Attempts to ban Zlatko Paković’s new performance in Montenegro ended up generating considerable attention. Maja Mrđenović examines the context and the consequences of this act of censorship.
No theatrical performance is created in a vacuum, as a static work of art, but rather as a text of culture. Each performance exists within a network of dynamic relationships with the contemporary social reality. In each case, there are different theatrical and non-theatrical contexts that need to be taken into account as a frame of reference for the presentation and perception of a performance, in order to understand how theatre creates meanings, achieves communication and interaction, and acts in the public sphere.
In the case of the play Pierre Paolo Pasolini Directs the Last Judgement, a self-authored project by the director Zlatko Paković, these contexts, due to various circumstances, have gained enormous importance, far beyond the significance that this play would likely have if such a set of circumstances did not exist.
As far as the broader social-political-artistic environment is concerned in Montenegro, the traditional approach to artistic activities generally has served as the prevailing model, with very little interdisciplinary experimentation and social engagement. The theatre system is very weakly divided, with the absolute dominance of budgetary institutions that are politically managed – the directors are appointed by the government, without any competition, while it is made continuously apparent that vassalage is one of the most desirable features for this, as well as any other type of, employment.
The effect of this is that the institutional culture in Montenegro largely resembles a closed feudal system, with interest-related cliques and clans. Political elites tend to erase “disobedient” and “unfit” individuals from the cultural scene, or at least marginalize them as much as possible within it, so that their influence is reduced to the smallest possible extent. Accordingly, institutional theatre entities are privileged and financed with guaranteed renewable funds, regardless of the effects and quality of the programs: Montenegrin cultural policy (or lack thereof) generally puts “state identity” in the foreground, which is equated with obedience to the ruling system and a lack of critical thinking.
More context. The play Pierre Paolo Pasolini Directs the Last Judgement was “commissioned” from the director Paković by the Secretariat for Culture and Sports of the Capital City of Podgorica, at a very turbulent moment of a very unstable socio-political period in Montenegro. Although chaoticity and negativity could be said to characterize the entire transition period following the breakup of Yugoslavia, such tendencies have in the last few years (again), if not intensified, at least been made much more visible and tangible. Namely, the multiple accelerated changes of government after the 30-year absolute rule of the Democratic Party of Socialists / DPS (1990-2020) has demonstrated that in Montenegro there is no alternative to the privatization of the public interest and the plundering at the hands of this party in any sense.
Regardless of whoever has seemingly found himself/herself in power at the state and local level, Montenegro has remained, as previously assessed by relevant international bodies (e.g., the European Commission, Transparency International), a “captive state,” which, according to the definition of Transparency International, implies a situation in which public policies are directed towards private actors, through corruption and coalitions within the respective bodies and functions. Accordingly, the intellectual “elites” (directors of educational and cultural institutions, etc.) habitually, in various ways, support the election campaigns of the parties that are currently in power and that appointed them to these very positions.
What further exacerbates the situation to an even greater degree is the continuous aggressive and sinister construction of nationalist sentiments. Namely, the elites in power “inflate” issues of national and religious identities and demagogically and manipulatively attach importance to them at the expense of socio-economic topics in order to support their own self-interested ideologies (which inevitably implies the concealment of class inequalities in society so as to maintain the existing social order).
The possibilities for such supplanting of themes and the corresponding abuses that follow are facilitated by a complex phenomenon characteristic of Montenegro, which was made possible by complex historical processes and which political scientist Srđan Darmanović identifies as the “national homo duplex,” i.e., double identity awareness.
In short, as historian Kenneth Morrison has summarized, this represents a kind of ambiguity that is immanent to the Montenegrin national identity and that arises from the friction between supporters of the idea that Montenegrins are a separate nation and those who claim that they are part of the Serbian nation. This has intermittently led to conflicts within the country, and since the late 19th century (especially since the formal international recognition of Montenegro’s independence in 1878) issues of statehood and national identity, whether latent or explicit, have dominated Montenegrin politics through to the present day.
In recent times, despite the severe crisis in which Montenegro finds itself, in terms of both economic and sustainable development in general, nationalist sentiments have flared up to such a degree that at times there is an impression that the country is on the verge of civil war. In addition to political agents, the Serbian Orthodox Church (SPC) plays a huge role in this, as it remains a politically very powerful and highly active organization.
