Noel Witts - Professor of Performing Arts

THEATRE AND HISTORY -Slovenia and dilemmas

November 17, 2013

THEATRE AS HISTORY – Slovenia and its dilemmas


Slovenia was described recently  in a UK newspaper as the EU’s ‘skeleton in the closet’, and as I write the Slovenian government has narrowly avoided a financial bailout, and the prime minister has survived a vote of  no confidence. So it might be interesting to ask how the cultural field here represents its country’s progress or lack of it, given that Slovenia’s borders with the West , and Austria in particular, made it a more or less safe EU bet. An excellent place to examine cultural things  recently was at the International Festival of Theatre in Maribor, Slovenia’s second city, and a mixture of mediaeval streets and modern urban development ,with touches of Austro-Hungarian architecture dotted around the city. It also has the empty River Drava, empty since industry declined and the wine started moving by road. In the squares and streets many people are out drinking coffee ,but a glance behind one or two of those ancient street doors finds buildings  in a dire state of decay.

The festival is now in its 48th year, which must make it one of the longest running in Europe. Yet to hold the  festival under these economic conditions must be an act of faith by the dynamic festival director, Alja Predan, who has held the reins since 2009. Her festival is a triumph of  hope and wily economic management, and  this year it turned out to be a demonstration of current thinking by Slovenia’s major theatre makers. The festival schedule consists of a packed programme of performances, debates, panel discussions and seminars (Media and Culture,Theatre Archives, Translating Shakespeare, Meanings in Contemporary Performing Arts), all spread across three theatre spaces within the 19th Century Opera/National Theatre , the Art Gallery and the huge Puppet Theatre. For Predan this festival is much more than entertainment : it is a way of displaying current cultural thinking in a country that for some time was known as the poster-child of the new euro-zone nations but is now experiencing euro-economic problems.

It is interesting to compare Maribor in Slovenia with Sibiu in Romania, which also has a festival, now  20 years old  and  one of the biggest in Europe. Whereas the director there, the redoubtable Constantin Chiriac ,makes his festival both an international showcase and a wide-ranging Romanian  welcome-pack for all nations, Predan’s is very much a Slovenian intellectual and performance showcase, leavened by an annual invitation to specific other nations to show their work – this year Holland.

Bearing all this in mind we may ask how current Slovenian performance reflects a view of the country on the one hand, and of its recent history on the other. How has the communist breakup and the arrival of the market economy affected theatre and theatre makers?  The Yugoslavian breakup, with its attendant crises in relationships and in borders – Croatia , Italy, and the Bay of  Piran coastline, for example – is still in many Slovenian people’s minds. And only a few weeks ago in Belgrade, now Serbia, they buried Tito’s wife with full honours , accompanied by  a full crowd of senior and not so senior ex-military men and woman with their Yugoslavian medals . Communism may be dead in the water, but its shadows still force themselves to the surface,  into performances, as if to remind  audiences that history does not die but exerts a sometimes baleful influence on all art.

An extravagant production from the Maribor Theatre of  “The Master and Margarita” by the Russian dissident Bulgakov ,began with an image of Stalin kissing the author as a response to Bulgakov’s historic letter of complaint, and gave hope for a radical re-interpretation of the piece. But the only concession to politics lay in the Devil’s resemblance to Stalin throughout. This text is a major one  for all  the nations of the former Soviet Union and it was alarming to see it turned into a minor anti-Stalin tract.

Then, of all things in a would-be developed capitalist society, there was a magnificent production of Brecht’s play “The Mother” , first performed in 1932, starring Brecht’s wife Helene Weigel in the title role. The Slovenian production starred  Natasa Barbara Gracner , and  was directed by Sebastian Horvat from the National Theatre in Ljubljana. This is the text which shows the conversion and education of a peasant woman in the principles of the Revolution. Gracner’s performance became the still centre of this interpretation, which lost revolutionary fervour in favour of a cool examination of the way in which maternal feeling can be translated into political activism.  We were hardly  being re-indoctrinated but rather were asked to cast a critical eye on the piece, which was directed as a cool experiment. And then it occurred to me that  perhaps the Maribor protests that had brought the current mayor to power were seen as a necessary corrective to whatever ‘democracy’ pertains in Slovenia. When I asked, in the panel discussion, what need Slovenia had of Brecht, there was a clear indication that some of that old world could still have relevance, particularly in a city with nearly 20% unemployment, and a country being accused by its citizens of wide-spread corruption.

