Photo: Julia Baier
Running from 7th-10th October, the fourth edition of Deutsches Theater’s Radar Ost festival featured work from Belarus, Ukraine and Bosnia and Herzegovina. Edona Kryeziu reports on this year’s programme.
For the fourth time the Deutsches Theater (DT) in Berlin looks to the “East” with its Radar Ost festival. Under the motto “Art[ists] at Risk”, this year the festival gives a stage to innovative theatre ensembles from so-called ‘Eastern Europe’ who face oppression in their respective countries.
The programme aims to explore the field of tension between art and conflict, artistic freedom of expression and existential risk. How much risk is art able to take on? How do artists endure this risk and at which cost? How does storytelling become a necessity to venture beyond frontiers?
Across four days, theater-makers from Belarus, Russia, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Ukraine, confronted these questions theatrically with wicked humour, brutal fatalism and sharp (self-) reflection. The five productions, two guest-plays invited from Belarus and Ukraine, as well as four co-productions between Russia, Bosnia Herzegovina and the Deutsches Theater, together presented a variety of experiences where art is – and was – at risk, with each piece exploring the interstices of symbolic and real frontiers within their home countries – and in relation to the ’West.’
Working at the interstices of narration
The festival opened with Kirrill Serebrennikov’s Decamerone, a co-production between DT and Serebrennikov’s Moscow Gogol Center, which premiered in 2020 at the DT.
In this way, the festival pays tribute to the still difficult situation in Russia, where dissidents face oppression and violence when they dare write their truth about the conditions in their society. Director Serebrennikov, himself an ‘artist at risk’, was forced several times into house arrest by Russian authorities and was also banned from leaving the country in the course of ongoing legal proceedings. These travel-bans posed serious obstacles to the already rare German-Russian theatre collaboration; only through using the internet for rehearsals and sending the Berlin Ensemble to Moscow did Decamerone come into realisation. Serebrennikov’s staging runs a diagnostic of a self-centred power- greedy society through a theatre-pascours of 10 – Giovanni Boccaccio inspired – stories of love, sorrow and hatred.
The need to operate at the interstices as a means to prevent prosecution is also reflected in the story-line itself. While one might think that the ten stories revolve around quarantine and illness and as such relate to the global pandemic, this superficial layer gets uncovered through careful reading between the lines. Serebrennikov refers to self-chosen isolation – isolation as a consequence of speaking out, of wanting to love and live, such as the main characters in Boccaccio’s stories. It was under his own isolation – under house arrest- when Serebrennikov rewrote Boccaccio’s original text into this modern adaptation.
The Belarusian Woyzeck – radical fatalism
While the Decamerone premiered on the 24th June 2020 in Moscow, the Kupalaŭcy theatre group from Minsk, Belarus, can only realise projects outside the country; In Belarus, it does not officially exist. The group was founded by former members of the state-run Janka Kupala Theatre and is now an association of actors, artists and filmmakers from the Belarus diaspora living across the world, yet the members’ centre of life remains, despite everything, Belarus.
For Radar Ost, director Ramadan Padalka has chosen a 200-year-old German classic to portray a personality type that for him is complicit to the violent situation in his home country. Woyzeck appears in a black cap, black jumper, black leather boots, with a rigid face. He has come to shout one sentence into the hall. “I am a good man.” But fate does not mean well for him. In the course of his 50-minutes techno-opera, Woyzeck’s goodness is beaten out of him by the system until he outrageously kills and slaughters in the name of the same authorities.
In fast-paced scenes which appear as melodic montages of text-fragments from Büchner’s original, the story of an anti-hero is told in the Belarusian language. We see the structures inherent to such violence, and are simultaneously left with no room, no glimpse of empathy. The brutal ending seems to be symbolic of the situation of the opposition in Belarus, – living at constant existential risk. The existential significance that theatre can experience under extreme circumstances became clear during the audience discussion. Padaliaka, describes the guest performance as an “excursion” into a normal life to make sure that such a thing still exists.
Photo: Julia Baier
Trust in order to enact solidarity
Belarus is undoubtedly a special focus of this year’s edition of Radar Ost. Festival curator Birgit Legers explains that this choice is about artistic expression even in dark times. Since the protests against President Lukashenko, theatre-makers have been persecuted and directors and actors of critical productions are taking a high risk. As much as the existential need for such cooperation is indisputable, it is with careful consideration that some artists collaborate with ‘the West.’
In her solo-performance How to sell yourself to the West, Russian theatre-maker, Ada Mukhina, takes an ironic look at this year’s festival motto. Herself from St Petersburg and living in Berlin n exile for a year now, she knows exactly how it is to face prison sentence, yet, this doesn’t make her abide blindly to Western fantasies. “ Coming from ‘evil Russia’ is a big advantage when it comes to getting noticed by the Western art world … You have the best chances if you also have a prison sentence and signature haircut” says Mukhina, using herself as an example to explore unique selling points and identity advantages that helped her to become an honorary member of the Deutsches Theater.
