SNG Nova Gorica (part of the 68th Sterijno Pozorje)
Tijana Grumić’s play The Loneliest Whale in the World, staged for the first time in 2019 by the Serbian National Theatre in Novi Sad, is a simple yet touching coming-of-age story about a typical nuclear family – a girl, a boy, a mother and a father – which deals with themes of loneliness, alienation, pain of growing up and death.
It’s a good example of Grumić’s technique. She uses everyday situations and familiar characters to invoke empathy and identification. At the same time, The Loneliest Whale contains a second narrative that follows a blue whale which has been alienated from its family and peers because it communicates on a different frequency than them: 52 Hertz (while most blue whales communicate in the range between 12 and 25 Hz).
This type of everyday coming-of-age play tinged with fantastic or fable-like elements is what made Grumić one of the most staged younger-generation playwrights in Serbia. Her earlier plays are based on this narrative pattern. This new production by the Slovenian National Theatre Nova Gorica – renamed 52 Hertz – marks the first significant interest in Grumić’s work in Slovenia and as such was recently presented at the 68th Sterijino pozorje festival in Novi Sad where it won several important accolades.
While Grumić’s play is simple in form and straightforward in its story – so much so that a valid critique of the play would be that there is space to develop the text more sufficiently – Mojca Madon directs the new production 52 Hertz as an associative, non-linear performative reflection on the themes that the play raises.
Both the story about the family and the blue whale are told in full, but scattered in fragments throughout the show, which also contains the director’s and actors’ performative deliberations about childhood, family, death, loneliness, and working as a performer.
To give a sense on how much Madon and the dramaturg Jaka Smerkolj Simonet havei adapted and expanded the text – the first production of the play at the Serbian National Theatre lasted one hour and 15 minutes while 52 Hertz lasts almost three-and-a-half hours.
The non-linear, associative concept of the show at times resembles Nina Rajić Kranjac’s Solo. Madon also uses multiple theatrical spaces (designed by Urša Vidic). The show starts before the audience enters the theatre building, as the actor Matija Rupel welcomes the audience and informs them that the Slovenian National Theatre in Nova Gorica was built on a location where there was once a vast graveyard (since the show in Novi Sad was performed at Újvidéki Színház, Rupel shows us maps of the theatre in Nova Gorica instead). The show later moves into the halls of the theatre and on to the stage where the audience sits near the actors as the family story unfolds. It’s only in the last part of the show that the audience sits in the auditorium and watches the performance on stage in a more conventional fashion.
This sprawling use of performing space reflects the ideas in the play – the story takes place deep in the ocean, within a family home on land and with references to the cosmos (since the boy wants to become an astronaut), but what connects all these spaces is the feeling of loneliness.
Loneliness connects all the fragmented stories, even those that were added to Grumić’s original text. Thus, when Matija Rupel performs a monologue on how he used to drink heavily during his acting days in Italy, because of social instability and emotional insecurity that a career in acting entails, his story is also associatively connected to the show’s topic of alienation. What’s particularly intriguing about Rupel’s performance, which he delivers passionately and energetically, is that it occupies a pseudo-documentary realm, we’re never quite sure if it’s the story of the clown character that he’s playing or his own.
However, the idea of making 52 Hertz a durational performance (or something on the verge of it) creates some problems – many scenes are either needlessly lengthy or somewhat redundant. Madon’s intent to make a durational performance feels at odds with the material and it could be argued that Grumić’s play is not well-suitable for such a long staging because of its relatively simple structure. Some of the scenes added by the director also feel like fillers. The repeated motif of clowns, which symbolize the tension between a happy exterior appearance and the sad reality hidden under the false nose and face-paint – it’s an overused symbolic dynamic that could even be described as stereotypical.
Clowns appear multiple times during the show, often performing simple sketches that don’t culminate into meaningful narratives or chains of associations but serve as interludes between the more important scenes. Even scenes that are essential to the narrative feel as if they would have functioned better if they were significantly shorter.
Even though the performance 52 Hertz is stretched out in this way and doesn’t manage to overcome some drawbacks of the original material, it remains a good example of a style of directorial theatre where the director doesn’t hold on blindly to the text but interprets it in a creative performative way.
Author: Tijana Grumić’//Director: Mojca Madon//Author of the adaptation and dramaturg Jaka Smerkolj Simoneti //Set design Urša Vidic//Costume: Andrej Vrhovnic//Composer Luka Ipavec//Lighting designer: Andrej Hajdinjak//Sound Designer Stojan Nemec
For more information, visit: SNG-ng.si
Borisav Matić is a critic and dramaturg from Serbia. He is the Regional Managing Editor at The Theatre Times. He regularly writes about theatre for a range of publications and media.
He’s a member of the feminist collective Rebel Readers with whom he co-edits Bookvica, their platform for literary criticism, and produces literary shows and podcasts. He occasionally works as a dramaturg or a scriptwriter for theatre, TV, radio and other media. He's the administrator of IDEA - the International Drama/Theatre and Education Association.