Qendra Multimedia at Teatri Oda, Prishtina, premiere 16th October 2023
This play took me on a journey from the beginning. Or perhaps it is more accurate to call it a quest, for meaning, answers. The appearance of a huge panda mascot at the start of the play initially gave me a warm feeling. Pandas are peaceful creatures after all .
Negotiating Peace, a new international co-production from Kosovo-based company Qendra Multimedia, is written by Jeton Neziraj and directed by his usual collaborator Blerta Neziraj. Its pan-European cast and creative team is made of artists from Kosovo, Serbia, Bosnia and Hercegovina, Italy, Czechia, Albania, North Macedonia, Ukraine, Norway, Poland and Estonia.
As is usually the case in work which is directed by Blerta Neziraj, as soon as the panda left the stage, the mood of the scene shifted into a dark, but surprisingly thrilling atmosphere.
General Amadeus, played by Shkumbin Istrefi, was searching for the bones of a dead colonel called Colonel Z, a plotline inspired by Ismail Kadare’s book The General of the Dead Army, one of two texts from which the show takes its inspiration. The other is To End a War by American negotiator Richard Holbrooke, who believed that one sometimes has to use force, if necessary, in the service of peace.
The General appeared to be at a burial site looking for glory in the form of bones. “To us he was a hero, to your side a villain, I suppose”, he said when he asked people if they know anything about the subject of the search.
These filmic scenes, which are interspersed throughout the play, were intricately designed and could easily keep the audience hooked. (In fact in the play, the General dreams of a Hollywood film being made to glorify his actions).
These scenes were contrasted with those taking place over the negotiating table between members of two fictitious countries Unmikistan and Banovina, the first one being a pun on UNMIK – United Nations Interim Administration Mission in Kosovo.
Madera, from the Republic of Banovina, sits across from Daniella, from Republic of Unmikistan as they try to reach an agreement about the Green Valley. They are accompanied in these meetings by Joe Robertson, the American emissary to the UN, General Amadeus and Maria, a civil society activist, though no one seemed sure what she would be able to contribute.
Jeton Neziraj uses these fictious countries to shed light on the continually failing negotiations processes between our two countries, Kosovo and Serbia, though his research goes further and encompasses Bosnia too, the play having greater resonance in light of the wars in Ukraine and Russia and, now, Palestine and Israel.
In 1995, Holbrooke was instrumental in creating the Dayton Agreement between the presidents of Bosnia, Croatia, and Serbia, and Neziraj looks to be calling for another Holbrooke in the case of Kosovo and Serbia.
The cast, which consists of local and international actors, worked well together in the development of the scenes, and had a chemistry which they deployed effectively to the audience. However, at times, it wasn’t all that clear who the characters represented around the table, though one could get the gist of their opposing views. And the dialogue, while often amusing, was not very easy to follow, particularly because of the mixture of English. Having said this, the overall drama is complex in the way it recreates some of the dynamics of the peace agreement process.
At one point the words: “THERE IS NO PEACE WITHOUT AN APLOGY” are projected above the negotiating table. This says a lot about how these discussions, held inside locked rooms and behind closed doors, ironically lack the experiences, stories and traumas of the real people who have lived through war.
Though this is a serious topic, the play also contains some comic moments designed to make the audience giggle. Though the play is long it keeps feeding you with new ideas so it never becomes boring. Often it surprises the audience. Who would expect a short BDSM dance scene in a play in which peace negotiations are being discussed?
It is a play in which you must put the pieces together and it leaves one free to look for the answers and reflect on its themes on your own. It is also typical of the writer and director to make the drama interactive, in a way designed to lead into an after-the-play discussion or healthy and a necessary debate both within the audience and the wider community.
Though I was unclear who he was at first, the inclusion of an academic, Aidan Hehir, in the play to give his professional comment on the Kosovo-Serbia situation, enhanced the drama and gave it some much needed context about what has been going on in the Balkans lately. This new dimension in the performance, which lets somebody from the audience be part of the play and give their opinion on the topic being discussed on stage, links theatre directly with activism but also highlights how a free and liberal theatre scene can be used to discuss the truths of humanity.
Some might argue it is just theatre, yet by seeing a play like this one can learn more about the approaches to what is happening with peace negotiations around the world than by listening to diplomats talking about peace.
Returning to the panda I mentioned at the start, despite its peaceful appearance, it reminded me of a story from the war. The Panda Café was the name of a coffee bar in Peja, where six young Serbs were killed in 1998. The blame was put on the KLA, though many believe these killings were orchestrated by the Serbs, as a pretext for destabilization and to exacerbate the tension between the two nations and locals at that time.
Perhaps, the panda that we saw in the play is still looking for real peace and agreement between these communities. She would never want such crimes to be repeated in the name of a nation. The panda wants to recover from the trauma that has been caused to her, yet politics always gets in the way.
In the context of my country, I would ask: What role should politics or art do in rebuilding trust between a typical Kosovan and a Serb and vice versa? How long will it take for the populations of these two countries to see their counterparts as humans first? The reinterpreting and exploiting of history goes on and on, and so does the quest of those who want to live in peace.
Negotiating Peace is currently on a European tour to Germany, the Czech Republic, Serbia and Bosnia and Herzegovina.
By: Jeton Neziraj Directed by Blerta Neziraj Actors: Shkumbin Istrefi, Ema Andrea, Harald Thompson Rosentrom, Ejla Bavcic, Martin Kõiv, Melihate Qena, Orest Pastukh Composer Ardo Ran Varres Stage design: Agata Skwarczyńska Costume Designer Blagoj Micevski Choreography Gjergj Prevazi Dramaturg: Mina Milošević Video Besim Ugzmajli Lighting design: Yann Perregaux, Agata Skwarczyńska
For further information, visit: qendra.org