Despite financial challenges, the 71st Festival of Professional Theatres of Vojvodina presented some of the best theatre in Serbia, argues Andrej Čanji.
The best theatre in Serbia can be found in the northern province of Vojvodina. That’s certainly the conclusion I drew from the 71st Festival of Professional Theatres of Vojvodina.
Organized by the Association of Professional Theatres of Vojvodina, it is the oldest theatre festival in Serbia and often changes the city in which it is held. Culture in Serbia is financially devastated, so the survival of the Association is not easy, and the effort required to hold one of the most important theatre events in the country is even harder. When you factor in the pandemic into this complicated equation, it does not bode well financially.
However, the artistic output of some Vojvodina theatres defy simple mathematics. The resourcefulness is impressive and the vision of certain artists produces meticulous results. The vitality of the actors overcomes all these barriers. The burned-out Association, which last year did not have the funds to adequately conduct its own 70th jubilee, rose from its own ashes and shone in the most beautiful way possible.
This does not mean that defiance to difficult times is a constant of Vojvodina theatres. They couldn’t hold the festival for two years in a row because financial shortcomings and a pandemic prevented this.
For this reason, this year’s selection of six plays (there were also three children’s plays, which unfortunately I did not have the opportunity to see) covers a two-year period. You could argue that the job of the selector was easier this time, since he had the opportunity to create the programme based on a larger output of work. That is true to some extent. However, there is an unwritten custom at this festival that one theatre should participate with only one production and it is desirable that the theatre that hosts the festival should have a production in the selection. But that did not happen this time.
Vlatko Ilić, the theatre director, theorist and professor at the Faculty of Dramatic Arts in Belgrade, made a brave decision to bring two productions from two Subotica theatres: the National theatre and “Kosztolányi Dezső”. Theatres in Novi Sad and the theatre in Sombor had one production each, and there were none from the hosts of the festival in Zrenjanin as nor from the remaining Vojvodina theatres. Seeking the best performances, Ilić probably neglected the wishes and needs of many members of the Association. But the precedent set did a huge service to the Festival and the Association. Guided exclusively by artistic criteria, the quality of an artistic output significantly improved with courage and dignity prevailing over rotten compromises. Even for state-subsidized theatres, there are no guarantees of survival. Maintaining high professional standards even in half-empty halls on the periphery of State, increases the need for theatre and makes it even more desirable.
One could say that one of the basic preconditions of good theatre is a degree of creative and political self-awareness. The theme of Vitezovi Lake Male captures the self-referential, parodic approach to theatre, its form and its role in society. The actors of the “Kosztolányi Dezső” theatre become stage characters themselves and rebel against the aesthetics of their manager and director Andraš Urban, whose character the actors also embody on the stage. Instead of a theatre that constantly draws attention to contemporary problems, they long for the mannerist and escapist aesthetics of the operetta.
Instead of provoking with naked bodies or calling things out with their uncensored language, they fantasize about splendid costumes and scenography, melodic songs and love intrigues. If we generalize their demands, we would conclude that instead of the post-dramatic performing paradigm, they demand the return of dramatic theatrical expression: a classic plot, a dramatic character and a stage illusion. Instead of socially and politically provocative work, they want to make something simple and relaxing.
The first part of the play consists of the rebellion of the actors. This is presented in the polemical spirit of Urban’s artistic policy. The second part consists of a dreamed operetta. However, the performance does not derive its meaning from the praise of one aesthetic approach and the criticism of the other. When the actors talk about the fact that in Urban’s performances they always have to be naked or shouting slogans, they draw attention to the now established mannerisms of post-dramatic theatrical expression. They also emphasize how their naked bodies can become objects to satisfy the director’s sexual frustrations (the case of Jan Fabre is an example of this). On the other hand, it turns out that behind the supposed political neutrality of the operetta, there is a hidden nationalist sentiment and a patriarchal structure.
Vitezovi Lake Male warns of both the potential futility of the post-dramatic paradigm and the potential ideological manipulativeness of trivial dramatic entertainment. Rethinking the role that theatre has in the field of political activism and creative aestheticism is a frequent motive in Urban’s directorial endeavours. As a performance that critically looks at the dominant drama-oriented theatre in Serbia, but also at the minority post-dramatic approach to which Urban himself belongs, the play Vitezovi Lake Male can serve as Archimedes’ point from whose position we can perceive the entire selection of the 71st Vojvodina Professional Theatre Festival.
This dramatic and post-dramatic binary can be used as two endpoints between which there is a wide and diverse range of expressive possibilities. That is why when we talk about belonging to one or another paradigm, we are talking more about tendencies.
