Theatre in Montenegro: An Unfinished Cultural Transition

Maja Mrđenović*

Artistic activities in Montenegro (population 630,000) are still largely characterized by a traditional approach, with very little interdisciplinary experimentation and social engagement.

The theatre system is disjointed and unevenly distributed[1]: the standard bearers of its theatre activity are the two national theatres—the Montenegrin National Theatre in Podgorica and the Zetski Dom Royal Theatre in Cetinje; and the city theatres of Podgorica and Nikšić. In addition, there are occasional independent theatre productions in municipal cultural centers[2] and several summer theatre festivals. That is, independent theatre as such remains underdeveloped in the country, certainly in comparison to publicly budgeted institutions.

Montenegrin cultural policy has generally put “state identity”—understood as essentially following the “official line” and the absence of critical thinking—at the forefront. Indeed, international trends such as inclusiveness and decentralization have been all but ignored—a tendency that unfortunately mirrors the wider socio-political situation in the country. Since 1990, the state has been run by the same political party—the Democratic Socialist Party—meaning that the government has not changed for 30 years.

According to measures of both the European Commission and of Transparency International, Montenegro could therefore be characterized as a “captured state,” which implies that public policies can often take place through corrupt means with intellectual “elites” (directors of educational and cultural institutions), supporting the ruling party’s positions.

Specifically, laws dealing with Culture and Theatre, define “public interest” in vague and generalized terms. The National Program for the Development of Culture 2016-2020, an analysis of the fundamental planning document in the field of culture, reveals not only a lack of strategic planning but is dominated by organizational modes oriented towards maintaining the status quo with decisions tending to be made through the personal interests of bureaucrats. Which is to say that political considerations rule supreme in public life and that cultural systems are both weak and subject to chaotic and arbitrary functioning.

Through decades of such practice, absolute obedience has become commonplace in hiring for the cultural sector. The effect is very much like a closed feudal system, with a nepotistic array of cliques, clusters and clans effectively marginalizing “disobedient” and “unsuitable” individuals within the cultural scene. Rules are officially adopted and regulations loosely transcribed, arbitrarily interpreted, blatantly distorted and/or grossly violated under the alleged pressure of European integration.

Directors of public cultural institutions in Montenegro, including theatres, are officially proposed by the Ministry of Culture and then arbitrarily appointed by the Government, without any public competition or proposed plan for the position. In the same way, theatre advisory groups tend to be assembled according to political rather than artistic criteria.  Sometimes, no appointments are made at all—in 2015 the Montenegrin National Theatre had been without a director for six months and operated with only a truncated advisory council.[3]

There are no term limits for officials, with the same people running these posts for decades. As for the election of directors of the city’s cultural institutions, a public pro forma competition is always announced, but government functionaries are inevitably elected, even when superior candidates present themselves.

Artistically, the Montenegrin National Theatre and the City Theatre Podgorica[4] are the only two institutions with permanent companies, but most are made up of party faithful. Those who challenge the system often do not work. There are actors in the Montenegrin National Theatre who have not played in any production for years (despite the fact that they receive a regular salary), and artistic associates who are not qualified for the job they are supposed to perform and yet they are employed because they are politically eligible.

In such an environment, institutional entities become little more than privileged associations, perpetually funded with guaranteed funds, regardless of performance or program quality. The result is a situation in which all evaluations except quantitative ones are taboo, an ideal construct for perpetuating the powerlessness of public interest to private and political interests.

Repertoire

What is most striking about the repertoire of all these theatres is their lack of distinctiveness; that is, the lack of variety in their various profiles. This can be seen in the small number of new productions during a single season (4-5 on average for each theatre). Which suggests an absence of real repertoire policies and rather shallow reflection about new approaches. One gets the impression that both repertoire and the selection of an artistic team often shows a lack of ability to truly deal with things theatrically. Premieres seem to be simply the fulfilling of a function. Often companies theatre companies choose to collaborate with the same directors for reasons that have nothing to do with the arts. As an example, one can note Moliere’s The Learned Ladies at the Montenegrin National Theatre in 2017, in which Serbian director Jagoš Marković essentially restaged his 2014 production of the play at the Croatian National Theatre in Split. At the Nikšić Theatre, one can note that Goran Bulajic from the Montenegrin National Theatre, directs almost exclusively.

There has also been a trend in recent years toward commercialization of the repertoire—the staging of light comedies supported by highly aggressive marketing. There has also been a large number of productions built around stereotyped national mythomania as well as a widespread banalization of classics.

