The 63rd International Theater Festival MESS took place between 30th September and 8th October in Sarajevo. Ana Ogrizović reports on this year’s programme including the world premiere of a new production of Susan Sontag’s Alice in Bed.
Nihad Kreševljaković, the director of International Theater Festival MESS and the SARTR (Sarajevo War Theatre), has said that MESS was intended to serve “as a life vest for human souls in the time and the world of conflicts, wars, social and national catastrophes“. It’s a big statement but it’s based on solid ground: MESS was the largest theatre festival in the former Yugoslavia, established in1960 and kept going even during the Siege of Sarajevo in the 1990s, therefore serving as a national symbol of perseverance when there seemed to have been no hope anymore.
Today, this symbolism extends into the reparation of the ills of the past, but also as a reminder that the truth must be spoken and never forgotten. This “life vest for human souls“ is still much needed today as well, since destruction in all forms seems to be taking place on all sides and no place on Earth is really at peace.
I was at once honoured to attend this year‘s MESS, but also curious to see if and how it lived up to this promise.
The selection of this year‘s performances overall reflected the main ethos of the festival, full of provocative and intriguing work from the region, but also around the globe. This year‘s MESS an exciting selection of some of the most prominent names of today‘s theatre, such as Oskaras Koršunovas, Paolo Magelli and Andraš Urban.
The 63rd MESS was opened on the 30th of September with the Ukrainian performance Calligula from the Ivan Franko theatre in Kyiv, exploring the material and spiritual destruction of the world, alongside ways of resisting this destruction.
On the 1st October, the public was able to see the premiere of Alice in Bed, a new production of the play by Susan Sontag, the American writer and critic, and directed by Hungarian director Zoltán Balázs. This SARTR, MESS and Maladype Theater coproduction was to serve as a 90 year celebration since Sontag‘s birth, as well as a 30th anniversary since Sontag‘s famous production of Samuel Beckett‘s Waiting for Godot in besieged Sarajevo.
Sontag‘s play merges the character of Alice James, the sister of novelist Henry James who suffered from depression, with Lewis Carroll‘s fictional character Alice, into a “reflection of grief, anger and imagination“ as Sontag herself explained. The play Alice in Bed follows this Alice (or, to be more precise, these two Alices – perhaps a FrankenAlice?) during a depressive episode where she can‘t get out of bed, and constantly gets tormented by the living (her family) and the dead (demons and writers), trying to stay alive. The premiere was, naturally, held exactly in the SARTR theatre.
Zoltán Balázs has described his practice as “the theatre of curiosity“, constantly finding “glimpses, personal moments, verbal and nonverbal gestures to have a continuous collaboration with the text and various styles of art“. The playfulness of his vision combined well with Sontag‘s sharp-edged writing, resulted in a highly intriguing performance.
The performance Alice in Bed was mostly set above the ground, on a metal throne-like construction serving as the bed. The ghosts and family members were ominously walking around the construction when they weren‘t communicating with Alice (Snežana Bogićević) or climbing to interact with her. This setup smartly illustrated her isolation, but also the world of her dreams which was poetic yet scary. A huge part of this performance was rooted in the intricate choreography, serving as an equally important medium of communication as the words were (sometimes even more successful than the words). The sharp, staccato movements accurately mirrored the play of power between Alice and her demons, constantly maintaining the anticipation if she was going to win. In these fights, Alice‘s most prominent weapon was nothing but her own bare feet. Bogićević was acting from the top of her head to her toes, constantly emoting the restlessness and disturbance of Alice. Apart from her, especially good were Matea Mavrak and Hana Zrno as Margaret Fuller and Emily Dickinson who didn‘t shy away from screaming and mumbling gibberish to the point of ridiculousness, therefore bringing out the potential of these grotesque characters to the maximum.
Although the performances were exquisite, the story did not go deeper into the storylines of the characters. I don‘t think I would have been able to realise that the Alice was supposed to be Alice James, had I not researched this beforehand. Similarly Carroll‘s Alice came through mostly because of the lip-syncing of the song Alice by Avril Lavigne, from the Alice in Wonderland movie. It was quite difficult to recognise Emily Dickinson and Margaret Fuller within this piece, without a significant prior knowledge of these historical figures and the text. This opacity in writing could have been justified by the will of the author to leave the characters as universal as possible, however I believe more could have been done to make the chosen historical and fictional figures more recognisable to the viewer of the production.
As much as the scenography was clear in its intentions, the choice of wardrobe was kept neutral, with both the living and the dead having their faces painted white with dark black shadows – which, once again, could simply be justified by the fact that this story is timeless and the character of Alice lives in a fantasy world, where all her experiences and knowledge might be discombobulated.
Even with these inconsistencies, I found this performance impactful and successful in conveying the story of solitude and inability to communicate with the outside world. Alice in Bed was later awarded with the Golden Mask of Freedom (Zlatna maska oslobođenja), award by the MESS media sponsors.
Interestingly enough, the next performance I saw included performances above the ground as well. Othello from OKT/Vilnius City Theatre in Lithuania, directed by Oskaras Koršunovas, incorporated large wooden wheels where the actors often performed. During his MESSPRESSO interview, Koršunovas remained mysterious about his approach to Othello, revealing merely that his rendition of this play spoke about “the endless conflicts of the old and the new world“. It is important to note that Koršunovas had been awarded multiple times on the MESS festival before, including the award for the best young director in 2001 with the performance The Master and Margarita. Given the fact that Othello is Koršunovas‘ 7th Shakespeare rendition as well, there were certainly a lot of expectations for the Lithuanian director.
