Bitef Teatar, Belgrade, premiered 18th December 2019
Growing up in the UK, one of the most played cassettes in our house was a tape of Lepa Brena. Can’t remember the album title, but on the cover she stood against a pink backdrop in a shimmery black dress with shoulder-pads standing beside a man in a tuxedo. The music seeped into me almost by osmosis. I couldn’t understand the lyrics, but I knew the tunes. I was particularly fond of Zivela Jugoslavija. Because I could grasp what it was about. She was singing about her country, her home (and about Tito, who was dead now).
She wasn’t just singing about Yugoslavia, in my mind she was Yugoslavia, or rather she was inextricably linked with the place my family hailed from; her and the smiling chef on the Vegeta packets in my mother’s kitchen cupboard and the cartoon pioneers in their little red neckerchiefs on cover of the book from which I learned the Cyrillic alphabet.
The Lepa Brena Project consists of five monologues written by five playwrights – Olga Dimitrijević, Vedrana Klepica, Slobodan Obradović, Maja Pelević and Tanja Šljivar – about Lepa Brena, or more precisely, the phenomenon of Lepa Brena: as a woman, a pop star, a mogul, an icon, a symbol, a vessel – a figure who looms large in Yugoslavia’s collective cultural memory.
The writers fragment her. They break her into parts, into old and young versions of herself, into the different things she represented to different people.
The show opens with a woman in a blonde wig reclining on a marble pedestal, alongside the flag of Yugoslavia. The block on which she’s sitting resembles Tito’s grave in the House of Flowers. Her pose recalls Lepa Brena’s famous song, Jugoslovenka (Yugoslav Woman). When this woman speaks she makes it very clear that this is going to be a memory play. Her memory and our memory.
This first woman is joined on stage by four other versions of Lepa Brena dressed in a variety of iconic outfits – ruched silver lame, a backless white tuxedo, side-split denim trousers, voluminous shoulder pads and teetering stilettos. The young Brena talks about the surreal feeling of performing in a cheery-picker over a Romanian stadium in 1984, hearing thousands of people sing “Long Live Yugoslavia,” hearing thousands of people chant her name (not her given name, of course, which was Fahreta Jahić).
The older version of Brena presents herself as a savvy businesswoman, the owner of a successful record label – a record empire in fact – someone in control of her image and her power as a brand. She is an artist of rare longevity (with “no expiry date,” a privilege more usually afforded to men). A woman from a relatively poor background who understood from an early age how to make a mark and make it count (it’s simplistic to call her the Yugoslav Madonna but there are parallels).
The next two Brenas speak to her wider cultural influence and significance. A drag queen describes how Lepa Brena inspired them to find confidence in themselves and their sexuality, how a cheap pair of rhinestones earrings becoming badges of honour. The last Brena we meet talks about the socialist apartment buildings that were named in her honour. The way the buildings’ red roofs capped a white façade apparently put some people in mind of two legs protruding from beneath a mini-skirt (one suspects a man first made this observation). These buildings were desirable residences. People wanted to reside inside them (her?). Brena’s image might not have been as pervasive and present as Tito’s, but it wasn’t far behind. A doll made in her likeness became as popular as Barbie in the region.
The tone of the piece at first is celebratory and energetic, poppy and propulsive. We are treated to snippets of songs – Zivela Jugoslavija, Long Legs, Luda za Tobom. Yugo-Brena talks about the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia like one smitten, she talks about brotherhood and unity, non-alignment and abundant natural beauty, ideals in which she believed. Tito’s grave is repurposed as a bar from which a wine bottle is produced – glasses are distributed to the people in the front row. Pink neon lights are unfurled. The mood is positive. Jugoslovenka is sung.
And then the show pivots. Inevitably.
After the buoyancy and vigour of the first half, the tone changes. The rosy glow of the of the past fades. The stories the quintet tell grow darker, messier. The older Brena talks about the terror of her son’s kidnapping, one of the consequences of her extreme fame. Those coveted red-roofed buildings turn out to be shoddily made. They flake and crumble. A lift cable snaps in one and the passengers plummet to the ground. They are not the only thing that crumbles. Dreams and ideals die suddenly and violently. The wine glassed are brusquely retrieved from the crowd, the neon lighting is rolled away. The party’s over.
The format of five interlinking monologues allows the production to transcend the conventional bio-drama and reject linearity. This makes for a stronger, more multifaceted show, one not just about a person, a woman, but about how popular culture, memory, nostalgia and identity intertwine (or did in a time before the internet).
The country with which she came to symbolise – a bit like France’s Marianne, only with a red star and high heels – and in which she believed (though Yugoslavia in the 1980s was already troubled, the Yugoslav ideal already tainted, not least by the way the Albanian population were treated) came apart bloodily. Where once she transcended, she – along with everyone else – was labelled and boxed, reduced to a religion, a name, a birth place.
Under the direction of the show’s co-creators Vladimir Aleksić and Olga Dimitrijević, the cast of five – Jovana Gavrilović, Jasna Đuričić, Jelena Ilić, Tamara Krcunović and Aleksić -turn these separate monodramas into a cohesive whole. While there is only minimal interaction between them, there is a sense of unity to the production (though perhaps there should have been six Brenas, one for each republic). Together they convey how ‘Brena’ is a performance, a costume. Jasna Đuričić (magnificent in Quo Vadis, Aida?) as the older Brena is particularly vivid. When she takes off her backless jacket to reveal a flesh-coloured top, she is both her exposed and yet still formidable, poised, sexual – only when she pulls off her wig, do we glimpse a flash of real vulnerability.
Sometimes the writing is a little explicit, explaining that the concept of nation is a form of drag and costume too, but within the context of the show this bluntness works. As the various Brenas retreat to different parts of the stage to sit and simmer, there is one final shift in tone, one voice speaks out above the others, raw, defiant, marked by loss but also hope.
Main image: Jelena Jankovic
Concept and direction: Vladimir Aleksić, Olga Dimitrijević
Text: Olga Dimitrijević, Vedrana Klepica, Slobodan Obradović, Maja Pelević, Tanja Šljivar
Dramaturgy: Dimitrije Kokanov
Music: Draško Adžić
Scenography: Nikola Knežević
Costume: Milica Kolarić, Senka Kljakić
Choreography: Igor Koruga
Producers: Flying Ginger, Bitef Teatar
Cast: Jovana Gavrilović, Jasna Đuričić, Jelena Ilić, Tamara Krcunović, Vladimir Aleksić
Further reading: Deconstructing Konstrakta – the artist must be analysed
Natasha Tripney is a writer, editor and critic based in London. She is the reviews 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, the Independent, the BBC, Tortoise and Kosovo 2.0