Mladinsko Theatre, premiere 6th October 2018
Ten hours. It’s a long time to spend in a theatre. Longer than many people’s working days. Longer than a transatlantic flight, which is fitting since Tomi Janežič’s no title yet, which spans ten hours across five acts and various intervals, takes its audience on a journey.
no title yet was born out of a lengthy laboratory process. Drawing on the myth of Don Juan, Janežič and the cast have created a piece that weaves together material supplied by the actors with a poetic text by playwright Simona Semenič about a Slovenian seducer called Janez.
Semenič’s 50-page text takes place inside a single moment. A woman slips from a gurney and falls to the hospital floor and, in the moment of her falling, time spirals. Janežič detonates the text from the inside. Across the next ten hours various lines of text, images and motifs will recur as the audience is presented with a succession of episodes of seduction and, frequently, rape, the tone moving from playful to intense to harrowing to holy-fuck.
Given the performance lasts the best part of a waking day, I jotted down notes to keep track of things. They looked a bit like this:
A crashed car – A gurney –Opera (inevitable) – A naked angel – A rape scene – Smoke – Wine –Wigs – Skin – Balloons – Biscuits – Bowie – More Bowie – A mirror – A bouquet – A red dress – A beer can (explodes) – A chair (shatters) – More angels – Raffeallo – Raping angels – Racing angels – Whiskey – Kremšnite – Cigarillos – A cock – A dead guy (not dead) – A tender caress – More rape (told not shown) – A banquet table – A baseball bat –A funeral –Nick Cave – So-much-cock – Milk and honey – Darkness falls
This may help give you the flavour of the day, and the way the production swerved from moments of breath-held tension, playground giddiness to awkward comedy and back again.
The majority of the scenes take place in Mladinsko’s brick vaulted lower hall, with different seating configurations each time, the audience alternatively seated in beanbags or benches, in a small square or along the sides of the room.
On one side of the space there is a crumpled car. An actor paints white road markings on the theatre floor while another explains the artifice of stage injury, producing a bottle of stage blood and pouring it on his bandaged hand. There has been an accident. A woman is dying, will die. But before that a lot of stuff will happen. A lot.
The first story we are presented with is one of a childhood masturbatory escapade that suddenly, abruptly becomes a tale of rape (far from the last time this topic will come up). Don Juan was a rapist, Janežič says, an infamous seducer who tricked women into sex, who took what he wanted. This is running theme throughout the day – abuse and violation. During the performance, each actor will present some form of monologue or individual scene, and the question of how much truth there is any of these stories is one of the productions many tensions. The cast address each other by their real names and the stories are often framed as things that happened. (After one funny story, they explain that the subject of the anecdote – a guy who drunkenly fell in a hole – has seen the show).
Early in the performance, Anja Novak rattles through a list of sexual conquests – there are so many they are inked on her arm to help her remember. This is very funny. Then Blaž Šef, naked but for a pair of angel wings, dances around the place singing operatically (he has a fine voice). This is also very funny. Novak pleads with him to save the soul of her lover. He orders her to undress and what follows is one of the most upsetting rape scenes I have ever seen on stage. Completely naked, she is pressed against the stairs and pounded, hard, from behind, over and over, until she is raw and weeping. It goes on and on. It is almost physically difficult to watch. Someone in the audience starts audibly weeping.
Later, much later, Janežič will describe the re-enacting of a brutal rape on stage as tasteless. This is actually a line from Semenič’s text – “a brutal rape also has no place in theatre”- but it is made to feel like a kind of ironic meta-interrogation of the show itself, and thus in keeping with a recognisable tendency among some directors to stage something distressing or provocative and, having done that, to acknowledge how problematic it is, to draw attention to and question the choice while nonetheless still making the choice to stage things in this way. (The text in fact specifies that a rape takes place which we don’t see).
