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Dorothy Chansky


Belgrade International Theatre Festival (BITEF) 2018

Svet Bez Ljudi (World Without Us)

Reviewed by Dorothy Chansky
September 13-22, 2018

When the communist bloc was at its height, eastern European theatre was known for offering provocative, coded resistance to a repressive status quo. In former Yugoslavia, the Belgrade International Theatre Festival (BITEF) was founded in 1967 with the explicit goal of goading audiences to think and, ideally, to act. Now in its 52nd year, the festival remains a venue for edgy, politically motivated performances, albeit not necessarily veiled in their critiques, and not only from Serbia or the other six countries that once made up Yugoslavia.

This year's festival featured productions from ten countries under the rubric "World Without Us," itself an invitation to conversation, as the literal translation would be "world without people." Although imminent apocalypse and death feature in the program publicity, the real focus seemed to be—at least in the six productions I was able to see—a world without human kindness or decency. Indeed, the cruelties and indifference behind most of the productions' provocations and protestations are, if anything, starkly human. The "us" being threatened by resurgent right-wing populism, however, cannot, by definition, be all of us, and the conundrum posed by the productions in the aggregate is the one that has had liberals in Trump's USA and in the UK post-Brexit newly woke to the fact that in democracies, we may not all be in it together. "World Without Us" is uncomfortably only possible if "we" posit a definite "them."

Suite No. 3 Europe. Photo by Frederic Lovino.

Pride of place for elegantly collaging the difficulties of co-existence among a dazzling array of everyday differences went to the festival opener, France's "Suite No. 3 Europe", written and directed by Joris Lacoste with music by Pierre-Yves Macé. Lacoste constructed the work by gathering recordings of many sorts of speech from the twenty-eight constituent countries of the European Union and presenting them with musical counterpoint in voicings by two linguistically and vocally protean performers, Bianca Ianuzzi and Laurent Deleuil. Americans might make connections to the work of Anna Deavere Smith, although the occasional forays into actual singing and the constant use of counterpoint with piano (played with panache by Denis Chouillet) and some rhythm instrumentation made the piece as much a concert—or even a minimalist opera—as a play.

Supertitle malfunction in "Suite No. 3" proved either disastrous, fortuitous, or something to be shrugged off, depending on one's perspective. French, English, German, Spanish, and Italian may have been sufficiently user-friendly for many in the audience. Polish, Hungarian, Greek, Czech, Swedish, Lithuanian, and Finnish (among others) complicated things. The missing English supertitles (they worked in Serbian) posed a tantalizing problem for some foreigners (like me). Although critics were given last-minute printouts of the texts in English, reading in the dark while looking down at one's lap would not allow for watching the performers. Moreover, in a piece whose very point is that we live cheek by jowl but fail to understand each other's values, I found the mashup of voices and languages the perfect embodiment (I'm looking for an aural analogue for that but not finding it) of the very issue being staged.

Vocal and musical variety with an occasional recognizable word wove its own kinesthetic and psychic tapestry. And the utterances? (I read the handout the next day.) An opportunistic trafficker in quickie citizenship papers appeals to the rich who might like to buy EU status. An Orthodox monk holds forth on how Jews control China while China threatens to destroy the rest of the world. A French official perkily recites guidelines for how to handle oneself in the case of a terrorist attack. A depressed teenager in Berlin creates YouTube videos about her day. A reality TV star blithely tells a beggar that she never carries cash in public. An imam rails against scantily dressed "western" women on the streets of Muslim neighborhoods.

The fault lines along which these self-absorbed, oblivious, sometimes content/sometimes enraged people fracture, however, are less the product of nationality than of class, religion, or occupation. Here, then, is the rock-and-a-hard-place of globalization, writ small as the problem of this loose-but-legally-binding Union. When identitarian interests and civic interests are at odds, guess which ones win out emotionally?

Bollywood. Photo by Vicencio Zaknic.

In "Bollywood", what starts out looking like a pleasant world of live-and-let-live turns ugly in the face of economic downturn. The piece, written and directed by Maja Pelevic and set in a small Serbian town, centers on a group of former factory workers, unemployed since the government shut down their plant, who form a ragtag theatre company. Their motivation? The rumor that a Bollywood producer plans to buy the factory and turn it into a film studio. "Bollywood" was billed as a "trash musical," but its style is really more cartoon or overstated children's theatre with a "message" than anything else. The characters prove racially insensitive (working on their tans so they can "pass" as East Indians) and mean-spiritedly xenophobic, as a Roma with more talent than any of them is at first turned away and then mistreated when he wants to audition. Garish costumes, clunky choreography, a build-up to a showcase performance for a producer who never materializes, and finally turning on each other put this somewhere between "Waiting for Guffman" and "Animal Farm." What was missing was any seeming awareness that the days of full employment in the factory were days under a repressive regime. If stringent laws are the only way to make us play nice with others, who was "us" in the first place? This was a critique of the xenophobic Serbian equivalent of "make America great again." Theatrically it can be forgiven, perhaps, for lacking subtlety, but not for lacking the courage to avoid cuteness or take no (aesthetic) prisoners.

