Bitef festival, Belgrade, Serbia, October 2016
For this critic, the 50th-anniversary edition of the Belgrade International Theatre Festival began, not with a bang, nor a whimper, but with the unnerving whine of a wood-chipper.
It accompanied a truly startling coup de théâtre in the middle of German playwright Wolfram Lotz’s (b. 1981) The Ridiculous Darkness—presented by Vienna’s Burgtheater in the festival’s Main Programme—that saw one of the show’s four female actors approach a tall flat upstage, which had hitherto seemed a solid wall of wooden boards representing a dense forest, and knock it over with a crash. Then, she and her cohorts donned safety goggles and began to feed the pile of lumber into the maw of the aforesaid machine, raising clouds of sawdust onstage. Beyond doubt, it was the best dramatic use of a wood-chipper since the Coen brothers’ film Fargo.
The scene, which ended the show’s first act and continued through the interval, proved a potent symbol of the ravages of colonialism coming midway through Lotz’s ironic riff on that classic of the colonial era, Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. It also turned out to be the highlight of Czech director Dušan David Pařizek’s (b. 1971) lively but troublesome production, which, like Lotz’s play, sets out to satirize the exotic nightmare of Conrad’s story, only to lose its way.
The Ridiculous Darkness, winner of Bitef’s Mira Trailović Grand Prix, was one of three shows I saw at the festival that dealt with the post-colonial legacy and/or the concept of the “other,” which were among the unifying themes in this year’s programming. All three works—the others being The Ambassador and Freedom—were clever and provocative, but also problematic.
My problems with them mostly stemmed from the fact that, while highly critical of the European treatment of the “developing world” and while involving, in the case of The Ambassador, participants from outside Europe, the shows still came from a distinctly white European perspective. Certainly, the best way to demolish the myth of the “other” is to let that “other” speak; but, while we did hear their voices and get their viewpoint from time to time, these works proved better at mocking European stereotypes of Africa and North Korea than they did at replacing them with complex realities.
Lotz’s play, originally written for radio, begins promisingly enough with a funny, sympathetic monologue by a Somali pirate, being tried in Hamburg, who reveals that he and his accomplice were fishermen who turned to crime after bigger countries over-fished Somalia’s waters. But, then, Lotz shifts his focus to a muddled parody of Conrad’s story as well as its most famous adaptation, Francis Ford Coppola’s Vietnam War epic, Apocalypse Now. A couple of military officers are sent into the heart of Afghanistan’s rainforest (yes, in Lotz’s absurd vision, arid Afghanistan has a rainforest—all the better to tie in more recent aggressive Western excursions into enigmatic lands), their assignment being to “terminate with extreme prejudice” a rogue lieutenant-colonel. Along the way, just like Martin Sheen’s Capt. Willard in the Coppola film, they encounter a variety of oddball characters.
Before long, Lotz and Pařizek are serving us a grotesque, comic-book version of “darkest Africa” worthy of Tarzan or Tintin in the Congo, in which the white actresses smear their faces and bodies with black greasepaint and sing that a cappella favourite “The Lion Sleeps Tonight.” But while the intent may be a gleeful skewering of clichés, it backfires. Up to then, we have enjoyed seeing Pařizek’s talented all-female cast—Frida-Lovisa Hamann, Dorothee Hartinger, Stefanie Reinsperger and Catrin Striebeck—appropriating an all-male adventure story; but we balk at watching white performers, regardless of sex (or talent), blacking up and doing racial parodies. The only way this scene would succeed is if black actors were appropriating and ridiculing such offensive images.
It was a relief, then, to find both black and white performers joining forces in another German work, The Ambassador: A German-African Singspiel. This witty, woolly mix of frenetic musical theatre and shambling jam session, from Berlin’s seasoned Gintersdorfer/Klassen troupe, had German artists (including well-known actress Anne Tismer) teaming with their counterparts from Côte d’Ivoire to tell a post-colonial tale of tumultuous modern West Africa as seen through the eyes of well-meaning but often helpless European diplomats.
