Books & Arts | Published:

Theatre: A defining moment for bioethics

Nature volume 440, page 30 (02 March 2006) | Download Citation


Biblioethics: A User's Dictionary.

 Directed by Luca Ronconi. Teatro Vittorio in Turin, Italy

Luca Ronconi, one of Italy's most revered and provocative theatre directors, is at his most inspired when faced with the seemingly impossible. And the challenge of bringing a dictionary of bioethical terms to the stage is about as close to impossible as you can get. Yet Ronconi pulls it off in Biblioethics: A User's Dictionary, one of a series of five plays commissioned to promote Turin as a city of avant-garde culture on the occasion of the 2006 Winter Olympics.

Ronconi included science as one of the grand themes of contemporary humanity addressed in his series Domani, or Tomorrow. His other themes were war, history, politics and finance.

Biblioethics is not an easy play: there is no plot, just scenes that reflect on the meaning of bioethics. Ronconi disdains any technique of emotional persuasion. But he holds the attention of the audience by forcing them to participate. The theatre has been turned into a disorientating maze of small rooms separated by thin partitions between which the audience has to move.

Biblioethics is helping the public come to terms with bioethics. Image: M. NORBERT

In the first room, the entire audience watches a video screen on which is projected the head of an actor reading out dictionary definitions of bioethical terms, beginning with the two that Ronconi considers central to bioethics: personal choice and informed consent. In the second room, actors playing representative characters — a clinician, a religious bioethicist, a secular bioethicist, and male and female students — present their points of view. They speak emotionally, but their manners are deliberately detached.

The audience then divides itself between the subsequent rooms, which are dedicated to 12 different terms, including organ donation, the Nuremberg code, euthanasia and cloning. The playlets in each room run concurrently, and viewers must focus on their chosen theme, trying not to be distracted by the voices drifting across from other rooms. They realize later that they have had the chance to see only half of the performances. Their personal choices excluded them from other options, from the sharing of other points of view.

Played out in Ronconi's hallmark monochromatic settings, the intellectual charge is animating, but the emotional charge is absent.

Biblioethics: A User's Dictionary can be seen at the Teatro Vittorio in Turin until 12 March.

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  1. Alison Abbott is Nature's senior European correspondent.

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