This has been true at  the National Theatre which, under the artistic leadership of actor Branimir Popović, has been reduced to presenting light comedies, with the explanation by Popović that theatregoers should “come out happy and satisfied after a show” (Jerkov). The current director of the institution, Željko Sošic (whose previous professional engagements have been in film, not theatre), justified his non-creative artistic vision of the classics as simply a desire to “engage with the finest works of world literature” (Rovčanin).

Montenegrin National Theatre. Photo: Web

Standing out to some degree against this backdrop is the theatre Zetski Dom, which has recently become involved in two European projects: the EU Collective Plays project, funded by the Creative Europe Fund; and ADNICH, funded by the EU’s INTERREG IPA fund. Over the past few years, the theatre has offered several artistically significant productions.

Royal Theatre Zetski dom. Photo: Web

Under these programs, director András Urbán from Serbia directed the play Butterfly, which impressively deconstructs seemingly unquestionable “patriotic” values, values “stuck between transition and tradition,” values which exist as merely empty forms, values which hide cowardice, hypocrisy and unabashed greed.

Butterfly, by Aleksandar Radunović, dir. András Urbán (2016). Photo: Duško Miljanić

Urbán is also the author of the play Kapital, based on the ideas of Marx’s highly influential work. Questioning the present-day meaning of the relationship between work and capital, the play impressively concretized the issue in a Montenegrin context.

Kapital, dir. András Urbán (2018). Photo: Duško Miljanić

Another director of note, Árpád Schilling of Hungary, created for Zetski Dom As far as the View Goes, based on improvisations about the brutality of (post) capitalistic life and using the personal experiences of the actors with a reduced, ascetic stage language. More recent productions at Zetski Dom have, unfortunately. shown a decline in production quality and the replacement of politically challenging repertoire to a sadly simplified uniform “project tasks.”

As far as the View Goes, dir. Árpád Schilling (2016). Photo: Duško Miljanić

One exception at the Montenegrin National Theatre was Chekhov’s classic Ivanov, directed by the Ukrainian director Andriy Zholdak. His production showed a vigorous and murderous world and emphasized non-verbally the freeing of unconscious and unspoken pressures boiling volcanically within the characters. By moving away from any sense of pathos in the text and adding in ironic elements of popular culture, the production created true tragi-comedy suffused with the magic of the seemingly irrelevant.

Ivanov, by Anton Chekhov, dir. Andriy Zholdak (2019). Photo: Duško Miljanić
The Independent Scene

Despite the relatively poor production level of independent theatres in the country, some performances have clearly shown this type of theatrical activity to always have a strong desire to be original, to actualize new ideas theatrically and to stage new plays. Specifically, performances for children and young people in the independent scene are of a generally high quality, significantly better than similar performances for these target groups in the more highly-budgeted theatres.

Among Montenegrin directors, Mirko Radonjić is arguably the most artistically important. His productions of such plays as Son and Rooms left a genuine mark on recent theatrical seasons with the weight of their themes and their imaginative stage language. Son (staged in Zetski Dom and based on the play by Mirjana Medojević) presented the story of a participant in the wars of the 1990s, who finds himself confronted by a son of whom he was not aware (the result of the rape of a Muslim woman in Bosnia during the Civil War in the former Yugoslavia, where the protagonist was a voluntary participant from Montenegro). The stage language is characterized by a blurring of boundaries between performers and characters, and by delving into of the very process of creation, deepening the theme of personal and theatrical responsibility.

Son, by Mirjana Medojević, dir. Mirko Radonjić (2017). Photo: Duško Miljanić

Rooms was based on the play by Ilija Đurović and is about young people in today’s Podgorica. Radonjic’s directorial approach involved a subtle playing with reality itself which is assembled and deconstructed in a cramped, almost empty space. For the audience, it was a precious, liminal, edgy experience.

Rooms, by Ilija Đurović, dir. Mirko Radonjić (2018). Photo Ana Kašćelan

There is not a lot happening in Montenegran dance though the Ballo Troupe has been striving to fill a void in the field bringing significant and much needed freshness and variety to the form.

Festivals

Paradoxically—given the country’s generally underdeveloped theatre for children and young audiences—the most significant festival in Montenegro is actually the Kotor Festival of Theatre for Children. Since its founding in 1993, the festival has been reaffirmed as one of the most significant manifestations of this type in the region and is a national model when it comes to prestigious cultural events. From its inception, it has been the leader in promoting authors, productions and new trends in this area of theatre. It has also managed to address contemporary values like inclusion of socially vulnerable groups, children’s rights, volunteerism and inter-culturalism. In addition to promoting communication, cultivating international relations and facilitating international comparison, it also acts as an extremely important “critical assembly” which propagates the right of children to culture and the arts.

