53rd edition of MESS international theatre festival in Sarajevo, Bosnia and Hercegovina, September 28 to October 7, 2013.
Zala Dobovšek and Matti Linnavuori
Matti: Dear Zala, you and I, along with Liljana Mazova of Macedonia Fyr, were the critics’ jury at MESS, the Bosnian festival of experimental theatre. Not only we, but also the main jury and the spectators’ votes, concluded that the seven-hour Seagull from Novi Sad, Serbia, was the best performance of the 2013 edition. Since its Chekhovian director, Tomi Janežić, is from your home country of Slovenia, let me ask you a simple question: why The Seagull and not, for example, Booty Looting, directed and choreographed by the Belgian Wim Vandekeybus?
Zala: Well … I believe that as jury members at theatre festivals, we are always and every time captured in some kind of half personal, half professional dilemma about whether to evaluate certain performances (and their authors) independently from their previous projects, or to put all of them together in a wider context.
The truth is that both performances—The Seagull and Booty Looting‒were amazing and special in their own way.
Matti: The director of The Seagull seated every spectator individually, on a makeshift auditorium built on all four sides of the stage proper. The seating arrangement was, coincidentally, identical with the Romanian Seagull by the Russian-American director, Yuri Kordonsky, with the Timisoara German Theatre (see Critical Stages 9).
The director was very much involved in what took place on the stage. He commented on the choices available to the actors in various scenes, which had been rehearsed with psychotherapeutic methods.
Zala: But in the context of both directors and all the performers (the ensemble), we could roughly say that Booty Looting is just another (good) performance in Vandekeybus’s career. Which is great, but we could also say that from this perspective, Vandekeybus in Booty Looting uses some of his well known, perhaps “verified” approaches. The production is good, it’s excellent—but not really radical.
Matti: Yes, a word in between about Booty Looting. Its characters yearn to be famous artists, and will steal the work of others, e.g. their dead relatives. Perhaps it is my northern background which made me enjoy the production so much. At home, experimental theatre tends to achieve conclusions which everyone already knows and accepts. It tends to serve more for strengthening the spirit than for risking that one will make new discoveries. That is why I value MESS: its selection gives us unforeseen thoughts, both aesthetically and content-wise. Sarajevo, seems to me to be a place for different ideas to cohabit.
Zala: On the other hand, The Seagull intrigues us on totally different levels; not only because the performance is great, it’s also unique and—if I may say so—it “subdues” contemporary institutional theatre (which is, in this case, somehow “traditional” yet extremely experimental) to a totally different place and perception. The Seagull is full of questions and hypotheses about contemporary interpretations of classic playwrights—such as Chekhov, questioning the acting in theatre, time in theatre, and especially as a research attempt at building some kind of illusory community for seven hours, some kind of strong union between performers and audience which lasts from beginning to end. The key to finding quality communication in the so-called “triangle” between actor, director and spectator is, in my opinion, superbly achieved. And I would have the same opinion even if director Tomi Janežič were not from Slovenia (ha, ha).
Matti: The beginning of the third act was particularly impressive. It was the only phase of the performance to take place in the auditorium. The actors were seated silently in a row all along the stage, in front of a wall. Those who had lines to speak were behind the wall, unseen by us, and when these invisible voices spoke of someone, a spotlight singled him or her out from the row.
I must say that cigarette smoking during the performance was so uninhibited that I saw everything with only a hazy brain for a few minutes after each interval. And they were not herbal cigarettes either! It is difficult to imagine this Seagull getting guest appearances in the European Union; one could, with good reason, sue it for exposing its spectators to a serious cancer hazard.
Zala: Cancer hazard …? Ok, Matti, you know how much I like your way of being cynical!
Matti: Just in case that was a compliment, let me add that the Sarajevo Siege Museum takes pride in the fact that cigarette production never ceased during the three-year siege, even under the most severe conditions. Smoking was not perceived as an enemy within.