In the festival’s other productions, there are a combination of political and aesthetical approaches. The National Theatre Sombor’s A Streetcar Named Desire and the postdramatic performance of Three Sisters by the “Kosztolányi Dezső” both deal with the position of transgender people in society. The two productions of the National Theatre of Subotica, the drama Kus Petlić and the postdramatic Živi pesak (Quicksand), mostly focus on appearance, on perfecting a purely theatrical language. While the first two plays use the language of theatre to speak out about vulnerable marginalized groups, the other two plays show a tendency to move away from current social issues in favour of the beauty of their own expression.
In addition, there is the production of the Serbian National Theatre, Who Killed Janis Joplin? which fluctuates between political and creative extremes. It is based on a play that shows scenes from the life of Janis Joplin. The writer is young, well-known playwright Tijana Grumić. A frequent theme of her work is coming-of-age issues and relationships with family members. Grumić belongs to the generation of authors who nurture a hybrid dramaturgy. Instead of the classic plot and representation of people in action, her work is characterised by a more poetic narrative and a fragmentary, but straightforward chronology of events. She displays a detailed psychological approach to the main characters, achieving this through the frequent use of poetic monologues.
Director Sonja Petrović somewhat demystifies the legendary Janis Joplin via set designer Željko Piškorić’s painted panels. Each features a typical outfit of the American middle class of the 1950s. These also function as costumes. The panels feature a hole in the place where the face should be and the actors speak through these panels, whereas Janis Joplin and the less straitlaced characters do not speak through these panels. The answer to the question Who Killed Janis Joplin is, partly, the rigid social conventions and petty-bourgeois values that stifle the diverse potential of the individual. In that sense, Janis Joplin is a hero in the fight for freedom of expression and a victim of social pressure.
The performance fluctuates structurally between a chronological narrative and a fragmentary sequence of scenes from the life of Janis Joplin, and intersperses the theme of rebellion with elements of an entertaining concert.
The actualization of dramatic classics is still a very popular artistic choice in Serbia. It can often be unsuccessful, but failure is rarely a reason for concern as almost every theatre in Serbia is a public institution. The directors do not look for a reason to do something different when their work results in failure. They receive funds by inertia, a legacy of the socialist system. There is no official system to control the quality of theatre production. For that reason, managers and artists can work dedicatedly, but also completely unscrupulously, if they wish.
A Streetcar Named Desire directed by Jugo Djordjevic, does not fail on these terms, but nor does it wholly succeed. Even after watching the performance, I didn’t quite understand the intentions of the piece. Only later did I find out that the character of Blanche DuBois, so skilfully and convincingly interpreted by Ivana Jovanović, is intended to be transgender in this production. No one with whom I exchanged opinion about that performance – and I exchanged them with many – noticed thus intervention. I only learned of it through conversation with the actors in the production.
If you missed the subtle signs, the meaning of the entire production becomes a mystery. However, even when you watch the performance with the knowledge that Blanche is trans, many things would likely still remain unclear. For example, it is not clear why some objects are realistically present on the stage, such as a TV and a refrigerator, while the folding bed on which Blanche sleeps is represented through mime; or why the couch on which Stella and Stanley sleep, as well as the many dresses that Blanche owns, are present in the form of photographs. The actors use Android phones but the TV set is from the middle of the last century.
This production of Streetcar is a good example of a new generation of young directors who are on their way to forming a new wave of reinterpretations of classical dramatic texts that engage with contemporary social problems. Though it did not wholly work, the courage to promote progressive attitudes both within the classical dramatic form and the institutional frameworks of a conservative society, makes the director Jug Đorđevic and the playwright Tijana Grumić authors in whom we can place great hope.
More courage was displayed by director Zoltan Puškaš. In an interview, he humorously called out Harry Styles on the fact that wearing a dress for the cover of Vogue magazine was not such a daring endeavour, when he himself had walked through a small town in Serbia in a dress, 30 years ago. The title of his production, which he directed at Urban’s Theatre “Kosztolányi Dezső” is Three Sisters, but it is not the production of Chekhov’s play, instead it is an authorial project that unites related replicas from Chekhov’s dramatic opus into a dialogue between three sisters, more precisely three trans men. All those lines in Chekhov’s plays lamenting over a difficult life and fantasizing about a better tomorrow, the playwright Kornelija Goli has combined with Puškaš’ personal views. This made for an exceptionally well-structured, activist, witty and, above all, brave post-dramatic performance.
