The 62nd International Theater Festival MESS took place in Sarajevo between 30th September and 9th October and featured work by Oliver Frljić and Pippo Delbono. Mladen Bićanić reports on this year’s highlights.
“Modern theater needs to be questioned not about its degree of conformity to the eternal laws of the theater, nor about whether it manages to interest a spectator in buying a ticket, i.e. in the theater itself, but about whether it manages to interest him in the world.“ -Bertolt Brecht
Nihad Kreševljaković, the director of the MESS Festival, quoted these words by Brecht in his address at the opening ceremony of this year’s edition of MESS. This year, the international theater festival based in Sarajevo featured 13 performances from Croatia, Cyprus, Japan, Switzerland, Greece, Hungary, Italy, Slovenia, Montenegro, Serbia, Germany and the host country Bosnia and Herzegovina. Many of these performances were immersed in such contemplations about the theater, as if that was their main objective – to make the viewers interested in the world in which they live, to help them decipher and understand it.
The opening of the 62nd edition of MESS was indicative of such an approach to theater. Zagreb Youth Theater presented one of the most successful plays from its last season, Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov in an ingenious production by Oliver Frljić, a performance which marked his return to Croatian theater after a nine-year long hiatus.
Frljić is in the habit of saying that “when it comes to the theater, I prefer stitches to the material from which a piece has been tailored,” and this performance proves this. Those stitches link and merge the main lines of Dostoevsky’s novel as well as touching upon the reality in which we live, encompassing Russian authoritarian leaders from Lenin and Stalin all the way to Putin and his ruthless aggression against Ukraine.
The novel has been dramatized and adapted by Frljić and the dramaturg Nina Gojić. This duo presents The Brothers Karamazov as two separate plays and in an entirely new light, superbly performed by the entire cast. Dostoevsky’s novel simultaneously portrays a large number of characters and explores some grand ideas – and Frljić’s production follows in his footsteps. The first section is soaked in the brutal, apocalyptical world of the Karamazovs, whilst the second centres around the misery and poverty of the Snegirev family.
Each of the two parts of Frljić’s diptych functions as a separate entity. However, it is when seen as a single performance, that the grandeur and polyphony of Dostoevsky come to full prominence. “They call me a psychologist, which is not true. I’m only a realist in the higher sense; that is, I portray all the depths of the human soul,” Dostoevsky said. The unattainable, unexplored and mysterious depths of the human soul are at the very core of both performances. With Dostoevsky, people – even the villains – are simpler than they might at first appear; a man can be both evil and sentimental; love is a priceless treasure with which you could buy the whole world, atone for your own and other people’s sins and lying corrupts and should be avoided.
Everything we find on the pages of this magnificent saga of the Karamazovs and their fellow travellers and companions, we also find in Frljić’s masterfully managed performance. The novel reveals the abysses and precipices of the human soul and the creative team capture all of this in the performance. it came as no surprise when the festival jury – Andrea Lešić (B-H), Fatos Berisha (Kosovo) and Giacomo Pedini (Italy) – declared Oliver Frljić the best director and awarded him the Golden Laurel Wreath for Direction.
The Grand Prix of the 62nd MESS, the Golden Laurel Wreath for Best Performance was awarded to a young cast of actors from Montenegro fpr a four-and-a-half hour-long performance based on another great Russian classic, Anna Karenina. Directed by Mirko Radonjić and co-produced by the Drama Studio “Prazan prostor” and the Royal Theater Zetski Dom from Cetinje, it was a very inventively and precisely constructed performance delivered by three actors with occasional appearances of the director himself, with an electric guitar that becomes a proper character in the play. The sound of the guitar actually becomes the voice of Anna’s husband, a very effective and humorous device, if lacking the ironic touch that re-examines the possibilities of the theater and performance in general as well as the role of the audience.
The young cast in Radonjić’s performance are researching Tolstoy, his topics and ideas, and making selections of what they want to perform on the stage while being guided by the thought: “It is important that we should follow our instincts, record what gets us going in this novel and what we think is important to discuss – without any reasoning and without providing any psychological analyses but from a purely human point of view.” It is possible to discern the same polyphony which Frljić and his cast were trying to embody in their dramatization of Dostoevsky in this approach. However, this is shown in a completely different manner in Anna Karenina, from a different angle and with a youthful enthusiasm and some fierce gestures. The results are seductive in the way of the best theater.
Georg Buchner wrote Woyzeck a year before his untimely death, in 1836, at the age of 24, leaving it unfinished. Director Attila Vidnyanszky Jr. is roughly the same age as him. The cast of the Nemzeti Szinhaz Nonprofit Zrt Theater from Budapest are also very young. This powerful, adventurous and youthful production was one of the most successful plays at this year’s festival. There is something of the old, genuine MESS poetics in the piece, of the theatrical re-examination that MESS has fostered from its beginnings and that has always been its trademark.
