Mladinsko Theatre, Ljubljana, premiere 11th February 2023
The title of Elfriede Jelinek’s 1975 novel Women as Lovers suggests something beautiful, romantic, maybe tragic, but also narrow in focus, concentrating on just two or more people.
Yet the novel is much broader. It talks about the position of women in society in the second half of the last century and it is sadly still relevant to today – maybe less so in urban areas and more subtle generally, but still painfully present.
Adapted for the stage by Milan Ramšak Marković.and directed by Nina Ramšak Marković, the provocative and progressive aspects of Jelinek’s writing, especially concerning women’s status in society and relationships, seemed well suited for the Mladinsko Theatre.
The show opens with two women: Brigitte (Lara Vouk) is searching for marriage (looking for financial security and stability) and the other, Paula (Anja Novak), wants a career in sewing. These days, 50 years after the book’s release, we generally feel more positively inclined towards working women, the successful and the independent – although we often think of careerism in a simplified manner, that women should be working, but also doing unpaid labour in the home and caring for the children (because it is normal to want children and therefore have them). The audience therefore sees the first woman as inferior to the second, though both are trying to find their path to survive in the patriarchy.
The effective scenography (by Igor Vasiljev) provides all of the elements of an apartment (though they are not in the same spot), as well as sewing stations from a nearby factory where most of the female characters work and a place where village festivals happen. This is a small, yet cohesive world. The setting also shows that despite their quite different lives, Brigitte and Paula live in a space that cannot provide the things they crave and need the most: options. Either they’ll marry or they’ll work and then marry.
At the beginning, the audience already sees that in spite of their largely idealistic views of the future, their lives won’t go as they planned or wished. It is clear, as the other characters take over the narrator role – the text is witty and full of dry remarks about the characteristics of the women – yet there is a feeling of resignation in their acting: they are telling us stories as if they have happened a thousand times before this one and are going to happen a thousand times after this one. In this respect the ensemble comes as close to the truth as one can.
There are parts in the show, where women (with the emphasis on Paula and Brigitte) are objectified, neglected, ignored, harassed, beaten and raped – and it is shown to us without any pity or excessive pathos – thus creating some distance from Jelinek’s work.
There is no talking about it with friends or families, and even if there is, the victim is not offered any compassion. The production stayed true to the original text in this respect and in the way it shows the effects of violence – there is no compassion, no pity, no blame. The narrators do not particularly comment on these parts – everything else becomes redundant in the moment. These moments are the show’s strongest, pointing to a truth of the last century that is still true today. The victims acts as if the violence does not affect them, as if they are okay and living a good enough life, maybe not the one they wanted, but at least they are surviving. The relatively naturalistic acting of the whole ensemble is remarkable, (especially considering the intensity of the abuse on display). There is a sense of distance and no overacting in these intense scenes. The characters are not really developed, but they recreate real life incredibly well, with help from the atmospheric sound design.
The dichotomy between the neutral narrator and someone acting as abuser, a silent ally or the abused themselves, walks on a very fine line. It demonstrates the difference of being in there, experiencing it and observing it from outside (it was the director’s intention to approach it in this way). That line becomes more blurred as the performance goes on; the audience is drawn in to a point where they cannot be impartial anymore.
With the repeated scenes of violence their impartiality proceeds to disappear and in its place emerges perception. It is not our understanding of the characters’ psychology or their motives, rather our understanding of societal constructs makes us see that this could, and does, happen to nearly everyone.
Both of the main characters fall in love, or at least think they do, with their abusers – sometimes they show their colours before they tie the knot, sometimes after. But even before they are marred, Brigitte and Paula knew they are being forced into a cage, be it a marriage or a relationship, yet they have no support system, no options. They opt for a life that makes them miserable, scared, humiliated – a shadow of what they could have been.
Of course, if we take another look at the beginning, where our bias was so evident and ugly: the audience knew that what awaited Brigitte and Paula was neither pretty nor happy. That knowledge creates a subconscious distanced from the trauma that is about to happen. The repetition of that trauma, with the narrators distancing themselves – and therefore us -and truly just showing what it is like, triggers a defence mechanism: apathy. With no critical approach, emotional involvement, or reimagining for today’s mentality it loses us in the saddest possible way: it loses us in its reality.
Director: Nina Ramšak Marković//Adaptation and dramaturgy: Milan Ramšak Marković//Set design: Igor Vasiljev//Costume design: Maja Mirković//Music and sound: Drago Ivanuša//Language consultant: Mateja Dermelj//Lighting design: Andrej Hajdinjak
For tickets and more information, visit: mladinsko.com
Further reading: review of Solo at Mladinsko Theatre
Živa Kadunc is a critic of contemporary performance art and a speaker on Radio Študent (Slovenia). She loves her plants.