Matti Linnavuori*

TESZT Euroregional Theatre Festival in Timişoara, Romania,
May 20-27, 2018

In Timişoara, theatre is different. I am left gaping in amazement at the courage of the performers and the sharpness of thought in the writing. The theatre of Kokan Mladenović—though not only his—dares to make relevant and well-founded political statements.

Teszt Festival is organised by the Hungarian-language State Theatre “Csiky Gergely,” in Romania’s Timişoara, centre of the Banat region and future capital of European Culture (2021).

The festival’s main sphere of interest is the Balkans—geographically, politically, aesthetically. Attila Balázs, to spell his name first-name-first, contrary to Hungarian grammar, leads the festival, which had more than 300 offers for the 25 spots in the program of Teszt’s 11th edition.

The Balkans and the Visegrad countries not only have their share of problems, but they tend to present their European neighbours with problems, for example, with distorted nationalism, so fashionable today. This is a main point of attack and ridicule in Jami District (“yummy”), a co-production of companies from three countries, Bitef Theatre, CzkTivat, Maszk and Think Tank Studio.

Nina Neskovic, Jelena Graovac and Isidora Simijonovic declaring truths of Serbian, Bosnian and Croatian politicians, scientists and newscasters in Jami District. Photo: www.teszt.ro

Jami District is a tiny bit of land ignored until now by Serbia, Croatia and Bosnia-Hercegovina. But when the world’s oldest skeleton is found in Jami, the three countries send their soldiers to claim the area and, consequently, to claim parenthood to all mankind.

Three apes greet us, when we enter the performance space of Jami District, written by Milena Bogavac and directed by Kokan Mladenović. The apes soon remove their masks and begin to talk, one in Serbian, one in Croatian and one in Bosnian. They tell us how the inhabitants of Jami became apish performers in a theme park. They are young actresses Isidora Simijonović, Jelena Graovac and Nina Nesković, and their roles range from politicians to news anchors, from soldiers to teachers. Many scenes take too long, which I see as proof that the conflicts shown cannot be solved with any swift intervention. Form and content unite.

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No matter what the profession in a given scene, the characters praise their country and its cultural heritage while insulting those of the other two. These tirades are exaggerated to disgusting ridiculousness, but one senses that the show keeps to its documentary base even here.Outsider that I am, I read this against the background of the 1990s, when nationalistic tensions surfaced as a war in ex-Yugoslavia, but the introductory text of Jami District chooses not to look back but ahead: will the working class of the future, that is. robots, retain a national consciousness? This also explains the apes at the start of the show—after the United Nations peacekeeping managed to calm Jami, the international community leased the area to a global company, which transformed it into a theme park, with the obligation to employ the local inhabitants. What a conclusion: nationalism produced war, internationalism produces modern slavery.

The rebellious worker Zrenjanin (Dejan Karlečik) surrounded by university students (Edit Tot Miškelin, left, and Jovan Torački), in Zrenjanin. Photo: www.teszt.ro

In Jami District, the political agitation addresses us spectators directly, but, in Zrenjanin, there are characters who try to persuade each other to take political action. That sort of conversion is a challenge to credibility. Performed by Toša Jovanović National Theatre from Timişoara’s twin city in Serbia, Zrenjanin, the show depicts a bad capitalist about to close down the town’s factory. He is opposed by two activists, one of whom is transsexual. This seems to me to give a late-2010s tint to the play, which otherwise could well have originated in the 1990s—or perhaps the gangster economy has not changed since? Zrenjanin is written by Igor Štiks and directed by Boris Liješević.

Colours and poses reminiscent of Pussy Riot in A Cloud in Trousers. Photo: www.teszt.ro

A Cloud in Trousers looks at agit-prop from yet another angle, this time from the stage toward the auditorium, or rather, toward the director’s gaze. An actress asks how many times she must show herself nude on the stage in political avant-garde productions, before she merits a clothes-on role in a regular play. Very funny! No, on the contrary, a terrible misuse of female university-educated talent! Directed again by Kokan Mladenović, A Cloud in Trousers claims to paraphrase the Russian revolutionary poet Vladimir Mayakovsky. Again the actors are very young. In the after-show discussion, Mladenović (born 1970) said he is extremely disappointed with his own generation, which had two decades to rid Serbia of its war-criminal heritage, but failed to do so. A Cloud in Trousers was produced at Kosztolányi Dezsö Theatre, in Subotica, Serbia.

