Kalina Stefanova[1]


Weekend of Discoveries, 1-3 March 2013, Slovensko Mladinsko Gledalisce (SMG), Ljubljana, Slovenia. Damned Be the Traitor of His Homeland, directed by Oliver Frljić; Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Amado Mio, directed by Ivan Peternelj.

At first sight, serenity is ubiquitous in Slovenia. Under the surface, though, lurks a strikingly different picture: the country is ranked in the top ten for the world’s suicide rate. That this place, so improbable for dramatic contrasts, actually brims with them was reflected in the program of a theatre weekend organized, in the beginning of March, by one of the major theatres in Ljubljana, Slovensko Mladinsko Gledalisce (SMG, named European Ambassador of Culture in 2008). The six productions that were presented ranged from the most intimate to the outright political. Here’s my choice of the best of the two trends.

Occupy Theatre!

Damned Be the Traitor of His Homeland, directed by the Croatian star director Oliver Frljic and written in collaboration with Tomaz Toporisic, the SMG dramaturg, and Borut Separovic, is reminiscent of other great works of art, yet it’s a show undoubtedly unique.

Its first scene is as if taken out of the Golden Palm-winning film, Underground (1995): the stage floor is strewn with dead bodies with brass-band musical instruments in their hands. Shortly afterwards, the air in the instruments starts to move and, before long, we understand that it’s not the wind blowing in them. The sounds get stronger and stronger, intertwine in a melody and, with the soaring music, the dead, too, rise up.

Throughout the show, these same people will be repeatedly killed and rise up again and again. And this is not merely a part of a patchwork type of plot or an excellent exploitation of the conditional nature of theatre in principle; nor is it only a display of the vintage Balkan vitality known from all works of the same Kusturica-Bregovich film team and so well summed up in the line “Even in the dead car we are alive!” (Arizona Dream, 1992).

The show does brim with the same vitality (despite its subject matter at first glance) but these multiple resurrections are primarily a statement: concrete and very topical about the special ease with which people are killed en mass today, about the disposability of human beings, about hatred towards otherness. The essence of this statement is brought forward not only indirectly through this hyperbolic grotesque, but also in a very direct way several times during the show. Because it’s also straight-forward political theatre, reminiscent of Arpad Schilling’s Black Land (2004) and his determination to shake us out of our complacency—or mind-blindness!—be it at the expense of shocking us via improper language, frontal nudity or simply by saying the inconveniently naked truth.

Here are two scenes, exemplary of that style. The actors, fully or partially undressed, stand in a line facing us and fulminate against all types of “other” people—of a different nationality, race, gender, sex orientation—including the audience itself. Then the decibels of the vulgar curses all of a sudden drop down to a whisper. It gradually gathers momentum and, to our surprise, becomes a menace-charged recital in one voice, as if coming out of ranks of soldiers: “Istria is ours!” (Istria being a part Slovenian, part Croatian land).

“Damned Be the Traitor”: actors (from left) Matija Vastl, Primož Bezjak, Olga Grad, Draga Potočnjak © Žiga Koritnik
“Damned Be the Traitor”: actors (from left) Matija Vastl, Primož Bezjak, Olga Grad, Draga Potočnjak © Žiga Koritnik

The other scene is figuratively and literally show-stopping: one of the actors rises up from the newly killed dead and, in the same matter-of-fact manner, tells us: “You want traditional theatre, a fable? No, fucking pussies! You’ll stay here for 4 hours and no one’s leaving until you start thinking!” And, yes, despite its only being 70 minutes long, this show does make us think. It, so to speak, manages to jump over the ramp and occupy the theatre and makes us, too, along with its creative team, profoundly indignant.

