Teatri Oda, Prishtina, premiered 10th May 2022
It is a truth universally acknowledged, that over the centuries, patriarchal societies, being governed by men, have invented different mechanisms to limit women’s freedom of space, expression and life, making them live their lives in accordance with men’s view of the world.
Among these many mechanisms is also the phenomenon derived from Lekë Dukagjini’s Kanun, a code of law employed in Northern Albania.
The Sworn Virgins, known as “Burrneshat” in Albanian, are women who took an irreversible oath to live their lives as men, wearing men’s clothes, working, conversing and doing everything that men did in those mountain lands.
In order to do this, they had to pay a price imposed on them by a patriarchal society. Once ‘Burrneshat’ have sworn their oath to become ‘social men’ they can never engage in sexual relationships.
Jeton Neziraj’s play, Burrnesha, exposes this complex social issue, merging it with modern issues of commercialization and consumption.
The title is ironic as a Kosovar might call a girl a Burrnesha if she shows strength, bravery and decisiveness, which are supposedly the attributes only of men.
Jeton Neziraj manages to mine some extremely thought-provoking and timely drama from this part of Northern Albanian history; the play masterfully using its ironic lens to create a modern piece, and a partially feminist one.
The play is well-executed by the cast of three actors, while director’s Erson Zymberaj coordination of the performers keeps the show well-paced.
Edith (played fabulously by actress Semira Latifi) is a Professor of Anthropology at the University of London. Her character is a reference to Mary Edith Durham, the British anthropologist who made anthropological accounts of the customs, tradition and society of the highlands of northern Albania in the early 20th century.
In the play, Edith is giving a lecture to her students about the ‘exotic, extraordinary’ phenomenon of the Burrnesha deep in the Albanian mountains.
She is curious to delve deep into the matter, and so are her students, so she takes to the road, to Albania to meet with a real-life example, a Burrnesha named Sose.
Sose meets her guest in the most hospitable way and the two have a one-to-one conversation. As Sose, Tringa Hasani reveals Sose’s psychological side only to some degree, it seems to lack emotional nuance. This might be due to the fact that Sose, having shut herself down to live like a man, has also shut down her ability to transmit her emotions to the people she meets.
In a society like that, she has to conform to the rules to win her “freedom.” She must behave like a man, and men in these parts are strong, honourable, and never shed a tear in public. She tells Edith that “One feels as one wants to feel”, though her female biology betrays her sometimes.
The setting shifts between two locations, between Albania and London. The set and the audience are divided in two parts by the scenography of Burim Korça.
One space looks to be “Oda e burrave” or room for men, where a ‘qilim’ – an Albanian traditional handmade rug is digitally projected on the floor, (lighting designed by Mursel Bektesh), the other space is Soho Theatre in London, where actor Kushtrim Qerimi, is dressed in drag as Julian, as if prepared for an actual drag performance.
Julian has been producing mostly unsuccessful shows; on hearing about Sose’s story from the professor, he is hungry to get involved in playing a part like that. Julian begs his long-time benefactor to finance this last project, as he hopes to finally make a breakthrough, and make a show that will sell to his audience.
However, no one is interested in the Burrnesha’s life story as it is. They both want to modify the story of Sose. But she cannot lie, she can only tell her truth, because in comparison to Julian, who has done many things for money, Sose has lead an honest life.
Jeton Neziraj’s play explores the Western obsession with the Burrnesha, the way international journalists and researchers often exploit and distort the phenomenon as being a product of a primitive society.
The play also warns that a consumerist society, one that swallows everything it is served, is susceptible to deceptive information, and when dense academic language is used, the truth might get even more distant and blurry.
People like Julian are distorting actual events by constructing new narratives that use “highly elevated language” that, in reality, is almost incomprehensible.
According to the tradition, Burrneshat choose to live in this way either because their household had no man, or they wanted to have some of the liberties that men possessed, and the only way to have access to them, was to be a Burrnesha.
But can a Burrnesha ever be a man even if she deepens her voice so it sounds more like a man’s, or wears a shoka (an Albanian woollen scarf usually layered several times over the waist)? The Burrnesha in this play wears it over her breast, so they are not noticeable anymore. Even if she cuts her hair short, will her body betray her when her period comes and she is flooded in blood?
The play merge these two worlds – that of the past, when the Burrnesha has to choose a limited and constrained way of life in order to enjoy the freedom of men, while abstaining from every physical desire – and that of the modern world where people are happy to produce degrading content for personal gain.
In this way, Jeton Neziraj’s Burrnesha creates a cracking clash between two cultures and ideologies, both of which are perilous in their own way if left unexamined and unquestioned.
Author: Jeton Neziraj
Director: Erson Zymberaj
Cast: Semira Latifi, Kushtrim Qerimi,Tringa Hasani
Producer: Qendra Multimedia
Further reading: Balkan Bordello – on the road with the Great Jones rep company