This year’s Croatian Theatre Showcase took place between 18th-21st May. Andrej Čanji reports on a diverse and varied programme that explored and exposed the hidden, the invisible and the absent.
The programmer of the annual Croatian Theatre Showcase, Željka Turčinović makes her selection based on what she believes to be the most interesting phenomena on the Croatian theatre scene. The selection is not intended an exhibit of the most successful shows of the past season, rather as a collection of different performances capturing the current moment in Croatian theatre.
This year visitors to the showcase could see major productions by the Croatian National Theatre and the Zagreb Youth Theatre. They could see the works of established directors such as Oliver Frljić, Bobo Jelčić and Ivan Popovski. But the programme also included the experimental performing research of Nastasje Štefanić Kralj and Matija Kralj Štefanić, as well as work from the independent scene, including shows from the tiny Kunst Teatar, which was founded in 2018. The line-also included a performance for young people and a large dance spectacle from Rijeka.
As a result of this focus on diversity it was almost impossible to find a common thread. However, in the performance of Ivor Martinić’s Jackpot, – read our full review here – which took place at the end of the showcase, one detail stood out that can serve as an interpretive guide through which the entire selection can be viewed. The play is about a young married couple who win a large cash prize in a game of chance. They are visited by their best friend who notices the big change the happy couple has undergone. In her humble, compassionate and caring friends she glimpses signs of selfishness, insensitivity, ambition and alienation from the social problems that previously plagued them.
Writer-director Martinić further complicates this story of class distinction, the selfishness of the rich and the hardships of the poor by exploring the similarities between the lives of the actors themselves and the characters they portray. Martinić explores the overlap between the fictional and the factual. Because the production’s budget is modest, the actors are obliged to describe the appearance of the set and the audience is asked not to look at the part of the stage where the actors will sit until they are required to ger in character.
The performance demands that the audience ignore something that is clearly visible. This points to a central problem of modern society – poverty, which is omnipresent, growing and obvious – but in such a way that it is not addressed in public as a deep-rooted problem.
This ingenious idea made me realise that almost all the productions in the showcase have some kind of transparently hidden aspect to them or, on the other hand, they thematize important problems that are not addressed as such.
Ivan Popovski’s production of The Cherry Orchard at the Zagreb Youth Theatre was mostly traditional, if more explicitly comic than other productions of the play. The stage was divided into two parts: a narrow, claustrophobic space in Lyuba Ranevsky’s mansion on the left side of the stage and a huge empty space bordered by nylon curtains onto which some cherry tree branches are projected. Property, which is constantly referred to in the drama, is presented as something vague, blurred, fleeting and distant. The feudal exploitation and the torture of slaves for Yermolay Lopakhin and the idyllic childhood of Lyuba Ranevsky are present only as a shadow of material wealth that obscures human happiness.
On stage we see the problems that such wealth imposes on the characters. In this play, The Cherry Orchard is, on the one hand, an inalienable sentimental value that creates debt; on the other, it is a relic of the tragic past whose destruction brings profit and a guilty conscience. The great capital, whose outlines can be glimpsed on the swaying, transparent nylon, is an enacted absence that determines the interpersonal relations in both the old, feudal system and the modern, capitalist system.
Two plays in the programme explicitly referenced the war in Ukraine. The Brothers Karamazov, directed by Oliver Frljić for the Zagreb Youth Theatre, and My Babusja Doesn’t Know the Term of Biopower by the Ribnjak Youth Cultural Centre based on the idea and concept of Nastasje Štefanić Kralj and Matija Kralj Štefanić.
Frljić’s takes on Dostoevsky is a combination of explicit politics and the post-dramatic accumulation of signs, which often go hand in hand in his work. However, there are less contemporary references than one would expect from Frljić. Instead, the metaphysical levels of Dostoevsky’s novel are the dominant feature of this play.
The performance functions as a broad and complex context of existential philosophical insights, family quarrels, ideological friction, shortcomings in the educational system, and the influence of history on the present. What is missing is the possibility of a comprehensive understanding of the geopolitical situation in which we find ourselves, rather The Brothers Karamazov presents us with a theatrical image of this confusion and an opportunity to reflect on it.
My Babusja doesn’t know the term biopower has the qualities of dance, monodrama and experimental project. Nastasje Štefanić Kralj’s performance is consistently cold and free of any affectation. She presents private, geographical, historical, etymological and statistical facts in an empty space. She talks about her Ukrainian origins, her grandmother living in a war zone, the number of dead soldiers, the meaning of the name Vladimir, Foucault’s notion of biopower, the cities she has lived in, but also about her fascination for deer and so on.
The uniqueness of this project lies in the movement. Her body behaves as if someone else is controlling it. With gestures that do not correspond to spoken content, she conveys a range of information. Biopower, the technology of the state apparatus to manage the bodies and lives of the masses, is aesthetically articulated through Štefanić Kralj’s performance. From the perspective of biopower, the individual becomes a statistical quantity and a victim of manipulation, and his or her fate, difficulties and sacrifices become mere information. While in Frljić’s piece we see the impossibility of rationalising the content, in My Babusja there is an obvious lack of emotion, empathy and compassion for the individual fates of the victims.