This discussion on the tastelessness or otherwise of staging rape comes after a powerful and moving sequence in which one of the performers delivers a monologue about being raped as a teenager and then being treated with contempt by the people she turns to for help after she contracts an STD. Knowing that a lot of the material has arisen out of work with the actors gives these scenes an extra frisson, a sheen of realness.
After she has delivered this speech, Janežič picks up a baseball bat and destroys part of the large banqueting table that sits at the centre of the stage during this section of the performance. Pieces fly everywhere. It is an act of violence in lieu of an act of violation (and, I suppose, because the table is also very long, you could also read it as the destruction of a phallic symbol). After the show someone mentions how much more powerful this would be as a gesture if he handed the bat to the actor who made the speech or the actor who was raped earlier, and I think I agree.
In between the main scenes, there are shorter interludes which take place on the curtained-off stage of the upper hall, in which one of the actors, Stane Tomazin, who in the bulk of the production has played the role of a brown-overall clad stagehand – he was the one painting the white road markings on the floor – recounts his attempts to convince the director to let him play Don Juan, by essentially morphing into him. He swigs whiskey and smokes cigarillos and shovels cake into his mouth. He strips naked. Together these scenes form a separate performance within the performance, a different tonal experience from the main show. They are often more broadly comic, with gags about the male ego and wanking. Tomazin is a fantastic comic performer. His timing, his delivery, his posturing, are all spot-on. But these scenes are not wholly there for light relief. They contribute to the show’s thematic thrust. In one of the later interludes, Tomazin dons a black crochet dress and stares at the audience intensely while Nick Cave’s ‘Into My Arms’ plays in its entirety and it is peculiarly moving.
There are other memorable sequences. A dissatisfied married woman describes her fantasies of what she’d like a man to do to her, where and how she’d like him to lick and suck and touch her. At one point everyone puts on a pair of angel wings and scampers around the stage hooting and whooping like kids in a playground. Other parts of the show bleed into one another. Sometimes I find myself feeling disconnected from the experience, at others moments watching raptly. From time-to-time Janežič will interject to congratulate us on sticking with it for so long or reassure us there are just three hours to go.
The show is full of things that would cause a risk assessor in a UK theatre to have palpitations, whether it’s Nataša Keser smashing a chair to pieces, by hurling it repeatedly to the floor, or the aforementioned table obliteration which takes places inches from the audience. The most oh-shit moment happens near the end of the day when the interior of the upper theatre is covered in plastic sheeting and a naked Tomazin, having drenched himself in whiskey, covers himself in paint and cake until his whole body is coated in goo, while slipping and sliding around on the plastic, before finally inviting Janežič to join him on stage, take his cock in his hands and ever so tenderly starts to jerk him off. This causes gasps of laughter from some people, me included, though looking back I’m still not sure how I feel about this.
We’ve been in the theatre for a long time by this stage, as Janežič keeps reminding us. The audience has formed a community. We are tired, the actors are tired. We’ve gone through something, together. A true shared experience. Some parts of the show have been captivating and powerful. Some audacious, in a what-did-I-just-watch kind of way. Some sequences have been very, very funny. Some tiresome. The repeated imagery and discussion of rape, abuse, violation has definitely started to feel wearying (I’m not sure it ever makes the case for needing to be so long) and that rape scene is like a wound, almost inexcusable, souring everything around it.
As an experience, it has been at times sublime, at times repellent, but cumulatively compelling, in part because long shows can have this effect, in part because of the charisma and commitment of the cast. It has been seductive, consuming, frustrating, messy, massively problematic, oddly hypnotic and, in its most exciting and memorable moments, all of these things at the same time.
Direction and dramaturgy: Tomi Janežič//Text: Simona Semenič//Set design: Branko Hojnik//Costume design: Marina Sremac//Sound design: Silvo Zupančič//Lighting design: David Cvelbar, Tomi Janežič
For more information, visit: Mladinsko.com
Further reading: review of Women as Lovers at Mladinsko Theatre
Further reading: review of Solo at Mladinsko Theatre
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