Yugoslav Drama Theatre, Belgrade, premiere 16th September 2023
According to one of the protagonists, Pains of Youth is a story about the timeless desire “to go out and be a whore” but also about the fight between Eros and Thanatos and the hidden barbarity of a seemingly civilised modern society.
The Yugoslav Drama Theatre opened the new season with a reworking of Ferdinand Bruckner’s 1929 play Pains of Youth (Bolest Mladosti/Krankheit der Jugend), a play which was considered scandalous at the time of its release, almost a hundred years ago, and that still seems to be the case. A few audience members even decided to leave the Pains of Youth premiere way before the ending, perhaps because of its provocative nature.
Bruckner’s Pains of Youth follows a group of young adults, mostly medical students, in post-First World War Austria. This so-called “lost generation” is caught between the two big wars, wanting to address the wrongs done by their parents but also not knowing what they dream of, nor how to get there.
Bruckner’s writing combines a fearlessness and radicality of expressionism with the influence of psychoanalysis, which blends together well with this coming-of-age topic. Pains of Youth, directed and adapted by Jovana Tomić, dramatised by Dimitrije Kokanov and translated by Nenad Popović, follows the plot of Bruckner’s play closely and intervenes minimally with the original text.
According to the director and dramaturg, this story is timeless enough to speak to a contemporary audience, and this mostly proves true. The cruelness displayed by some of the characters, firstly by Freder (played by Petar Benčina), reflects the eerily familiar rise of fascism, while the characters’ lack of morality speaks of modern society itself. The absence of any parental figures in the story speaks even further about leaving the future in the arms of these unprepared and morally ambiguous young adults.
The characters are universally recognisable: for example, the outwardly cold but secretly fragile Desiree (Jovana Belović); heart-on-her-sleeve Marie, Desiree’s best friend – and perhaps more than that (Sanja Marković); cruel playboy, Freder, and symbol of lost innocence, maid Lucy (Natalija Stepanović). Lucy’s rapid character growth was especially touching, going from a gentle, slightly cunning young girl to a harsh, calculated woman in one night after being humiliated by Desiree, Marie and Freder. The social inequality is subtly but constantly present in the production, though it is conveyed mainly through clothing (costumes by Selena Orb). The main trio force Lucy to undress on stage, only to dress and make her up, as if they were kids playing with a doll. Later, Petrel (Miodrag Dragičević) undresses himself, taking off everything his privileged ex-girlfriend bought him, in order to symbolise his freedom.
The cast is very well-matched and actors feels natural in their respective roles. The chemistry between Marković and Belović is especially strong, with the tension between them palpable and ever-present in the air, even when they aren’t the centre of attention. Milica Sužnjević also gives another wonderful performance as Irene. Her characterisation of a role that on the surface feels like a filler character, is quite gentle at first, but it slowly and steadily builds towards her major breakdown in the pool which sits at the centre of the stage, a scene which earned her an ovation from the audience.
While the universality of the story makes it relatable to a contemporary audience, this universality is also an issue with the play. These medical students feel like they could be studying anything, and apart from a few medical terms and complaints about finals, it seems primarily like a reason to justify the metaphor of the play’s title. The pacing of the story is slower in the first half, only truly picking up in the second half.
As a recent graduate in my early twenties, I do relate to the stories and feelings expressed by these young, emotional and confused characters. However, I found myself more immersed in the smaller, individual performances than the wider story. The small fragments of bittersweet reality, like the moment where Lucy admits she still loves Freder after seeing the worst of him, or when Alt (Đorđe Mišina) smokes after a wild night and candidly speaks of the utter hopelessness of the future, or when Marie admits to Desiree they are awful for each other even though there is so much love between them. These were the parts I enjoyed the most because they felt raw and real.
The unfiltered language and interactions between the characters are contrasted with the minimalistic yet dream-like scenery. During the first half of the production, a translucent, whitish curtain reflects the waves from the pool at the centre of Jasmina Holbus’ scenography. This atmosphere is brutally broken with a change of scenery at the mid-way point of the play. A bright, neon light descends from above, an illuminated hallucination which turns into a nasty, bestial – and finally cannibalistic – orgy. Visually, this is a complete shift from the aggressive cleanliness and poshness of the earlier scenes. The blood, sweat and tears highlight the story of the ongoing struggle between love and violence.
The combined aftertaste of bitterness and confusion I felt after watching Pains of Youth certainly feels in keeping with the topic. Moreover, it is always refreshing to see a performance that is fearless enough to scare people away and ask uncomfortable questions – especially on the main stage of a big institution like the Yugoslav Drama Theatre). This is something I wish to witness again soon.
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.