The show, directed by Monika Gintersdorfer (b. 1967), designed (with delightfully clownish costumes) by Knut Klassen (b. 1967), and collectively written, composed and choreographed by its eleven performers, chronicles the tenures of German ambassadors to Côte d’Ivoire, Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone as they try to bring domestic attention to those strife-torn countries and deal with their violent, charismatic leaders. The latter include Sierra Leone’s Valentine Strasser—portrayed here like a hedonistic young rock star, Guinea’s Moussa Dadis Camara and Liberia’s Charles Taylor. It was Taylor, the former rebel and warlord, who bullied Liberians into electing him president in 1997 with the blood-chilling slogan, “He killed my ma, he killed my pa, but I will vote for him.” Here, that slogan is turned into the catchy refrain of a country-and-western song to both funny and horrifying effect.
The show’s eclectic score bounces from country to cabaret to hip-hop, from punk to electronica, played live onstage by the ensemble, who are musicians and dancers, as well as actors. The dance sequences are especially exhilarating; “sexy,” “aggressive,” “fluid,” “serpentine” were among the adjectives I scribbled down in my notebook. The textual material is drawn from historical research, but there’s an added frisson of real-life testimony from Ivorian actor-dancer Franck Edmond Yao, who shares his memories of having to perform, as a boy, at one of Taylor’s lavish birthday parties.
Still, despite that brief glimpse through African eyes, The Ambassador is ultimately about Africa as the white European experiences it: political chaos, reigns of terror and colourful megalomaniacs. At one point, the German ambassador’s duty is described as “pushing the African people gently in the right direction.” It’s just this sort of smug superiority (also found in northern Europe’s dealings with its poor southern relatives) that Africa doesn’t need. And what exactly is “the right direction”?
If you think it is Western-style capitalism, then Maja Pelević (b. 1981) and Olga Dimitrijević (b. 1984) ask you to think again. The two Belgrade-based playwright-performers are out to puncture that assumption in their North Korean travelogue Freedom: The Most Expensive Capitalist Word.
This amusing but unsatisfying piece takes the form of a presentation with slides in which the pair recounts a trip to the much-reviled “hermit kingdom,” the last holdout among old-school communist totalitarian regimes. Their heavily-supervised tour includes visits to a waterpark built by the late “dear leader” Kim Jong-il and an orphanage full of talented tykes, as well as a surreptitious glimpse at what may be one of North Korea’s infamous prison camps. The personable duo regularly break the narrative flow for “shopping time” intervals, in which they offer to sell the audience souvenirs, ranging from a bathing suit to an axe, ostensibly to raise money for a NGO.
North Korea, with its personality cult and bad hairstyles, is a regular source of Western derision, and Pelević and Dimitrijević play into that a little, but only to lull us into a typical response. Then, they pull the rug out from under us, bringing into question the veracity of what they have told us and making us realize that we may be victims of propaganda as much as the North Koreans.
This final twist does not work, however, and it is not the only miscalculation. After Dimitrijević and Pelević give us the lighter, absurd side of North Korea—where a citizen at one point assures the lesbian Dimitrijević that homosexuality does not exist, they, then, seek to conjure up its bleak aspect via video footage of a bus trip into the countryside. The video, accompanied by a haunting sound collage, is effective at first; but, as it goes on interminably, the impact dissipates. No director is credited for the production and this is evident here.
You also wonder if a comparison with North Korea is the best way to suggest the fetters of Western capitalism. Yes, we are not as free as we imagine ourselves to be, we may have been brainwashed by our own consumer-based societies, but that is hardly the same as the total suppression of freedoms in North Korea, a country where many people live and die in vast internment camps.
The theme of this year’s BITEF was “On the back of a raging bull,” which alludes both to Europa’s wild ride in Greek mythology and to the upheaval being experienced in Europe today, from the huge migrant crisis to the relentless terrorist attacks. Now more than ever it’s imperative that white Europe—and the West—engages with the “other” and tries to understand its point of view. These three shows don’t quite get there, but they’re headed in the right direction.
*Martin Morrow is a Canadian arts journalist and critic based in Toronto. He has served as chief theatre critic for the Calgary Herald, arts editor and theatre critic for Fast Forward Weekly and as an arts producer for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. Since 2010, he has reviewed theatre regularly for The Globe and Mail, the country’s largest national newspaper, as well as contributing to other publications. A two-time winner of the Nathan Cohen Award for excellence in critical writing, he is also the author of Wild Theatre: The History of One Yellow Rabbit, a chronicle of the seminal Canadian performance collective. He is currently president of the Canadian Theatre Critics Association.