The Kosovar production ridiculing both domestic and European bureaucracy was shown on DVD, because the company were denied their EU visas. Photo: Jetmir Idrizi

In the above shows, Serbian self-irony toward nationalism is so biting, so accurate, so intelligent and presented with such charm and fury that—rather paradoxically—I cannot think of any other nation quite capable of the same. Kosovo comes close, though. Qendra Multimedia from Pristina was scheduled to perform their a play with four actors and some pigs and some cows and some horses and a prime minister and a milk cow and some local and international inspectors, but the company were denied their EU visas. Luckily, a DVD recording of the performance was shown instead. Jeton Neziraj’s play toys with the idea that the EU quickly needs a country, any country to replace the vacuum left by Brexit. Kosovo is perceived as a strong candidate, if only a Pristina slaughterhouse can get its processes to comply with EU standards. The married couple running the slaughterhouse manages to fulfil the three thousand EU demands, but they forget to bribe the bureaucracy both at home and in Europe. Blerta Neziraj directed the four actors and two on-stage musicians.

It was an extra benefit of the DVD that we got to witness the reactions of the Kosovar audience. Both in the Pristina show and in the Serbians a mention of gay rights and the European insistence on minority rights produce uneasy giggles. In the theatre, among one’s fellow spectators, it is possible to laugh at prejudices which one or one’s community is in the process of leaving behind, or has abandoned not so long ago.

In Rabenthal, the groom (Zsolt Csata, left) strikes a bravely nonchalant pose, when his bride (Andrea Tokai) flirts with the cook (András Zsolt Bandi). Photo by www.teszt.ro

The host company of Timişoara gave us Rabenthal, a 1992 play by the German playwright Jörg Graser, directed by Radu Afrim. It is a wild story about a rich art collector, who takes his wife to a wedding dinner at a filthy restaurant, where she plunges into a cruelly passionate relationship with the cook. And, of course, the unique directing style of Afrim only adds to the weirdness. Afrim’s images are so dense, so expressionistic that I will only make a fool of myself trying to describe just one: the bride (Andrea Tokai) lies on a table, while the cook (András Zsolt Bandi) places a big fish on her stomach, goes on to season it sprinkling flour all over her and, simultaneously, tells how he became the sole survivor in an ambush during his service in the foreign legion.

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The professor (Zoltán Mucsi) returns to his mother (Kati Lázár) to blame her for everything in János Háy’s Hard. Photo: www.teszt.ro

Szkéné Theatre from Budapest, Hungary, presented Hard (Nehéz) by János Háy, directed by László Bérczes. It opens with a couple of short scenes where the main character is told to vacate his position as university professor and to vacate his position as husband. With no money, he moves back to the countryside to live with his aged mother. What follows is a one-hundred-minute monologue where he justifies himself with an admirable amount of self-deception, always finding fault with his mother (Kati Lázár) and everyone else, who have consistently refused to recognize his superiority.

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The sheer physical feat of the actor Zoltán Mucsi is astonishing; there is plenty of text, and his only respite from relentless stage action occurs when he takes off a jacket or tousles his hair as the professor’s alcoholism develops further and further. Even more astonishingly, Mucsi’s gestures never run out of rein, but his every wrinkle, his physical stumbles, his wave of the hand all show gradual ruin and increasing loss of dignity. Mucsi portrays a man from the country whose lack of self-confidence kept him from fulfilling his ambition. Hard premiered in 2010, but shows no sign of wear and tear; on the contrary, time may have added to its fine-tuning.

In Frame, the lighting design of director Alessandro Serra creates moving images on the concrete-coloured walls. Photo: www.teszt.ro

All the above shows are noisy, which says more about my preferences than about the wide variety of the Teszt program. Koreja Theatre from Italy showed its Frame, a work of exquisite beauty, inspired by Edward Hopper’s paintings. Alessandro Serra’s choreography creates scenic paintings of gliding and floating movements. The show begins with a huge piece of plywood moving around the stage, seemingly on its own, before the five actors behind it make themselves visible. The plywood is a tabula rasa, which then gets filled with images created by the actors. The light design of Frame only sheds an inkling of light on the events, which invites and compels me to fill in the shadows of meaning from my own inner darkness.

My review is not the first time these directors have caught the attention of Critical Stages. For more information please see:

 

*Matti Linnavuori wrote theatre criticism between 1978 and 2013 for various newspapers and weeklies in his native Finland. In 1985, he worked for the BBC World Service in London. Since 1998, he has presented papers at numerous IATC events. In the 2000s, he wrote for Teatra Vestnesis in Latvia. Since 1992, he has written and directed several radio plays for YLE the Finnish Broadcasting Company, the latest in 2018. In 2016, his play Ta mig till erledare (Take me to your leader) ran at Lilla Teatern in Helsinki.

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Timişoara Festival Pierces through Past and Future Nationalisms
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