For this Spanish provocateur, each performance is about survival

By Laura Cappelle

There is nothing in contemporary theater quite like an Angélica Liddell monologue. The Spanish director and performer, who has crafted her share of monumental productions over the past three decades, pushes herself to grating, visceral extremes onstage.

Take her new production, “Liebestod” (subtitle: “The Smell of Blood Doesn’t Leave My Eyes, Juan Belmonte”), which will have its world premiere next week at France’s prestigious Avignon Festival. In a recent rehearsal in Ghent, she railed against Western societies “engorged with rights and eco-anxieties,” against France — “a country obsessed with fame and the elite” — and, above all, against herself.

“Not a single word about happiness will pass my lips,” Liddell, 54, warned near the beginning.

In other hands, nearly everything she does could come across as self-indulgent. Love or hate them, however, Liddell’s scorching speeches, which can last up to an hour, have earned a cult following in places like Avignon, not least because she throws herself into them as if her life depended on it.

And according to her, it does. “I need the stage to survive myself,” she said through an interpreter after her rehearsal, looking spent. “Onstage, I’m allowed to kill myself over and over again. That possibility allows me to avoid real suicide, real madness.”

“Liebestod” was commissioned by Belgium’s NTGent as part of a series, “History/ies of Theater,” launched in 2018 by the playhouse’s director, Milo Rau. The series has been less a history lesson than a space for contrasting voices to explore their relationship with the art form.

The first installment was Rau’s own “La Reprise.” And after extending an invitation to the Congolese choreographer Faustin Linyekula in 2019, Rau turned to Liddell.

“I was sure she had to be a part of it from the beginning. I admire her as a total artist and performer,” Rau said in Ghent, adding that her monologues “go to the heart of theater.”

“Liebestod” was inspired by the Spanish tradition of bullfighting, and especially by Juan Belmonte, an innovative bullfighter who died in 1962. Liddell sees a connection between his art form and her own: “Belmonte said that what frees us from death is actually longing for it,” she said, comparing it to a poet’s “death wish.”

Liddell’s take on theater history is certainly idiosyncratic. In “Liebestod,” she describes the tradition as populated with “bureaucrats, bit-part players and technicians with rights.” She finds most contemporary theater productions, she said afterward, “naive and a bit childish, because they’re always focused on the good.”

Very nicely — she can be as gentle in real life as she is abrasive in her work — Liddell said that she had no interest in playing nice. “I find these times to be repugnant, because everything is about likes,” she said. “I don’t want to show the best of myself during a performance. I want to show my ugly sides, that I can be a monster as well.”

Her interests lie in the sinister corners of the human psyche. She has written about terrorist attacks, cannibalism and her sexual desire for criminals. Her productions are laced with references to art history and religion, and have a ritualistic quality. In “St Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians,” a doctor collected her blood onstage, and Liddell’s fluids also make an appearance when she scrapes her hands and legs in “Liebestod.”

“It has been a long time since I cut myself in my work, but I needed to create that state of irrationality. Blood is love, beauty and death — like a holy trinity,” she said, before tempering: “I must add that I only do these cuts in front of an audience, never by myself.”

Still, Liddell says she doesn’t consider herself an actress. “There is no distance between me and the stage,” she said. “It’s a different level: It’s not a performance, it’s a transfiguration.”

Liddell is a rare artist who is wholly uninterested in the current political or social discourse. In 2018, she even produced an anti-#MeToo manifesto, “The Scarlet Letter,” in which she extolled men’s superiority. “People were so pure, so correct, so moralizing,” she said of #MeToo.

But surely, I suggested, the feminist movement created the conditions for uncompromising women like her to create freely. Liddell dismissed the idea: “What I needed for my work to happen is to be who I am, to have illiterate parents when I was growing up, poor grandparents, a mother who was intellectually impaired.”

Liddell was born in Figueres, Catalonia, to a military family. She attended Madrid’s Conservatory for the performing arts, only to quit when she found the teaching there disappointing. Although she has worked steadily since the early 1990s, producing her work hasn’t always been easy. She has long experienced what she called “friction” with mainstream Spanish theater, to the point that she refused to perform some of her productions in her home country because of a lack of support for her controversial experiments.

The situation has improved in the past couple of years, she said, but there have been other disappointments, like in 2016 when no Paris playhouse would stage “What Will I Do With This Sword?”, a five-hour show featuring a scene in which naked women masturbate with dead octopuses.

“Producers don’t always understand what the essence of a piece is,” Liddell said. “I find myself continuously explaining what I’m trying to do.”

In 2017, for the first time, Liddell directed one of her productions without appearing onstage herself, when “Dead Dog at Dry Cleaners: the Strong” joined the repertoire of Berlin’s Schaubühne theater. “It was a very strange experience to see people do what I do,” she said. “The acting was excellent, but it was very difficult to explain my process.”

Would she do it again? “I don’t think so,” she said with a laugh.

Her own team is small but close-knit. Some, like her assistant director and frequent actor Borja López, have been with her since her earliest performances. “I need people who understand my obsessions,” she said. “What we are representing isn’t the rational world. They need to defend that, and also understand that sometimes I have no patience.”

And performing is an all-consuming business for Liddell. “After the performance, she disappears,” said López, who sat near her during the interview.

She is no more sociable during the day. “I don’t do anything,” Liddell said. “I take care of my voice and myself — I don’t even read. I’m very afraid of catching a cold, of not being in the right physical state for the performance.”

“I prepare, like a bullfighter,” she said, returning to the inspiration behind “Liebestod.” “The stage is my bull.”

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