Primož Bezjak amidst corpses in “Damned Be the Traitor” © Žiga Koritnik
Primož Bezjak amidst corpses in “Damned Be the Traitor” © Žiga Koritnik

However, again, it’s not simply a piece of political cabaret-like theatre. It’s much more than that. It dares to have a palpably poetical touch, too. It’s courageous enough to enter into the deep waters of throat-grabbing emotions. In this regard, there’s something in its mood and its depth that’s reminiscent of another great film, the Oscar-winning No Man’s Land (2001, Danis Tanovic). The same type of heart-rending authentic Balkan folk music resounds and manages to transport the show into another genre—that of real human drama—giving it a special additional dimension. And this third dimension is reaffirmed and intensified by the personal touch of the text spoken by the actors, when they don’t swear. Especially moving is the final scene, which starts with a song (“I won’t go against my brother”), sung by a tearful actress; by the end of the song, the audience is riveted to the chairs. Yet, it turns out that the actress may have cried because she has been reluctant to sing the song, due to a Serbian connection in its history, and has actually wanted to leave the show. What follows is a passionate discussion, again en face to us, on responsibility—artistic and human, on a small and large scale.

The show ends abruptly—the feeling is that the discussion hasn’t finished—but this is its only shortcoming. Otherwise, there’s a startlingly sharp tempo to it—things happen with the immediacy of a ‘net chat—and the montage of the scenes is extraordinary. In brief, the show definitely speaks the language of modern days. But in this very language it talks about eternal matters, such as life and death, and basic human relations. This so-rare combination is achieved due to the perfect ensemble work of the cast and the unique talent of Oliver Frljic. He knows both how to shock you to the point that you jump in your seat and how to move you to tears—both for the sake of humanity, at that! And he demands that we start doing something for that very sake. Urgently! He knows how to strip issues to their essences and makes no bones whatever about showing the direct connection between seemingly negligible politics and human drama and even tragedy. That’s exactly why Frljic manages to put grotesque hyperbole and true-to-life dramatic reality into one bowl, and make them not fall apart. Or maybe we ourselves have turned our lives into this impossible mixture—or have allowed them to be turned into it—and Frljic wants to scream this in our faces and make us feel it with our hearts and minds alike, so that we would want to change that preposterous status quo?!

With its appeal to both reason and intuition, with its fact-and-fiction mixture and the special atypical post-modernist approach (where warmth, emotion and drama are not shied away from, and deconstruction is in the end very constructive), Frljic’s show is also a sample of the new wave of political theatre in former Eastern Europe. A very topical trend whose key phrase is not so much “What should I do?” but rather “What should I be?”—i.e. it’s the state-of-our-souls that is pointed to as accountable for the state-of-the-world.

Again connected with the soul—but in the most elusive spheres in which it dwells—was the best sample of the intimate theatre presented by SMG: Amado Mio.

Where Longing Dwells

It doesn’t so much matter if this show is true to—or striving to be on—the same par with—Pier Paolo Pasolini’s two novels, Atti impuri and Amado Mio (1948, published 1982) on which it’s based. It doesn’t even matter if one remembers—or has actually ever been acquainted with—the works, life and world of Pasolini. I’d go even further and say that it’s not of foremost importance that the story is about the infatuation of a man for another man and the unrequited love of a woman for the first man. All these details have to do with the visible. And, yes, they are there—in the show. But its great achievement is that it manages to transcend the concreteness of the material world—the bodies, the story, the facts of the time it takes place in—and enters into the most purely spiritual realm of longing: longing of a soul for another soul.

For the theatre, it’s easier to invite other nuances of love and easier to keep them longer on stage. The volatile—and yet so strong—energy of longing yields more to the sway of poetry. The Slovenian Amado Mio, though, not only does get into this eternal prelude of love but manages to “catch” its energy and make one palpably feel that it’s longing itself who’s the main dweller on stage for most of the 70 minutes duration of the show. That makes the show more of an impressionistic than a story-telling endeavor (and respective experience).

Not that there isn’t any flesh there. The show deliberately starts on this note: the older man, sitting on something like a bed, draws the name of the author and the title with a brush and red paint on the naked back of the younger man who’s standing next to him. But the resemblance to The Pillow Book (1996, Peter Greenaway) ends at the moment when the “I” goes an inch further down, just touching the boy’s trousers, and the boy jumps, as if stung. For it’s not sensuousness but sensitivity that will be the key word here: sensitivity towards the slightest whiff of a thought/feeling/mood of the beloved one, including a whiff of his “presence” in all the places that have ever been visited by his body or soul.