Vidnyanszky only takes a few basic elements of the tragic love story between Franz and Marie, selecting only some of the motives and threads of Buchner’s unfinished but still brilliantly written and structured drama. Vidnyanszky locates the play in South America, with all the folklore and social customs of the region. This Latin-American touch is emphasized by the musical and dance elements throughout the performance. The entire performance is extremely visceral and resistant to being tamed by the uptight canon of old-fashioned theater which demands only the trodden paths be followed. The performance mixes peaceful, family scenes with furious group scenes. The cast is large – there are 13 actors performing in a very low, almost squeezed space, but you can clearly discern that this is the real, true Woyzeck. Like The Brothers Karamazov it is a performance in which you are searching for the depths of the human soul and whether it’s Franz, Marie or you – you are once again at the centre of that search.
Pippo Delbono has been a favourite of international theater festivals in Zagreb, Belgrade as well as MESS over the years. His research into the possibilities, boundaries and scope of poetics in theater is at the core of his pursuit of the art of theater. This is the case with Amore, a production of the Compagnia Pippo Delbono theater company, established in the 1980s, with Pippo as both the director and author, and the Emilia Romagna Teatro. Amore is based on verses recited by the director himself while sitting in the back row of the auditorium. He recites into his microphone – “… to love without limits, that is our destiny…”. The raptures of love are also portrayed through music and songs, with fado as the underlying musical style. Fado is the foundation of the piece. The journey of the infatuated human soul begins in Portugal, stopping briefly in Angola and Cape Verde. The atmosphere created by fado is brought to us by first-class musicians and actors. The stage design is very simple, clad in blue, white and red tones with a single, withered tree that comes back to life and sprouts during the performance. (The production received a Special Mention for its stage and lighting design). Delbono has said, “Amore was created so as to bring life to the theater”. It is poetry brought to life on the stage.
Last year, Kokan Mladenović directed a dramatization of the novel by poet Darko Cvijetić, Schindler’s Lift. This year, he directed another of Cvijetić’s novels, Why are you sleeping on the floor? in a coproduction with three theaters from the region – the Serbian National Theater in Novi Sad, the Sarajevo National Theater, Scene MESS and the Gavella Drama Theater from Zagreb. Alongside Mladenović, Mina Petrić and Dubravko Mihanović, and the author also contributed to the performance, which featured a cast comprised of actors from all three theater companies. Though this play did not compete at the 62nd MESS Festival, it was an eagerly anticipated theater event, premiering in Novi Sad at the end of September.
The reputations of author Darko Cvijetić and director Kokan Mladenović added to this sense of anticipation, and, in my view, this performance lived up to those expectations. Cvijetić’s painful, autobiographical prose has been successfully transformed into a theatrical and pictorial language in which every truth and tragedy of this short novel hits with the same strength as it did on the page. As the director put it, “Darko Cvijetić is a poet who, like Marina Abramović in her Balkan Baroque performance, sits buried in the bones of innocent victims of Yugoslav wars. He provides them with a voice and purpose, he gives them hope that their existence was not in vain and that once this is all over, we will come to realize that the peoples from this corner of the world are connected and intertwined and that it is impossible to harm anyone without harming yourself.”
This is a play that speaks of the evil inside of us, yet another text in this festival programme concerned with the hidden and unfathomable depths of human soul. However, this is also a play about the possibility of hope, of salvation even; about the possibility that not all is lost if there is a poet by our side. Cvijetić also performs as an actor in this play, and he does it superbly. Like some modern-day Virgil, he moves through the circles of the hell we have created ourselves, guiding us through the abysses of evil and pain; he shows us where and how we once strayed from the right path, where we stopped being humans.
Cvijetić is a wonderful poet who writes about atrocities and the enigma of the human soul in a sobering manner. He has said that: “Biographies of all my characters are tiny bits of my own death”. Those deaths were transposed from his prose to the stage by Mladenović, and the question of what awaits us afterwards, when we are left alone in the darkness of the auditorium. lays at the heart of this wondrous and healing play.
Main image: Anna Karenina. Photo by Velija Hasanbegović
For more information on this year’s festival, visit: Mess.ba
Further reading: MESS Festival 2021 – The show must go on
Further reading: Oliver Frljić interview “Theatre is what happens in the heads of the audience.”
Mladen Bićanić was born 1949 in Bjelovar, in the former Yougoslavie, now Croatia, He worked for 15 years at Radio-Tuzla, and for the last 20 years, as a freelancer, at BHT 1 in Sarajevo. He writes theatre criticism for Oslobodjenje, in Sarajevo, and has published two books of his critical texts.