Humanitarian action in a play

Stéphanie DurdillyCommunications and Editorial Support Officer of Humanitarian Alternatives

Dans la mesure de l’impossible [To the extent that it is impossible]
Multilingual play in French, English and Portuguese, surtitled in English and French
Script and staging: Tiago Rodrigues

Tiago Rodrigues, who has been the director of the Festival d’Avignon since autumn 2022, has used an original approach when creating this play. Taking as the starting point an encounter in Geneva between his artistic team and humanitarian workers from the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), Dans la mesure de l’impossible is a play drawing on their personal accounts, depicting snippets of “field” life, always straddling two worlds, bringing to the stage the story of their stories. Who are humanitarian workers? How do they see their role? And how do they live their lives as they endlessly shuttle between worlds?

“We are not heroes,” says a character right away. “Our role is to help, person after person, because as for major policies, well… It is like plugging a leak with your hand, while you wait for the plumber to arrive.” There are no illusions here. And equally, there are no dramatic effects either. Nothing is re-enacted in this production: instead, stories are told. The four actors stand, facing the audience, unpretentiously, and render the humanitarians’ testimonies. We sense the questions. A blend of English, Portuguese and French, so typical of language in the field, means that the play is rooted in reality. The play is surtitled in English and French, the actors switch languages “just like in real life” (their life), and the audience quickly gets used to it. The stage is empty, and is only inhabited by these personal accounts. There is only a set of drums, located under a large white tent covering the whole space: the audience can hear the drums, almost continuously, in the background, playing alone. Bombs. Gunfire. Heartbeats. The musician Gabriel Ferrandini’s mastery of the drums accompanies and sometimes even drowns out the personal accounts, like the noise of the world that encroaches everywhere. The experience is based on listening and speaking: the audience lives through dramas, tragedies, war, and massacres, against a backdrop of surprisingly sparse staging. It seems like nothing is happening from a visual perspective. However, as the stories are told, and thanks to Rui Monteiro’s very clever lighting, the tent becomes a mountain. It then becomes a shelter and hospital. The veil is literally lifted: we get inside the heads of the witnesses, who welcome us into the unsayable and their complexities. The closing scene, in which the tent turns into a cloud from which the storm will break, is sublime. The drums remain alone on the stage and continue to play. The chaos of the world persists, regardless of whether men and women are on the ground.

There is a stark contrast between the way in which these (real) scenes are portrayed, and the imaginary world that they deploy. Distance, a pivotal issue for the profession, can also be seen here in the telling of stories (to each other): lived experiences may be indescribable, and this leads to a gulf opening up between the humanitarian and their friends and family, who have remained in the realms of the “possible”. In this reported speech play, it is words, the way in which stories are told, that are of interest to us. “People want simple stories”, as one of the characters says. The play speaks of the difficulty of expressing the complexity, and communicating with friends and family. The “impossible” becomes a generic word for talking about the areas in which humanitarians work. However, it also pursues them when they return home. The impossible never really leaves them.

Saying the impossible: somehow, this play manages to do so. And it does so with all the necessary seemliness and power. Filling in the gaps of language, the gulf of lived experience and the imaginary world: maybe, this is the role of fiction, theatre, and art in general. This is Tiago Rodrigues’ contribution to the humanitarian world, as someone familiar with personal and everyday stories: convey the voices and experiences of those “who are not heroes” but find a way to stem the tide of the impossible. “We need to wonder about the root cause of the problem – and therefore the source of all this suffering that humanitarians endeavour to reduce – and this question almost always comes back to us. The root cause […] when we really delve deep, is in us, in our capitalist system, which has invaded the whole planet and ruined our fundamental values.”[1]Tiago Rodrigues, Dans la mesure de l’impossible, information pack, Comédie de … Continue reading This is the “impossible” against which we need to continue to fight. We must stand shoulder to shoulder with seasoned, mindful, and lucid fighters.

Translated from the French by Gillian Eaton

Dans la mesure de l’impossible [To the extent that it is impossible]

Multilingual play in French, English and Portuguese, surtitled in English and French

Script and staging: Tiago Rodrigues
Translation: Thomas Resendes
Stage design: Laurent Junod, Wendy Tokuoka, and Laura Fleury
Music: Gabriel Ferrandini
Lighting: Rui Monteiro
Sound: Pedro Costa
Costumes and artistic collaboration: Magda Bizarro
Staging assistants: Lisa Como/Renata Antonante
Set design: Ateliers de la Comédie de Genève
With: Adrien Barazzone, Beatriz Brás, Baptiste Coustenoble, Natacha Koutchoumov, and Gabriel Ferrandini (musician)
Production: Comédie de Genève
Co-production: Odéon-Théâtre de l’Europe-Paris, Piccolo Teatro di Milano-Teatro d’Europa, TNB-Théâtre National de Bretagne-Rennes, Teatro Nacional D. Maria II-Lisbonne, Equinoxe-scène nationale de Châteauroux, CSS Teatro stabile di innovazione del FVG-Udine, Festival d’Automne à Paris, Maillon-Théâtre de Strasbourg-Scène européenne, CDN Orléans-Centre Val-de-Loire, La Coursive-Scène nationale de La Rochelle
With the support of: International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC)

Performance length: Two hours with no interval

2023 Tour:

17-19 March – National Theatre, Taipei (TW)
25-26 May – Comédie de Clermont-Ferrand
31 May – 3 June – TnBA, Théâtre national de Bordeaux, Aquitaine
15 June – La Filature, Scène nationale de Mulhouse


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1 Tiago Rodrigues, Dans la mesure de l’impossible, information pack, Comédie de Genève,