The point where “Amado mio” goes beyond “The Pillow Book”: Ivan Peternelj and Blaž Šef © Matej Peternelj
The point where “Amado mio” goes beyond “The Pillow Book”: Ivan Peternelj and Blaž Šef © Matej Peternelj
Blaz Sef in “Amado mio” © Matej Peternelj
Blaz Sef in “Amado mio” © Matej Peternelj

There’s something Eastern in the minimalism of this show—in the delicacy and finesse with which it approaches our, human, feelings, lest they be wounded. And their preciousness and fragility are emphasized by the contrast with the atmosphere in which they have to survive: together with the characters, we are in a small, black-walled premises with a low ceiling and dim, candle-like light—like an air raid shelter. In the middle stands a huge wooden platform, made of rough timber with a red sheet on it: an improvised bed (most of the time), a stage for a small pantomime (later on), a table; ultimately, though, more of a raft, where longing has taken refuge in the darkness of a raging war. And again, the war here is not just literal—with the noise and fire of the falling bombs, and the smell of death; it’s figurative as well—of dogmas and fears, stifling all sorts of “forbidden” love.

“September 27 1945,” the boy writes on a chalkboard at the back, and the narrative starts to unfold, veering smoothly not just back and forth in time but from one perspective to another. The two actors (Ivan Peternelj and Blaz Sef) alternately tell the story from the point of view of their respective characters, or just from that of the main protagonist’s, finishing each other’s sentences, like an odd Chorus. In between, they play their characters and small cameo roles. The woman “enters” the action first in the form of a portrait, hung by the man on the back wall, but her main presence is felt more in the calling chords of a violin—one more of the voices of longing. The actors also work the lighting and the sound track of the show via a technical board next to the platform and, at times, even address themselves by their real names.

This interchangeability of the roles, narrative angles, dialogues and monologue, theatre and life, helps blur the borders of the visible and invisible, and intensifies the feeling that it’s the latter that counts more. The credit for the intuitive precision with which this “montage” is done—and which is the main bondage keeping its parts together—goes to Peternelj, who is also the director. For him this is a first venture into directing spoken drama, after a career of choreographing modern movement theatre and being an actor.

The only thing I’m hesitant about in the mosaic of the show is the hints, references and quotes (at times strikingly direct) of a religious nature. For me—given that I’m not versant in Catholicism—they actually put on test the spirituality and integrity of this theatre piece, rather than intensify it. Another reason I stumble at these scene is that, on the whole, the show feels as if it is more about the bliss—rather than the suffering—of longing.

The last scene makes up for that and is a sheer delight. The war is over and the cinema has come to the village with the movie Gilda. The scene with Rita Hayworth singing of the Amado Mio—the song that sounds like a far-away backdrop of the first scene—now plays with a hushed, nearly silent sound: first on the chalkboard, then on the white “screen” of the two men’s shirts, as they kneel on the bed facing the projector, and, finally, on the naked skin of their chests. Rita Hayworth dances and the actors deliberately move their bodies with the rhythm, so that the very image on them starts dancing too, then stops, as if to take a breath, then dances on, until slowly fading away. This scene—at once dreamlike and playfully full of life—is a resume of the show. It’s like one deep sigh or a wistful look full of the disarming innocence and the no-barriers might of longing.

[1] Dr. Kalina Stefanova is the author/editor of 13 books on theatre and criticism (three of them are in English; they were launched in New York and London and are on indicative reading lists in universities worldwide) and two books of fiction (the first has been published in nine countries). She was a Fulbright Visiting Scholar at New York University, a Visiting Scholar at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, and at Meiji University, Japan, and has delivered lectures worldwide. She served as Vice President of IATC for two mandates (2001-2006) and as its Director of Symposia (2006-2010). She is currently a Full Professor of Theatre Criticism at NATFA, Sofia.

Copyright © 2013 Kalina Stefanova
Critical Stages/Scènes critiques e-ISSN: 2409-7411

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Theatre Occupies Ljubljana with Longing