It is impossible to determine exactly which motives seem to have prompted the Podgorica Secretariat for Culture and Sports to set a precedent by initiating the production of a commissioned theatre performance “which will relate to the themes of misogyny, the left intellectual thought of Europe, chauvinism,” especially since the production of theatrical performances is not in the description of activities which this sector of the city administration should deal with.
Also, it is impossible to determine how it transpired that the Secretariat, despite relevant propositions not providing for it, became the recipient of funding for this project from the regular annual competition for co-financing projects and programs in the field of cultural and artistic creativity of the Ministry of Culture and Media for the year 2022.
Yet despite all of this, the director accepted the commission and the rehearsals went smoothly until about two weeks before the premiere, which was originally scheduled for 3rd October. According to media reports, during a rehearsal the director’s team received a stamped official announcement signed by the Secretary for Culture and Sports, Ana Medigović stating that the performance was cancelled. As far as the public was aware, it was stated that work on the play was to be suspended due to “non-compliance with the contractual obligations of the director,” on the one hand, and on the other hand, because the Secretariat felt the dramatic text (although it is not a dramatic text in the true sense of the word, but a performance text that was procedurally created in the process of rehearsals) was not “adequate for the goals and values promoted by the Client.”
It is impossible to know precisely why the municipal officials decided the content of the play was problematic, that is what exactly were the goals and values of this heritage administration body and how were they threatened by the content of the play.
According to the assessments of journalists and social analysts who have written about this flagrant, and scandalous case of open censorship, the Capital intended to use Paković’s performance as marketing in the relevant election campaign (local elections were scheduled to be held in Podgorica, where until then the majority power had been continuously held by the DPS, on 23rd Octobe), as part of the (grotesque) re-branding of the DPS as a party of leftist, anti-fascist, and emancipatory orientation. In any case, this act of restricting the freedom of artistic expression elicited extraordinary reaction and was widely publicly condemned.
The majority of the published responses unequivocally expressed the views that: the theatre should be a place of artistic freedom, which implies uncompromising criticism; censorship by the authorities represents a deviation from democratic values; and that, according to Nikola Mirković, “judgment about the artistic scope is to be given by those in the profession and the audience,” – that is, it is necessary that “the public sees this performance in a public space and makes its own judgment about it.”
The play was actually performed, just once, on 21st October, in a performance which was announced as a “public dress rehearsal.” Given that no public space was offered by any institution for this purpose, except the small NGO Prazan prostor / Empty Space (the performance itself was taken over by another, also small NGO, Korifej, after the cancellation), and that only about 20 people could see the performance in person, while a relatively large number had expressed interest in seeing it, the performance was simultaneously broadcast live on the Internet.
The conspiratorial gathering and the intimate, literally empty stage-spectator space (the audience closely surrounded the performance space – they were part of it, situated under uniformly lit lights) made for a very adequate transition from the framework of socio-political performance to that of “theatre within a theatre.”
The intention of the director and the collaborators to engage with the anomalies of the current social moment in Montenegro in a very direct and unreservedly critical and uncompromising way is unquestionable and invaluable in itself. The performance itself is divided into several scenes, which are concentrated around criticism of the toxic Serbian Orthodox Church, which since the breakup of Yugoslavia has mercilessly spread its poisonous influence throughout Montenegro and the region, and criticism of the longest-standing political party in Montenegro, which over the span of 30 years has grown into a kind of state sponsored criminal organization. The main actors are, accordingly, the Patriarch of the Serbian Orthodox Church and the President of Montenegro. Both of them go through a kind of private “terrible trial,” that is, a struggle within themselves, against the insatiable and hollow desire for power that fills them and by which they are perpetually guided.
In one brutal and disturbing scene, probably the most affecting in the whole play, the patriarch, in an intimate prayer, confesses his hypocrisy and the meaninglessness of his position in the church’s hierarchical organization, which he here sees through and despises. He prays that God will “shatter this position with his truth” and grant him to be what he could be, and not what he is, and that he, looking at Jesus, will bear everything that the God to whom he addresses determines.
