely concretely change the world, or it says that we are not individually guilty just because we are all guilty.

Exhibiting the Contradictions of Capitalism

An objection to the law may be that no one can be held accountable for structural violence. But is that true? The inventor of the notion, peace researcher Johan Galtung, disagrees: «The archetypal violent structure, in my view, has exploitation as a center-piece. This simply means that some, the topdogs, get much more (here measured in needs currency) out of the interaction in the structure than others, the underdogs.” Our law «does not hide the hand that strikes,» to align it with the words of literary scholar Jan Philipp Reemtsma, who criticizes – if not misunderstands – the concept of structural violence. Our law aims at the hand that strikes, often without intending to, by means of violent structures. No one can avoid practicing structural violence, it is like the original sin. But we must not fall into Christian belief. Capitalism itself is an irrational religion. We just have to see and protest against paradoxes like «everyone is guilty and therefore no one.» Contradictions like these are such a fundamental principle in capitalism that revolting against them, by enacting a law against structural violence, would perhaps have much more revolutionary consequences than just an (absurd) legal adjustment. Could it cause the whole system come crashing down? We were more modest, simply physically destroying the theatre (or at least the stage design) in protest of the contradiction of a law that should be real but is theatre: «Blaue & Poppy do not give up, even if the entire theatre must be sacrificed and demolished» (Lervik). But without the right tools and connections – both literally and metaphorically – it’s not that easy. However, the destruction of the theatre still took place in the theatre, as Ida Müller, from the performance duo Vinge/Müller, who was present, pointed out. «The lie shall set us free,» we shouted – hoping that exposing the fictionality of the theatre law would be a way out of the law’s unreal status.


Not Theatre, She Said and Entered the Theatre

The show must go on. To «enact» our utopian «pre-enactment», we walked to the Parliament carrying the law against structural violence, displayed on a large screen with Queen’s song “The Show Must Go On” as background music. We were two among many demonstrators for Palestine and the Ukraine. After placing the law on the grounds of the Parliament and delivering an agitational speech, we took it with us again – it would have been removed anyway, literally, by security. Metaphorically, it had never been there. The law is important, but no one wants it – maybe not even Blaue & Poppy ourselves. To emphasize the catch twenty-two of our situation, we started walking back to Det Norske Teatret with the law under our arm. The video that showed the audience our trip to and from the Parliament was now played in fast forward, trying to be honest about the lie: Our march to the Parliament did not happen live, as some spectators may have thought until then. On our way back to the theatre, we shouted our slogans: death of theatre, birth of law? Sounding and looking a bit like Mickey Mouse marionettes, since everything, including our voices, was in fast forward. Tuva Hennum, our ally in the audience, tried to get the audience to join the protest as the words appeared across the backdrop like a karaoke song, but this was also in vain. When we stood outside the theatre again, Edy Poppy tiredly proclaimed: “For a better world.» Probably without believing it herself. But perhaps with a certain kind of hope? For what? That the law will become real and we could all be punished adequately? Or for an eternal theatre, in which we are all charged before the tribunal of fiction? «No theatre!» was Poppy’s final contribution to this discussion-artwork and then we entered the theatre.

(Published 17.02.2024)