Another festival of note is the Montenegrin Theatre Biennale, founded in 2007 and conceived as a competitive festival for national theatre. The Biennale’s major problem has been the frequent lack of quality national productions.

The MIT and FIAT festivals in, respectively, Cetinje and Podgorica focus on smaller experimental groups from Europe, although both almost mirror one another in programming. This problem is also shared by the summer coastal theatre festivals, which host regional theatre productions.

Because there are no major international festivals, creators (unless they are able to fund a trip to say BITEF in Serbia) remain deprived of the opportunity to see significant new productions and thus develop professionally. This may be one of the reasons why domestic theatre is engaged so narrowly.

Criticism

Despite the prevailing anti-intellectual discourse, theatre criticism in Montenegro does indeed exist and has some modest influence. Given that the media itself is politically polarized, and therefore prone to self-censorship,[5] and has little real interest in cultural criticism, there is nevertheless a Montenegrin section of the International Association of Theatre Critics some of whose members founded the online magazine Peripetija.me[6] in 2014. This today stands as the only medium in Montenegro which publishes theatre reviews.

Ironically, there is more controversy in Montenegro about whether theatre criticism should exist than there is actual criticism. The small community of critical writers, therefore, struggles to survive with dignity amid an extremely small theatre community, meaning that it is difficult not to know almost everyone in the theatre community. Most in the theatre community, therefore, exert varying pressure to engage critics in propaganda, and when they fail, respond to “negative critiques” by declaring the writers “uneducated” or that such criticism is “irrelevant.”

Recently, the director of the City Theatre Podgorica, playwright Stevan Koprivica, went a step further, choosing to not invite three critics to premieres, before deciding to mitigate this “punishment” by seating them in places from which it was almost impossible to see the play well. One can say in response that such reactions to criticism and the constant disputes about its significance are clear evidence of the need for it and of the influence it actually exerts.

In Montenegro, the least developed country of the former Yugoslavia, the process of democratic transition that started during the wartime conditions of the 1990s—including the development of culture—has not yet been completed. Until there is the political will to complete this process problems will remain.  

In such a social climate, staying independent can seem like a marvel with reasoned critical voices rare and often marginalized. The result is that the public interest is too often sacrificed here to the interests of powerful individuals and groups.

Works Cited

Jerkov, Kristina. “Učene žene su vesela apokalipsa našeg trenutka.” Portal Analitika, 26 Dec. 2016. Accessed 15 Apr. 2020.

Rovčanin, Violeta. “Čekajući Godoa u srijedu pred podgoričkom publikom.” FOS Media, 11 Feb. 2019. Accessed 15 Apr. 2020.


[1]Montenegro has an area of 13,812 km2.

[2]Municipal centers of culture are institutions inherited from socialism, and they exist, in theory, as complex public institutions that combine activities in different fields of culture.

[3]Montenegro has been without a Minister of Culture on two occasions recently: for more than half a year in 2014 and for several months in 2017, which confirms that culture is for all essential purposes part of the general political farce. This is further evidenced by the biography of the current Minister of Culture, Aleksandar Bogdanović, who is in no way related to culture.

[4]The higher education institution where drama and theatre artists (playwrights, directors and actors) are educated in Montenegro is the Faculty of Dramatic Arts in Cetinje. Given the small number of theatres and the unenviable circumstances of the independent scene, graduating students face serious difficulties in finding employment.

[5]Artists often belong to different interest groups, so for the media there are “our” artists, and then there are those who are on the “opposite side.” The author of this article experienced censorship of criticism regarding the play by director Radmila Vojvodić, the wife of the then Minister of Culture, in the daily paper Pobjeda, which is perceived as a “state” media oulet.

[6]http://peripetija.me/ 


*Maja Mrđenović is completing her PhD at the Faculty of Dramatic Arts in Belgrade. She works as teaching assistant at the Faculty for Montenegrin Language and Literature in Cetinje. Her writings in the field of performance studies and cultural politics have been regularly published in Montenegrin and regional journals. She is one of the founders and editors of the electronic magazine Peripetija.me, the only professional theatre journal in Montenegro. She has served as a jury member for theatre festivals in both Montenegro and the region.

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