Should kids embrace modern art?

Is Milo Rau Really the Most Controversial Director in Theater?

“I’m a bit scandalous,” the Swiss-born stage director Milo Rau says, “but at the same time I’m very conservative. I like empathy, I like beauty.”CreditCreditGael Turine for The New York Times
By Alex Marshall
Oct. 3, 2018

GHENT, Belgium — In February, Milo Rau placed classified ads in a Belgian newspaper.

He had just become artistic director of NTGent, the city’s main theater, and needed actors for his opening production: a portrait of the city based on the Ghent Altarpiece.

That altarpiece, completed in 1432, is the leading tourist attraction here and one of the most important works in the history of art. In intricate detail, it shows what seems like the entire cast of the Bible flocking to worship Jesus, in the form of a lamb.

For the play, Mr. Rau needed a modern Adam and Eve and a modern Mary. He needed a shepherd, too, preferably with a flock of sheep to bring onstage.

He also wanted some modern crusaders, and he knew who he thought fit the bill: jihadists, such as those who returned to Belgium after fighting for the Islamic State in Syria. “Do you fight for your beliefs? For God?” one ad reads. “Did you fight for IS, or another religion?” It then gave NTGent’s email.

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Few noticed the ad, but two weeks later Belgium’s biggest-selling tabloid ran an article about it. Mr. Rau, 41 and barely known outside theater circles, quickly became the subject of a national — then an international — scandal. It was only two years after the Brussels terror attacks, in which 32 people died.

“I have a very broad vision of artistic freedom,” a local government official said of putting a jihadist onstage, “but here is a problem with criminal law.” An opinion piece in De Morgen, one of Belgium’s more liberal newspapers, called it “an uninspired and needlessly hurtful stunt.”

NTGent didn’t get any emails from former jihadists. It did get a lot of hate mail.

“I’ve had scandals before a premiere, but never afterward,” Mr. Rau said last month, sitting on a terrace at NTGent’s offices, taking a break from rehearsing the play, “Lam Gods” (named after the Altarpiece), ahead of its premiere. His meaning: that the controversy would disappear as soon as the play started.


A scene from Mr. Rau’s current production, “Lam Gods,” which is based on the Ghent Altarpiece.