Zala: But let me proceed with our discussion. I would like to ask how you experienced the festival’s performances that where highly connected to the local, social, cultural and political issues, or to the history of the war. We don’t have to discuss actual performances (or we can), but I’m wondering how you feel and understand that kind of theatre: let’s say, the performance The Finger (Prst), by the Kosovo-born Doruntina Basha and directed by Ana Tomović for the Heartefact Fund and Bitef Theatre in Belgrade, Serbia. In the end, I literally couldn’t speak because for me it was such a heartrending experience. I really had the feeling that although I have never gone through war, I was somehow related to the theme and dialogue. Maybe also because of the fact that some kind of war atrocity could easily have happened to me, had I been born in some other part of ex-Yugoslavia, and not in Slovenia. And I didn’t have to read the surtitles. I don’t want to get banal; but in that kind of sensitive and yet so critical a performances, it’s such a tremendous pity that the relation of the “actor-spectator” to those who should really get to know with the story, is somehow strongly broken because of the way of it is represented . On the one hand, we all want to spread our local/national important issues or achievements to others; on the other hand, we somehow know in advance that this is a lost battle. You know what I mean? Or: do you think this is always a matter of one’s sensibility and potential for erudition?
Matti: I think that the war in The Finger is not Balkan-specific. However, the play helps understand how far-reaching the shadow of the many Balkan conflicts is. Basha’s (b.1981) play won the Heartefact competition as the best new socially engaged text in 2011. It is a series of conversations between a middle-aged mother and her daughter-in-law. They are preparing a meal to welcome a man, son of the mother, husband of the other, who went missing in the war years ago. The women compete with each other as to who loved him best. Only a side remark reveals that the young man was not the only person taken by force from his home that day, but the old tyrant husband disappeared as well; no one misses him. Two dream sequences break the realistic dialogue: both women get to speak to a salesperson, who will, if not fulfill then at least listen to their innermost wishes. The script leaves it to the director to decide, if a third actress should be introduced as the fairy godmother, or, as in Ana Tomović’s production, the mother and daughter-in-law actually take a moment to listen to each other, doubling as the salesperson. The hostility between the characters becomes even more meaningful the way Tomović arranges the scene. Also, it is beautiful how traditional values are woven into the play: the women cannot simply walk out of each other’s’ lives, because it would be a disgrace for a newlywed to return to her parental home. With its grave tone, The Finger also made me aware of the fact that so many local productions are very noisy, and even when the noisiness is hilarious and inventive, it can become overwhelming. I just mention The Secret of Raspberry Jam (Tajna džema od malina), by Karim Zaimović, directed by Selma Spahić, who is the artistic program manager of MESS: The furniture hanging from the ceiling, the actors balancing themselves acrobatically, and the spectators lying on cushions so as not to break our necks.
Zala: In conclusion, I would like to share a reflection of MESS as a good and tight festival of various genres of the performing arts, or even more: a good gathering spot for different cultural ways of understanding art, theatre. I must say I was thoroughly surprised by seeing theatre groups from Spain, Italy, Columbia, and to realize what styles are appreciated in their own countries. At the beginning I was quite (let’s not say positively) shocked, seeing all those affective emotions, overdose talking, screaming, crying. But in the end you sometimes realize that some performances can be an ideal indicator (mirror) of the shape of some nation’s mentality. The way they understand the (making of) theatre tells us more than anything else …
 Matti Linnavuori (b. 1955) edits the Performance Reviews for Critical Stages. At home in Finland, he contributes regularly to Parnasso, a literary journal. He has written and directed several radio plays for YLE, the Finnish Broadcasting Company.
Zala Dobovšek (b. 1983), Slovenia. Theatre critic and dramaturg. She writes for the Slovenian daily Delo and works as s practicing dramaturg in different theatres. She is a PhD student at the Academy of Theatre, Radio, Film and Television (AGRFT) in Ljubljana, focusing on documentary theatre