"Gorki – Alternative for Germany?" dares to unpack racism and nationalism with more than handwringing. Croation-based director Oliver Frljic was commissioned by Berlin's Gorki Theatre to create a play about the rise of a powerful right-wing party in present-day Germany at a time when this financially stable, politically open country would seem to be a safe haven for democracy. Gorki aims for the jugular in its approach to the tensionsbetween progressive inclusivity and political correctness (for which there seems to be no attempt at translation from the English). Got tolerance? Just wait. Backlash is not far behind.

Gorki - Alternative for Germany? Photo by Ute Langkafel.

The play features six performers, all members of the Gorki company playing members of the Gorki company. Gorki is known for hiring with an eye to "diversity," but the company mission has produced a repertoire with a reputation for autobiographical self-indulgence delivered by an ensemble of "others." The question, however, is other than what? Presumably other than German, but it is national identity that is put under the microscope. A black man (Falilou Seck) is the grandson of a Nazi. A gay man with a Turkish name (Mehmet Atesci) is a third-generation German who is a fierce believer in assimilation. A blonde, ethnically German actress (Maerike Beykirch) may have the right bloodlines, but she has never felt at home or safe in Germany. She is the Teutonic equivalent of white trash and now lives with low self-esteem, student debt, fear of unemployment, zero family support, and an unwanted pregnancy. Another ethnically German woman (Svenja Liesau) has a little boy who is the product of a rape by a Syrian. Is the German-born, German-speaking boy German or not?

Frljic's program note spells out that democracy is the ideal breeding ground for fascism; Alternative for Germany, minus the play's titular question mark, is the name of a newly powerful party that was founded in 2013 and now enjoys representation in fourteen of Germany's sixteen state parliaments as well as seats in the Budestag (federal parliament). The party is populist and xenophobic; factions are openly anti-gay, racist, anti-semitic, and Islamophobic. All connections with the collapse of Weimar are intended.

The play uses the Gorki Theatre itself as an unsubtle metaphor for a house divided and on the verge of self-destruction. Following a no-punches-pulled opening comprising a series of abusive monologues on a plain stage, the rear wall rises to reveal a built-to-scale replica of the actual 1827 Gorki theatre building, a pristine neoclassical gem where German law was hammered out in 1848. In short order, the performers pull the façade apart and the building rotates to reveal cramped, underfurnished apartments in which we see the private lives and fears of the actors-as-citizens. In one of the most emotionally touching scenes of the piece, the otherwise fractious ensemble cohere, ironically, as isolated individuals reciting a litany of their personal fears: failure, unemployment, abandonment, not having children, being mentally ill, other people, the future of the country.

Where this leads, of course, is to the AfD party. Party membership is offered to any Gorki employee by the theatre itself, which is state supported. Three of the actors join; three resist, noting not only the impropriety of taking state money to join a political party but calling the others emergent Nazis. The argument that ensues stages the real dilemma at the heart of the Bitef theme. When people fear that the world they know is being taken away by forces they cannot understand—much less control—they have differing ideas of how to act in their own self-interest. Frljic's point, though, is not merely that fear leads to embracing repressive measures. It is that democracy itself is the very condition which enables putting demagogues in power via open elections. Whether widespread panic and resentment emerge from inflation or from neoliberalism, some version of Goebbels is going to follow. Gorki's final tableau features the "white trash" actress attired as a Nazi officer with strains of "Deutschland über Alles" in the background.

Jami District. Photo courtesy of BITEF.

In Milena Bagavc's "Jami District" (directed by Kokan Mladenovi), three triple-threat young women engage in a loud, dazzlingly protean, non-stop assault on a status quo that accepts the dangers of nationalism on the one hand and corporatization on the other. Isidora Simjonovic, Nina Nešcovic, and Jelena Graovac represent Serbia, Croatia, and Bosnia Herzegovina. When a (fictional) pre-historic/proto-human skeleton is found in a (fictional) town at the intersection of the three nations, the battle for fame and primacy ensues. The woman play border patrolmen (who discover and hoard parts of the skeleton, each in the name of his country); scientists, and gung-ho citizens each of whom firmly believe that her country is the cradle of civilization.

To prove the point, blood samples are taken from "pure" representatives of each nation and sent to a DNA lab in Scotland. Unsurprisingly, the genetic makeup of the three countries proves identical. In a clever use of video (by Jana Bjelica and Aleksandar Sarapa), the same footage of labs and blood donors is shown for the campaigns of each country. When a game-show language contest has a girl from each country translating a word from English into "her" language, it's no surprise that all three come up with the same words (with some minor allowance for dialects). So, what are they/we fighting about?

By the penultimate scene, the energetic, shapeshifting performers have become disgustingly violent, macho soldiers, eager to rape and kill in the war each imagines will prove his country "right."

No such luck. The war is an endless, bloody standoff, and an international organization steps in to turn the site of the discovery into a theme park. Citizens of the town—our three rockstars (and, yes, they are earsplittingly able chanteuses as well as being athletic and terrific mimics)—become performers who represent their prehistoric forebears. They are forced to learn a kind of invented ape language and to give up the jobs, families, and "civilized" lives they once enjoyed.

Program notes for "Jami District" make clear that nation states are a nineteenth-century idea and that this idea may be past its "use by" date here in the twenty-first. This production, more than any other I saw, made clear that "us" and "them" are themselves less than useful distinctions when it is sustainable life that is at stake. My single regret about this piece is that it was a "showcase" (fringe) production rather than a mainstage offering. It deserves to be seen in a wide context.

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