The showcase programme included another dance performance, The Hero is Tired. It is a renewed version of the modern ballet by the Croatian National Theatre Ivan pl. Zajc from 2019, with music by Frano Đurović and choreography by Giuseppe Spota. The Hero is Tired is a sombre ballet about the crisis of individuality, mass psychology in the context of android phones and social networks, the production of role models without virtues, the imitation of false heroes and the emergence of a faceless, inauthentic and insatiable generation.
The choreography is rich in imitation games where neither the origin of a gesture nor its purpose is known, but the need for its repetition by the crowd is clearly shown. A large ensemble often repeats the same movement, which is soon replaced by another. This mannerism produced by social media is portrayed in ballet as a vain and narcissistic phenomenon, as performers film each other with their mobile phones and take selfies. Movements are often inhibited and incomplete, like an attempt to walk that stops halfway, turns around and starts all over again. This underlines the static and being caught in virtual trends. The electronic music that underpins the scenes with the seemingly mass corrupted robots is often repetitive, sinister and eerie. It comes across like a sombre group of sounds rather than anything we would call conventional music. However, the atmosphere it creates fits perfectly with the theme. What can be seen at the end of the performance as a staging of absence is an authentic human form: the faces of the performers are, eventually completely covered.
While the loss of identity is the theme of this major ballet production, hiding is the focus of the play for young people, Both Cyrano and a Girl, by Guillermo Baldo. The text is inspired by Edmond Rostand’s play Cyrano de Bergerac, in which the main character pretends to be someone else in order to win the heart of Roxane. Guillermo Baldo has come up with a similar plot, except that his actors are two young girls. The main character’s fear that she is not worthy of another’s love is not caused by the size of her nose, but by the fact that she likes another girl. The protagonist of this warm story pretends to be someone else because it is the only way she can express her feelings.
The social pressure the girl feels is illustrated by the scenography. The scene is set up like a town, made up of cut-out cardboard boxes representing houses. At the same time, these houses represent the characters of adults who have merged with their environment, adopted inherited values and become further transmitters of repressive habits. The adults are masked in rigid homes that pretend to only one lifestyle. They are staged as the absence of an open, free society.
One of the most interesting performances at the showcase was the Croatian National Theatre’s production of Sorry, directed by top Croatian director Bobo Jelčić. Jelčić takes a film as the basis for his project, which is not uncommon in his career. Peyton Place is a novel by Grace Metalious, first published in 1956. It became an instant bestseller and attracted a lot of attention due to its controversial themes and depiction of small-town life replete with dark secrets, scandals and taboos. The book was the basis of a hit movie in 1957.
The success of Peyton Place can be attributed to the way it explored and exposed the hidden realities and conflicts in seemingly idyllic small towns. It dealt with issues such as hypocrisy, sexual repression, domestic violence and other controversial topics that caused a stir and made it both popular and infamous in its time.
While the impact of Peyton Place was enormous in its heyday, its fame may have waned over the years, especially among younger generations familiar with the works of the mid-20th century. This is a very important fact, because Bobo Jelčić chose to tell the story of serious drama Peyton Place in the genre of parody.
The Russian formalists believed that parody is closely related to the concept of defamiliarization, which is about presenting ordinary or familiar things in a new and unfamiliar way. Through parody, artists could re-contextualise familiar elements from other works or genres, challenge audience expectations and offer a new perspective on traditional themes.
A parody only works as a parody if the subject it addresses is well known. I admit that I had never heard of Peyton Place before this show, but it was immediately clear to me that I was watching a very modern parody. But how could I recognize it as such if I knew nothing about the source material?
The answer lies in the fact that our contemporary economic, political and cultural context is so Americanised that clichés from Hollywood cinematography have become a universal phenomenon. The problems faced by the characters of Peyton Place are triggered by the patriarchy, a system which is as current in Europe now (especially in the Balkans) as it is in the America of the 1950s. The play is about a single mother, an alcoholic, who limits herself and her daughter’s happiness and freedom because of what she suffered in her youth. The old headmistress is replaced by a young man. The girls marry young and this is the culmination of their life’s journey.
All the characters in Peyton Place are depicted as caricatures, with overemphasised psychological traits and mannerisms. The action of his play nominally takes place in Peyton Place, yet the performance begins with the technicians dismantling and removing the previously installed scenography. Jelčić thus removes the spatial context of his play and focuses on the people as symptoms of an invisible patriarchal disease. He stages the absence of an ideological and spatial background that shapes people’s fate. Bobo Jelčić’s parody pays homage to the source material while challenging its assumptions, ideologies or prevailing narratives. His parody is a true postmodern strategy that blurs the boundaries between original and copy, reality and fiction, and breaks through linear and stable notions of meaning.
The world is so polarised that we cannot name the problem or what we lack. What worries us and what would help us hides, appears as a shadow, is absent. Institutional theatres in Croatia, but also the independent stage, plays for children and ballet, recognise that the world is directed by invisible ideological forces. The consequences of this action are recognised in people and revealed by looking at their lives. In the showcase we saw Croatian theatre artists succeeding in portraying these people and the absence that determines their fates.
Further reading: Zagreb’s Kunst Teatar: “We want to attract new audiences to theatre”
Further reading: review of Jackpot
Further reading: review of The Brothers Karamazov