This was by no means all.  Oliver Frljic’s production,  entitled  “25.671″ was a volatile confrontational piece by 10 performers dealing with the ‘ shame’  of Slovenia’s ‘erased’ people  – some 25.000 citizens from other countries of the former Yugoslavia, who were removed in 1989 from the Slovenian population registry,  and thus denied all benefits. In order to see this production on the main stage of the opera house we had to surrender items of identity, while on stage the facts, figures, and emotional traumas of the erased persons were played out. Much audience debate at the end  and an appearance by a real family of the dispossessed. Here was the raw conscience of Slovenia, and as one of the actors ‘confessed’ to me afterwards, communism was perhaps not all that bad after all!

So far it seemed that Slovenian theatre was finding it  hard to escape history, even if it wanted to, but the ultimate flight from all logic found itself a  set of images in a brilliant production by Jernej Lorenci of the National Theatre in Ljubljana, of “The Crazy Locomotive”  written in 1923 by the Polish artist/writer Witkiewicz, born in 1885 and who committed suicide in 1939 when he heard that the Red Army was crossing the border into Poland.  Coming from a country where none of Witkiewicz’ work has come within sniffing distance of our national theatres, this was nothing short of a revelation. That the texts were dadaist and challenging  we all knew, but that they could be made into a semi-logical surreal theatre experience of the highest quality was a shock. The cast clearly believed in the piece and tasks like playing the piano non-stop for half and hour by two performers while the minimalist story was played out behind them on a small stage were simply seen as the only way to deal with the author’s instructions. There was at the same time obviously an escape from current life and a relief in the stage life of such meaninglessness.

Alja Predan had decided this year to invite performances from Holland, and we were treated to Ivo Van Hove’s famous production of Cocteau’s “La Voix Humaine”, performed by Halina Reijn of the Amsterdam Toneelgroep. Looking at this after the Slovenian work one wondered about the Dutch group’s relation to history. Is it, after all, seeking to create existential parallels between a text of 1928 and the dislocations of modern urban life in a very advanced society? Predan writes in an article for “Maska” that there is a degradation of culture in Holland from 2010, so does this mean that we can interpret the  isolation of Cocteau’s woman as a response to today’s dysfunctional  societies?

If so, it was absorbing to see Oskaras Korsunovas’  historic piece “Miranda”, which shows Prospero locked in a cage of 1960s emptiness, in conversation with his mentally incapacitated Miranda about exile and dispossession. Korsunovas , a major Lithuanian theatre maker, is giving us  an image of an empty communist society, where the imagination is all that is left  to us, and where the books are all but irrelevant even to a dissident intellectual.  History seen from a disillusioned Lithuanian artist with little hope for the current world.

Dispossession also seemed to be the theme of  “Three Elizabethan Tragedies’”, a multi- texted and  multi- imaged 90- minute show with no subtitles or synopsis  , based on Croatian writer  Stojsavljevic’s  post-modern plays, and marshalled together by Dragan Zivadinov, one of the founders  of the  Neue Slowenische Kunst in 1985. Since then he has embarked on a series of ‘post-gravitational theatrical abstracts’  and other experimental stage works,  though in this piece  it seemed as if Zivadinov was  telling us that the comparative  ‘freedom’ of the  80s was preferable to the nonsense of the current situation in Slovenia. Moreover  it confirmed for me that there must be  a whole generation of artists now feeling disenfranchised across the countries of the former Eastern Europe.

It is axiomatic  that all important theatre relates to particular times ,places, and even spaces. In Wajda’s film of Kantor’s “Dead Class” , for example, we can see the underground playing space, the gallery walls, the audience stumbling in,  a representation of people perhaps  escaping the communist world upstairs to be regaled with Kantor’s mashing of dissident texts and sounds. In Bausch’s “Cafe Muller” we see the frustrations of a divided Germany in the 1970s and the imagined past of Bausch crashing together against the ethereal music of Purcell. So in Slovenia we see a festival pointing a mirror at society and its problems, if not  its traumas, and claiming its place as a major debating chamber for its country. Festivals can be reconciliatory as well as celebratory – the Edinburgh Festival was created to heal the cultural wounds of World War 2 – so it may not be too much to see Maribor’s festival as a small contribution to the  debate about the future of Slovenia, a country not much bigger than Wales, and now in a hurry    to  lose its status as the  skeleton in the EU cupboard.

Noel Witts

November 2013

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