Atelje 212, Belgrade, premiere 19th May 2023
A woman’s head peeks over the lip of a water butt. In a small voice she shares her worries about a little drip. Little drips have a tendency to become big drips and, given enough time, they can become floods, water pouring from room to room, floor to floor.
Ascanio Celestini is an Italian writer and performer who often works in the genre of Teatro di Narrazione, a style of solo work performed by a single actor-narrator, a narractor. Address to the Nation started out like this, as a collection of monologues which Celestini himself performed. But since then other theatre companies, including the National Theatre of Prague, have adapted them into multi-actor productions, as is the case here, turning this stripped-back satirical solo show into something more colourful and populous.
Director Bojan Djordjev, together with dramaturg Mina Milošević, has created an exuberant, at times almost cartoonish take on Celestini’s work.
The show consists of a series of scenes, most though not all monologues, most beginning with the words: “Once upon a time there was a small country. (Bila jednom jedna mala zemlja).” One by one, we meet the inhabitants of this small country. The politicians-businessmen-gangsters – Tony Mafiosi and Tony Corruption – who explain that if one only steals a little money, that makes you a thief, but if you steal a lot, if you fill your pockets with the cash of others, your reputation remains clean.
There is a lady with the umbrella who knows she will be fine if it starts to rain even if the people around don’t have umbrellas and will inevitably get wet. She has an umbrella and she’ll cope with whatever the sky throws at her and the umbrella-less, they’ll just have to make do (she’s definitely not sharing her umbrella). There is the boss, who smilingly reminds us that he’s not a friend, not an ally, of the working man – he’s out for himself. Another man pleads with his doctor to find a medical reason for his despondency.
In this small country, we are told, exams have been abolished. The teachers decide your fate. Your future is not really yours. Instead of literature, students are taught how to wait patiently, to stand in line like good pliable citizens. In the schoolroom scene, the cast play a group of children arguing over the correct order in which they should stand. Who should be first and who should be last? Should the tall, blonde be first? Should the Roma girl go at the back, the Chinese immigrant, the girl with glasses?
It’s easy to see what drew the creative team to the text. While the play is based on Italian material, many of these scenarios clearly resonate with the audience. The laughter is charged with catharsis and recognition.
And there is a lot of laughter. The show if often very funny. Each scene affords the cast the opportunity to show off their comic skills (Jovana Gavrilović proves herself a very good physical comic), to milk their monologue for laughs, as if they were vaudeville acts, and then, having completed their scene, the actors skip or pirouette off stage. These aren’t characters they’re playing, rather caricatures, recognisable types. In this respect there are elements of Commedia dell’arte, though some of Djordjev’s stage imagery is unexpectedly Beckettian: the woman sitting with her umbrella brings to mind Winnie from Happy Days, the head poking out of the water butt is reminiscent of Play.
In one scene Tony Corruption undergoes a metamorphosis. He becomes a woman, acquiring huge balloon-like breasts, his dick no longer housed in his trousers. He does not want to be a woman. The horror! Being a woman is shit in a small country, he says, it is awful. The other men morph into women too, or rather caricatures of women, a man’s simplistic idea of a how a woman is supposed to be, simpering and giggling, arms laden with shopping bags, prone to hysterical breakdowns. Ivan Mihajlović is particularly good at this outsize style of performing, sashaying around the stage in high heels while turning a balled-up jacket into a yappy little lap-dog.
Scenography designer Siniša Ilić has created a play-space full of oversized flowers and storm clouds, giant fish and poolside inflatables; it is colourful and tactile, like the set of a children’s TV show. In contrast, the costuming, by Maja Mirković, is mostly monochrome, a variety of black and white outfits. The actors faces are also whitened with make-up.
Mihajlović puts in another memorable turn towards the end of the piece as a creepy individual who repeatedly tells the audience. “I am like you. We are the same.” He is a creature both of the left and the right, he tells us. He is a racist. He harbours dubious thoughts about old ladies, but he is also gay. He speaks with a sibilant insistence as he tells us that we might want to think that we are not like him, but we are; what’s more, he can adapt, he can change, in fact he must change, because there is no room for individuality here.
This is the only scene that generates a more uneasy response from the audience, the laughter dying away. It is the only really tonally divergent scene in the production. Most of the time Djordje seems to be aiming to keep things light and bright, on the surface at least, despite the bleaker elements of the material. It’s an understandable approach perhaps, when the political situation in Serbia has shifted beyond a place where satire can touch it. Given the alternatives, you may as well laugh.
Director: Bojan Đorđev// Dramaturg: Mina Milošević: Scenography: Siniša Ilić//Costume: Maja Mirković//Choreography: Čarni Đerić//Music: Marija Balubdžić
For tickets and further information, visit: Atelje212.rs
Further reading: Dr Auslander (Made for Germany): Documenting migrant stories
Natasha Tripney is a writer, editor and critic based in London and Belgrade. She is the international editor for The Stage, the newspaper of the UK theatre industry. In 2011, she co-founded Exeunt, an online theatre magazine, which she edited until 2016. She is a contributor to the Guardian, Evening Standard, the BBC, Tortoise and Kosovo 2.0