His prayer is answered and it is realized through the vessel of a fourteen-year-old girl, who for months has lived at the controlling hands of high church dignitaries and who then gives birth to a son who grows up in a flash. However, this second inception of the patriarch once again goes on to renounce his tormented mother (the better part of himself) and again chooses the same path, that is, his lust for power.
Through this reference to the innocent victims of church peadophilia, a comparison is made to the analagous innocent victims of the regime, here the Montenegrin state leadership, embodied by the current president, Milo Đukanović. His mental struggle, however, plays out with much more resistance to the idea that he and his “clique” should give up their ill-gotten wealth and privileges and submit to an absolutely just “terrible judgment.” Here, the actor who represents Đukanović often addresses the audience in a meta-theatrical way, emphasizing that he is only a character and that in reality he would never do what the “disgruntled” author has imposed on him in the play.
It is in this self-reflexive manner that all the performers (Slaviša Grubiša, Anđelija Rondović, Pavle Prelević, Danica Rajković, Ilija Gajević) perform, breaking out of their characters and addressing us directly, changing roles, telling stories, asking us to imagine non-existent elements of costumes, scenography, and lighting effects.
This is in keeping with the approach continuously employed by Paković, following in the footsteps of Brecht’s epic theatre, which primarily appeals to the audience’s intellect and pleads for their critical observation of what is shown. The de-psychologized, ritualized, mechanical, declamatory way of presenting the action and characters, the various reminders that it is a matter of playing roles, the looking back at the conditions of the production of the play, and the various other ways of questioning the illusion all sharpen the assertion that the theatre functions essentially as a mirror of a distorted society.
In addition, the performance also raises questions about the role and potential of theatre in times of crisis, about its (in)ability to have a tangible social significance, without which it loses its essence. For example, in the scene in which the patriarch and metropolitan of the Serbian Orthodox Church “sanctify” the Montenegrin National Theatre, its director feverishly and demagogically explains to the invisible theatre employees the difference in the potential effects on the audience of a theatre that is “sanctified” and one that is not. Her distinctly quasi-intellectualist, manipulative manner, in which she equates the performance in the theatre with a religious ceremony, with only the theses replaced, acts as a parody of real “consecrations” that have taken place in various public institutions when political entities under the influence of the SPC have come to power.
However, despite the author’s intention for the play to be a merciless critique of pressing social problems, one that is provocative and moving, it ultimately fails to become this – the proclaimed artistic intention is not fully realized. The play directly explores the political, but its realization fails to establish “the public” aspect in the sense that moments of transitory, yet strong and transformative feelings are lacking and so the sentiments of metaphorical kinship, togetherness, and solidarity are not invoked among the audience.
While the chosen form, an aesthetic that is purposefully unpolished and pamphleteering, do favor the chosen themes and intentions (though they are much more successfully, imaginatively, and effectively used in some of Paković’s other plays), the play still, in the end, fails, even if we consider it as a performance manifested merely for the purpose of political provocation.
Although the intention is commendable, as this kind of theatre is pressingly needed in Montenegrin society in the current moment (in addition, the attitude of intellectual honesty in the sense of impartiality and objectivity, in a society otherwise disastrously polarized in all spheres, is also commendable), only worn-out, general points are expressed (SPC is evil, DPS is evil, SPC and DPS are quite similar). These themes are not deepened, nor artistically impressively upgraded, and thusly the performance does not succeed in acting as a provocation. The theatrical mirror offered is neither sharp nor distorted enough; the reality we live far surpasses it with its excessive absurdity and tragedy.
Having said this, the play was very successful as a provocative social event and in serving as a litmus test for the social situation. This, paradoxically, happened as a result of the attempts at censorship. This ended up generating significant media attention, which it would not have received without this attempt to censor it. Pierre Paolo Pasolini Directs the Last Judgement will be remembered more as a play that was publicly banned by the public administration, than a piece of true political theatre that shook us and left us breathless.
Further reading: Zlatko Paković interview: “Theatre is a matter of radical imagination”
Maja Mrđenović is a theatre critic and researcher in contemporary performing art. She is a teaching assistant at the Faculty for Montenegrin language and literature in Cetinje. Her texts from the field of performance studies and cultural politics are regularly published in several Montenegrin and regional journals. She is one of the founders and editors
of Peripetija.me, the only professional theatre journal in Montenegro. She acted as a member of the jury in several theatre festivals in Montenegro and the region.