Is our desire to help others always 100 percent selfless? Of course not. Milo Rau's newest play "Mitleid. Die Geschichte des Maschinengewehrs" examines that through the lens of the modern-day issue of refugees at the Schaubühne Feb 10, 11, and 14.

Image for Meta-compassion
Photo by Daniel Seiffert

“In the 1990s, it was all about having homeless people on stage. Then the disabled. Now that’s out. You have to have refugees on stage.” As that quote hints, Swiss theatre maker and activist Milo Rau’s Mitleid. Die Geschichte des Maschinengewehrs (Compassion. The History of the Machine Gun) operates on a handful of levels at any given moment.

Swiss actress Ursina Lardi plays both herself (an actress) and a kind-of-racist burnout who spent her twenties doing aid work during the Congolese genocide. Lardi holds up pictures of herself in Africa with the playwright and selfies in which she follows the immigration route of refugees through Turkey, Greece and Macedonia to do research for this piece. These blatant appeals to photographic authenticity, though, only undermine the very concepts of earnestness and compassion.

Rau’s critique of a critique of a critique can be vertiginous. There’s a whole lot of talking (in German, with no surtitles) and little action. A white actress speaks about her white guilt at length while a black actress sits silently on stage: we get it. But wouldn’t it be even more effective to star rather than sideline the magnetic Consolate Sipérius?

Sure, maybe we should feel cynical about our neo-colonial and, yes, probably voyeuristic desire to hear more about Sipérius’ personal journey from genocide in Burundi to an acting career in Belgium. But really, we were just too grateful for the (extremely rare) sight of a non-white actor on the Schaubühne stage to engage in this sort of meta-critique.

Still, Rau’s latest is worth seeing. The central message – that the road to hell is paved with good intentions, that we mourn more for one drowned Syrian child than an entire nation in Africa – is timely and well-taken. The actresses don’t miss a moment: they’re dazzling. Certain scenes are powerful and memorable, even as they make us fall into the trap of empathy: Beethoven cranked up so loud we can hardly hear Lardi telling us that in the Congo, she would play German classical music to drown out the screams of the dying.

Or Consolate Sipérius describing a scene from Inglourious Basterds – the face of the Jewish Shoshanna threatening a crowd of assembled Nazis before Jewish rebels take their revenge – as her own face is projected in close-up. If, as Lardi opines, “everyone’s an asshole,” then we, as the Nazis in Rau’s metaphor, are too. But where do we go from here?

MITLEID. DIE GESCHICHTE DES MASCHINENGEWEHRS  Feb 10, 11 22:00; Feb 14, 17:00 | Schaubühne, Kurfürstendamm 153, Wilmersdorf, U-Bhf Adenauerplatz

Originally published in issue #146, February 2016.