It is in this (self-)critical, sobering and yet entertaining tone, that Mukhina shows what artistic alliances and effective solidarity could look like. In the 360° Studio the Box of the DT, Mukhinas presents her second work for Radar Ost, the Risk Lab, a performance-installation that transgresses borders via video circuit and creates a short-lived form of real solidarity. The stage design is simple; two screens, two laptops and a few chairs, on the walls videos of the 12:12 Group, Anna Sagalchik and Tim Tkachev, both having a Belarusian citizenship, tell the audience about hurdles with Russian bureaucracy.
In a tutorial-series “How to protest as a Belarusian”, they give insight into protest on the streets of St. Petersburg – with white and red clothes, white and red roses, which stands in a satirical contrast with simultaneous captions that shows criminal consequences which respective behaviour can have in Belarus and Russia, and thus refer to the repressive measures of both states. Because large money transfers on Belarusian bank accounts are prohibited, Mukhinas closes the performance with an act of solidarity – the audience is invited to offer their German bank accounts for donation transfers, some fill in slips of papers with their bank details. The question remains: “How to create trust in order to be able to act in solidarity?”
Photo: Julia Baier
Forming artistic alliances
Deconstructing the idea that there is one authentic answer applicable to all of ‘the Eastern bloc’, the artist presents a collage of experiences in a variety of forms.
In Ksenia Ravvina’s (In A Real Tragedy, It Is Not The Heroine Who Dies; It Is The Chorus.), the theatre-maker bases the performance on the absurd trial against Serebrennikov’s production A Midsummer Night’s Dream, when state officials alleged that he had not finalised the play and therefore had embezzled state money. Even though thousands of guests attended the premiere, the persecution against the director persisted. Recreating this absurdity, Ravvina’s production in the 360° Studio Box creates an atmosphere of paranoia, cleverly blurring reality with fiction by switching between analogue and digital representation on stage. We are witnesses of state-induced psychological abuse, in a state that actively tries to manipulate its citizens and denies their reality.
In the second part, the performance turns its attention towards the revolutionary movement in Belarus, in which women in particular are committed to visibility and solidarity. Here the digital means, makes us reflect on those who cannot raise their voices or could never do so. Actress Yang Ge, first only appears as a voice via headphones and eventually over a QR-Code which requires our agency – scanning a QR-Code with our smartphones. Actress Leicy Valenzuela firstly appears as an off-stage voice, until she suddenly steps onto stage, only to be challenged by her own video image as if the subject of a panopticon.
It is these interactive and confrontational moments which draw attention to the limits and potentials of agency and make Ravvina’s production so powerful. While the audience is asked for their active participation and willingness to listen, the digital component of the play simultaneously suggests distance. Ravvina’s docu-fictional performance makes it clear: the real tragedy of silenced art is, not the death of one heroine, but the death of a chorus, the death of community.
Considering that the critical situations in Belarus, but also Ukraine and Bosnia and Herzegovina, have been side-lined by the German media and art world repeatedly, the festival opens up a crucial space for confrontation.
Two post-war plays give something back to the recent confrontations with urgent political issues in Belarus; they portray how processing trauma through theatre might look like. In the grey borderland zone of eastern Ukraine, Bad Roads explores the dichotomy of good and evil, victim and perpetrator in a war-torn country. ‘Ordinary people’ unfold their traumas in simple held images with symbolic stage design, such as a caged fence, alluding to the separation of the country. Beyond the fences, six stories on life and love, somewhat lurid in their plot, make precise psychological observations on the interpersonal abysses.
Although the play is focused on a regional history, it’s representation and complex-interwoven stories remind on other narratives and plays in the post-war canon, which makes the play somewhat universal and timeless. Exploring the (mind-)corners of post-war regions, is taken in a literal sense in “Was haben wir gelacht” (How much we have laughed), a project initiated by the Berlin-based artists Ina Arnautalić and Maja Zećo.
Both experienced the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina in the 1990s and became refugees as a result. In the production, the siege of Sarajevo is simulated both visually and acoustically, the setting being a residential building with several stages, hallways and rooms.
During the play the audience moves back and forth between three floors of the theatre, in which the actors act as residents of this house, display the mundanity of everyday life during war and portray funny anecdotes from the war.
Minor issues of everyday life are interwoven with tragic family stories, both told in such serenity that the play is humorous but also alienating. The immersive production transmits the exceptional situation of a siege while at the same time evoking empathy through tragic-comic situations; laughter here becoming a universal remedy and a tool to bridge differences and build a communal space. Yet as the story unfolds, it becomes clear that laughter only cures fear but it is not a remedy to war’s brutality. A haunting atmosphere takes over when bombs mix with the noise of sirens, bridging into the bitter ending – the last station of the theatre-pascour is a graveyard.
Although the productions have been specifically created for the festival, it is worth noting that only the classic – and expensively produced Decamerone will run in the repertoire of the Deutsches Theater.
Attentive listening and active participation is key During this festival, in which plays were often spoken in Russian or Belarusian only, attentive listening and active participation were key. It was up to the audience – beyond the theatrical and artistic translation of experiences it is up to the audience to actively discern the messages behind each scene.
Edona Kryeziu is a researcher, filmmaker and cultural journalist. After obtaining her BA in European Studies at the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences at Maastricht University, she completed her MA in Migration and Diaspora Studies at SOAS London University, at the Faculty of Anthropology. Kryeziu works at the intersection of story-telling and knowledge production, mostly invested in post-migratism and anti-eurocentricism practices.