The three sisters speak openly and without restraint about the necessity of hiding their own identity, the hatred they experience, the violence directed against them, the impossibility of leaving a community full of hatred. During most of the performance, the three of them sit, talk and drink, but the text and the acting are so perfectly and precisely composed that you perceive the Chekhovian monotony as an extremely dynamic and playful stage experience. Their problems are not just specific to their identity, they also express concern over the general hopeless situation in Serbian society.
The play Kus Petlić by the National Theatre of Subotica is an example of the perfect expression of the dramatic theatre, with an inert political message. The qualities are primarily in the harmonization of the director’s organization and dramaturgical precision performed over the text of one of the most famous Serbian comedians, Aleksandar Popović, which showcases the acting prowess of the cast, particularly of Minja Peković. In the role of Milja Bušatlija, she creates a strong female character full of energy and life – something that I have not seen in Serbian theatres for some time. The actress completely subsumed herself in the character who came alive during the performance.
Director Milan Nešković successfully harmonized the entire ensemble. Kus Petlić deals with the period from the occupation during the Second World War to the strengthening of communism. There have been no attempts to relate the very specific historical circumstances to the contemporary context. Nešković’s unobtrusively and almost imperceptibly underlines the transition from monarchy to communism. The actors occasionally underline this transition with the image of Jesus Christ. At one point, they stick a five-pointed star on Jesus’ forehead. Then, as the pressure of communism intensifies, they paint white over his face. The identification with the work takes place on a universal level. The audience can draw parallels with the fictional characters on the basis that they are ordinary people who are coping in a difficult historical period. In the case of Kus Petlić, that is enough, because the acting was so seductive it became a purpose for in itself.
Živi pesak, also from the National Theatre in Subotica, the Hungarian part of the ensemble, can also be interpreted as creating an aesthetic ideal for itself. But what Kus Petlić does in the domain of dramatic theatre, Živi pesak does within the post-dramatic form. It is an interpretively open performance with a sign system that resists clear, coherent and consistent descriptions.
In cooperation with local art associations, the author’s team began work on the play on the 25th anniversary of the death of the Subotica painter and set designer Pal Petrik. They combined motifs from his work with motifs from the poetry of Otto Tolnai, a writer from Vojvodina. The authors also searched for props in Vojvodina’s antique shops to integrate them into their process. As a result, a non-verbal performance was born in which painting, scenography, costumes, movement, rhythm, music and antiques become the key to opening up the world of Vojvodina’s magic.
They use many colours, create paintings on canvas and glass, and apply the paint with a brush, body, iron and bicycle. They apply colour in the rhythm of music composed by Robert Markoš and Silard Mezei, along with other compositions by several European composers. The lighting design by Robert Markoš also becomes a painting tool. The costume of Erika Janković and the scenography of Kinga Mezei and Peter Ondrašek are, at once, artistic tools and a canvas on which the actors paint.
At the centre of the picturesqueness is an elderly painter through whose perspective we see the world and memories of his life. His studio is both the space from which we observe the world and the space in which the world originates. The scenes that follow from the beginning to the end of this performance are a walk through a gallery of masterpieces.
The thematic scope of the piece is wide: the relationship between poetry, painting, music, dance and theatre; the relationship between the artist, the subject of his inspiration and his works; the everyday world seen with an ordinary and artistically inspired look; the importance of artistic expression for overcoming trauma. The authors and cast demonstrate everything in an indescribably seductive combination of various motifs: from objects that are necessary painting tools, through objects that represent the culture of a dying local culture, to everyday things; from the appearance of artists, through people from the margins to everyday passers-by; from a space that can be an ordinary attic or a painting studio, a place of the present or a source of memory. Every aspect of a very complex performance contributes to the completion of a perfect whole. I have not seen a better performance in a theatre in Serbia in the last few seasons.
This leads me to conclude that the expressive abilities of the minority Hungarian theatre troupes are far more developed than any other in Serbia. When they talk about political or social problems, Hungarian companies do it clearer, louder and braver than any other. When they create seductive stage scenes, they do it more beautifully than any other. Serbian troupes still gravitate towards classical dramatic theatre. They seldom step out of these frames. Judging from this festival, the Hungarian minority creates the best theatre in Serbia.
Today it is very difficult to imagine the ensemble of any Belgrade theatre producing plays with so much attention and with such skill as is the case with the performances of Vitezovi lake male, Živi pesak and Three Sisters.
Main image: Vitezovi Lake Male. Photo: Pozoriste Deze Kostolanji