Šabac City Theatre, premiere 12th October 2023/National Theatre “Toša Jovanović”, Zrenjanin, premiere 9th September 2023
During the first half of the 2023-24 theatrical season in Serbia, two shows premiered that dealt with the absurdity of contemporary life. The Cabinet Minister’s Wife which premiered at the Šabac City Theatre approaches this topic in the manner of a comical political satire, while Ljubinko and Desanka from the National Theatre “Toša Jovanović” in Zrenjanin is more of a human interest story where humanity eventually triumphs over absurdity and loneliness.
Olja Djordjević who directed and adapted the new iteration of The Cabinet Minister’s Wife uses a conventional playbook to bring Branislav Nušić’s famous comedy to the stage. Written in 1929, The Cabinet Minister’s Wife was intended to ridicule and critique the new-money bourgeoisie of the period that was, as the story of the family in the play goes, so corrupt that it eventually self-destructed. Even though the play itself contains the mocking, self-righteous tone of a moralizing author who put himself on a high ethical pedestal, the quality of the text, which made the play a classic, is that it is open to a wide web of interpretations.
The Cabinet Minister’s Wife can be seen not only as a comic satire but also as a vaudeville, a tragedy of modern political life, and an absurdist play. Yet the countless directors who staged this play over the last decades have chosen to relentlessly repeat the most obvious interpretation where the audience, from a high moral pedestal, observes the low life of the scheming, uneducated and corrupt characters, for the sake of easy laughter with no serious social or political effect. Olja Djordjević chooses to go down this path, presenting a subversion-free piece of entertainment that doesn’t make the audience think about corruption, but instead makes them feel superior.
What is different about Djordjević’s production is that she neither sets the story in the interwar period nor the present-day – the two most common choices – but in the decadent 1990s, during the time of Slobodan Milošević’s rule. This is made evident thanks to inserts from Milošević’s speeches, the use of turbo-folk music and the trashy clothes worn by some characters (costumes: Milica Grbić Komazec). In the first half of the show, Damjan Paranosić’s set design represents a crummy lower-middle-class apartment which later transforms into an expensive kitsch environment. The height of the show’s attempted political provocation comes at the end when the minister’s wife Živka (Aneta Tomašević) gives her famous speech directly to the audience, noting that she will be back for sure, here an allusion to the section of the 1990s corrupt political elite that is once again the dominant force in our lives (look no further than the Serbian president Aleksandar Vučić).
Yet aside from this the production suffers not just from the conventionality of its staging, but in the use of simple, and, to be honest, cheap, comical effects such as the exaggerated style of acting which almost all of the actors deploy. Many of the characters have only one cartoonish trait, some of which could be considered offensive, like when stuttering or mutism represent someone’s negative character.
Unlike The Cabinet Minister’s Wife which aimed to show the absurdity of contemporary life through a tale of political intrigues and petite bourgeoisie interests – eventually becoming itself a part of the absurd reality thanks to its uncreative approach – the performance of Ljubinko and Desanka in Zrenjanin approached this theme from a completely different angle.
Milan Nešković, who is known for several performances based on Yugoslav writer Aleksandar Popović’s plays, on this occasion chose to direct one of his earlier plays. Popović wrote Ljubinko and Desanka in 1964 telling a story of two simple-minded and lonely but good-hearted people who meet in the park and clumsily try to create a meaningful relationship. Ljubinko and Desanka is written as an amalgam of absurdism, existentialism and satire. It puts characters from the margins of society in the centre of the story. The play was significant in the 1960s because it played around with newly established dramatic conventions and philosophical movements and because it spoke about the citizens from the margins that “weren’t supposed to exist” in a progressive, modernist and socialist society of the time.
Nešković and the show’s dramaturg Jelena Mijović are neither specifically interested in this genre-bending feature of the play nor the individual’s position within a political system. Their iteration of the play is a theatrical version of a human-interest story that aims to see how existential problems such as loneliness and alienation could be overcome. A key dramaturgical intervention that brings this interpretation to life is a flashforward scene at the end of the show when Ljubinko and Desanka, after spending together a random day at a park hardly being able to communicate normally let alone form a meaningful bond, end up living together in perceived love and happiness. Popović’s story doesn’t end this way but Nešković noted that he felt obliged to give a happy end to the audience after last year’s mass shooting at the “Ribnikar” elementary school brought a somber mood in the national conscience. This ending could be criticized as naïve and simplifying but it could also be praised for its ambition to offer hope and departure from the absurdity of everyday life that it thematized.
Another risk of Nešković’s performance is that it can be seen as a slice-of-life story that’s overtly simplified or even banalized given that the broader political and existential context is stripped down. However, it’s worth noting that the show is quite successful in this less ambitious format, though it would have probably been a good idea to shorten the text even more. The show smoothly oscillates between the comical and the melancholy, with the actors Sara Simović (Desanka) and Milan Kolak (Ljubinko) being persuasive and entertaining in the roles of these life-disoriented, clumsy characters. The director, dramaturg and actors have skilfully adapted Popović’s dialogues, bringing them a bit closer to contemporary speech from the author’s logorrheic writing, much of which has become archaic throughout the last half-century.
Both The Cabinet Minister’s Wife and Ljubinko and Desanka are safe, relatively conventional readings of the source materials that aim to easily satisfy the audience with quick laughs or the feeling of melancholy (the latter case). Yet while The Cabinet Minister’s Wife feels almost entirely redundant thanks to its uncreative approach, the artistic team of Ljubinko and Desanka have created something much more thoughtful.
The review is part of the project “Critic’s Caravan”, which is carried out by the Association of Theatre Critics and Theatreologists of Serbia under the auspices of the Ministry of Culture and Information.
Main image: The Cabinet Minister’s Wife – Jugoslav Radojević
Borisav Matić is a critic and dramaturg from Serbia. He is the Regional Managing Editor at The Theatre Times. He regularly writes about theatre for a range of publications and media.
He’s a member of the feminist collective Rebel Readers with whom he co-edits Bookvica, their platform for literary criticism, and produces literary shows and podcasts. He occasionally works as a dramaturg or a scriptwriter for theatre, TV, radio and other media. He's the administrator of IDEA - the International Drama/Theatre and Education Association.