Mladinsko Theatre, premiere 17th January 2023
Brecht’s Fear and Misery of the Third Reich, which premiered in 1938, right before the beginning of the Second World War. The play consists of a series of playlets, which form a commentary on National Socialist Germany, and the pre-war reality of discrimination, poverty and, of course, fear. With his clear criticism of Nazi ideology, the play was direct; it was radical and daring.
The Mladinsko Theatre production, directed by Sebastijan Horvat, preserves Brecht’s playlets (in the first part at least), but in other ways it diverges from the original.
The production takes place at a different location than normal, at Kino Šiška, a more flexible space that enables many more stage configurations than the Mladinsko home stage. In the case of Horvat’s production, the stage is arranged in the shape of the letter T with the audience seated on both sides of the aisle, as if observing a catwalk. From the moment the actors step on stage, this unconventional shape creates a feeling that Horvat and designer Igor Vasiljev wants there to be physical proximity between the observers and the observed. But this concept remains under-utilised, especially in the second part of the production.
Due to this shape of the stage, the distance created between performers and audience is actually greater than it would be in a more classic theatrical form and the ‘point of interest,’ as director Meta Hočevar calls it, is more scattered in a way that can “shatter” the scene. Elements of the scenography are brought on stage by technicians in a way that is sometimes clumsy which can remove you from the more immersive visual aspect of the staging.
In the first part of Horvat’s production, the basic structure of the performance deals with Brecht’s text in an extremely integral way. Though these realistic scenes, well-performed by the Mladinsko ensemble, and accentuated by laboratory- bright lights, are sometimes spoiled by inconsistent details.
Similarly, the efforts of costume designer Belinda Radulović, whose SS uniforms, workwear and judges robes look as true as possible to the 1930s, is somewhat undone by the use of face microphones – which are used despite the good acoustics of the room. Movement is usually one of the stronger points of Mladinsko productions, however in this case it lets things down. The actors playing Nazis, whether in front of their “inferiors” or ‘superiors’ move exactly as the actors do in their free time. Even though it is clear from the first scene onwards, in which we witness two Nazis pissing on a Marxist, that there is a desire to depict the primitivism of the average Nazi, the movement remains the same, regardless of the social situation the Nazi finds himself in. Brecht’s idea of the (social) gestus is neglected, one of many examples when the production strays away from the methods of the German dramatist.
There is nothing new or wrong, of course, with modernizing a play, but it can be done clumsily. A mention of Luka Mesec, the leader of the Left Party, was one of the few references to the current political sphere in the whole play, but it felt unnecessary. A very general statement that has no real critical power and is placed in the scene only to stir the audience, and is just left hanging in the air. The booming sound effects that bring to mind Hans Zimmer come off as a bit too intense compared to the previous, fairly non-extreme and realistic features of the play.
Some scenes take on the colour of “relevancy”. Horvat clearly aims to be provocative (which is appropriate for political theatre, and is almost a trademark of the work of the Mladinsko Theatre), but also results in some problematic scenes. The depiction of a migrant woman killing a white migrant, or the depiction of a white cis man who, through guilt, becomes a hyper-stereotypical transgender bisexual, mentally disabled person, are representative of the perspective of certain sections of the media. The show’s problem lies not in distortion, imprecise acting or non-political correctness, but in the absence of a sense of the distasteful in these scenes. It feels as if the problems faced by members of non-white non-cis communities are being trivialized. The issues found in the original text are neglected to the extent that the Brecht in them gets lost.
The second part of Horvat’s production is more in keeping with the typical Mladinsko’s fashion of divisive theatre. Some of these scenes are pleasing. They are cleverly choreographed. The viewer might even catch her or himself ironically saying: “Oh, how beautiful cultural gentrification is!”. The scenes are shorter and the acting is still pretty precise, which is not a surprise, because the Mladinsko Theatre ensemble and casting choices are usually strong. The dynamics between them and their relation to the text works well. In this second part, however, more recontextualising Brecht’s ideas takes place. There are many moments which are typical of Mladinsko Theatre productions, where the whole thing turns into a contradiction of oneself, an act of self-criticism, or even where they to start having a little fun in the deconstruction of Brecht. But even if the viewer gets caught up in all this, the one-dimensional critiques will remain a turn-off for many, precisely because of the one-dimensionality, which could be satirical if built up more deeply, but it left me unsatisfied, and in need of a second perspective.
Through these acts that are trying to be self-critical, or even extremely parodical, the sense of what they are trying to portray with Brecht’s play is lost. The commentary on the Left Party and the absolutism of “political correctness” is not wrong, but it is created with little self awareness and no critical sense of why the performance is attempting to show us these – in general very obvious – points of view. Is it perhaps ironic, even deliberate, that Horvat doesn’t allow us to contradict him?
Political polarisation is an incredibly rewarding concept for treatment of many political texts, perfect for Brecht. Self criticism is also an excellent virtue, one which the Mladinsko Theatre has never lacked – every political view has its shortcomings, which are – fairly – subject to discourse and scrutiny. In exchange for season upon season of left-leaning theatre, it is with Brecht that we have received a wave of counter-rhetoric, which is, of course, surprising. And in performance art it is necessary to surprise, provoke and raise issues. The only question is, where exactly did Brecht go in the process?
Photo: Ivian Kan Mujezinović
Co-production: Mladinsko Theatre and Kino Šiška
Director: Sebastijan Horvat//Translation: Urška Brodar//Dramaturgy: Milan Ramšak Marković//Set design and video: Igor Vasiljev// Costume design: Belinda Radulović//Choreography: Ana Dubljević// Music: Drago Ivanuša//Language consultant: Mateja Dermelj//Lighting design: Aleksander Čavlek//Sound design: Jure Vlahovič
For tickets and further information, visit: Mladinsko.com
Further reading: Sebastijan Horvat interview: “All former Yugoslav countries have a form of dementia”
Živa Kadunc is a critic of contemporary performance art and a speaker on Radio Študent (Slovenia). She loves her plants.