Koršunovas‘ Othello was a woman, therefore adding another dimension to the judgement Othello faced in the story. The performance was filled with the 21st century references, from Desdemona‘s father claiming that “She should have married Eminem, the only Black man in white person‘s skin“ to the men getting ready for war through a YouTube tutorial for opening one‘s astral vision. Deep, emotional moments were often disrupted by breaking the fourth wall and comedic reliefs, sometimes even engaging the public into the performance. These interventions made the four hours of performance quite breezy to sit through.
The styles of acting were diverse, with Othello (Oneida Kunsunga-Vildžiuniene) balancing the cold strength of character with deep, emotional highs and lows connected to Desdemona‘s supposed betrayal; Desdemona (Digna Kulionyte) completed a full arch from the happy-go-lucky young girl to a disillusioned, patriarchal wife accepting her faith; and the men oscillating from seriousness to siliiness in their approaches to the characters. The costuming was kept universally recognisable, i.e. men wore suits before the war and khaki uniforms during the war, but the soft details served a constant commentary on the story (for example, both Othello and Desdemona had a little of the camouflage clothing in the first half, only to change later as they grew more apart).
Overall, Koršunovas‘ Othello was my absolute favourite performance of the the part of the MESS Festival programme I saw because it encapsulated a fresh, creative insight into a classic play, with skillful acting, emotion and an unexpected sense of humour. The jury of the 63rd MESS seemed to agree, since Othello was multiply decorated this year, receiving the Golden Laurel Wreath award for the Best performance in whole, The Golden Laurel Wreath for the Best director (Oskaras Koršunovas) and The Golden Laurel Wreath for the best actor (Saulius Ambrozaitis as Iago).
Another creative approach to theatrical performance could be seen in Deca (Children) from the National Theatre in Belgrade, which turned Milena Marković‘s NIN-awarded poem of the same title into an operatic piece featuring 17 songs. The poem Deca speaks about the writer‘s life from childhood to a more mature age, observing her relationships with family and other people (mostly men), concluding that even when they grew up these people remained the same scared and faulty children.
In the words of the director and the composer, Irena Popović, “Milena writes that the child is actually us who forgot, hid, wrapped that same child up in some false norms and codes of conduct“. The female lead was portrayed by the multiple women throughout her lifetime, obviously portraying the same female character yet keeping their authentic characters as much as possible. This link was kept in the high-detailed wardrobe as well, with each man having a distinct suit and each woman made up and accessorised to portray a different time in the protagonist‘s life. The public seemed to especially enjoy when the female protagonists would step out to sing profanities in soprano, such as “I‘m a whore, not deserving of my own beautiful bed“ .
Under the skilful baton of Popović, the opera blended quite nicely with the poetic yet harshly realistic language of Milena Marković, especially since the genre of realism wouldn‘t have been expected to marry well with the heightened world of opera at first. The choreography worked hand in hand with the music and the libretto, underlying each of the motifs but also knowing when the movements should be restrained, in order for the music to breathe naturally.
To begin with the production was a slow-burner and even seemed stagnant at first, however the energy built up steadily so the performance had all the necessary ups and downs. The choir of adults was spectated the entire time by the diverse children‘s choir, which sometimes entered the scene to perform shorter songs. The children‘s choir was mimicking the adults from time to time through the performance, tying together the endless story of children. This performance was enjoyable as well, although it did ask for a little bit of patience before the action fully ignited.
Besides the main program, the public was able to visit Children Mess performances for the younger audiences, as well as Dramadžiluk – the dramatic readings of contemporary regional plays in Kamerni teatar 55. I attended the readings of Dario Bevanda‘s Darkness on the edge of town and Vladimir Arsenijević and Igor Štik‘s The Conspirators. Both plays discussed the roles of human beings in challenging times, with Bevanda following stories of ordinary people in the Sarajevo Siege and the contemporary snow storm, and Arsenijević and Štiks dissecting evil through multiple conversations of historical figures. Bevanda‘s story wittily tied the past with the present and portrayed ordinary people in challenging times, although the plot did lose some of the impact once the connection between the past and the present was revealed. Similarly, The Conspirators slightly suffered from the medium of conflict being nothing else than speech, and therefore losing some of the potential to build more drastic action – although the dialogues and monologues were skilfully crafted.
Overall, the 63rd MESS kept the promise to celebrate art and human relations through a diverse program, including worldwide performances but also maintaining much needed space for the regional theatres and authors. Another part I greatly enjoyed was how festival programme took place not only during the evenings, but at daytime as well. This way, the metaphorical life vest did seem to always be present.
For more information, visit: MESS.ba
Further reading: Maladype Theatre: “We are the black sheep of our theatre society”
Further reading: Natasha Tripney on MESS Festival and Alice in Bed
Ana Ogrizović is a Dramaturgy graduate from Serbia, recognised by multiple poetry, prose and playwriting competitions. She is currently pursing a Masters degree and editing her first poetry book.