This text was first published in September-October 2014, in The Lifted Brow 24 – The Medicine Issue.
1. in which we do not talk about politics
The first time the Critic saw a theatre work was in a squatted factory at sixteen, in Croatia. It was turn of the millennium, the wars had only just finished. A generation of young people was trying to say something about what had just happened, find its bearings, stop being children caught up in crossfire. And so the young people squatted one of the many, many, many defunct factories that littered Croatian cities, factories that had collapsed through disinvestment, bombing, road blockades, diminished purchasing power, and rampant corruption, the extent of which would only become apparent in the peace years to come. There was art in every one of the big, empty, barely cleaned rooms of the huge building. There was beer sold straight from the back of a van. There were punk concerts, there were vegan cooperatives, and there was a small performance, in the central courtyard, for free, on one of the nights. A group of drama students doing Biljana Srbljanović’s 1994 play Family Stories, or ‘Porodične priče.’
Srbljanović was a Serbian playwright, the most famous to emerge from the Balkans in the 1990s, but her work, like any other Serbian art, was unofficially banned in Croatia at that time. The Critic, who was not yet a critic, had never heard of her before. (The unofficial ban persisted for years, and Serbian writing, dramatic or otherwise, remained impossible to obtain in Croatia, even though Croatian and Serbian languages are as similar as the American and British variants of English. In 2010, scouring a bookshop for Srbljanović’s plays, the Critic was told that ‘they were not yet translated’. The shop assistant said that with a sad smile that indicated that even she was, perhaps, aware of the absurdity of what she was saying.)
Family Stories is a sophisticated, non-naturalistic dramatic text, in which a group of children, played by adult actors, meets on the playground to play house. Through eleven games, they enact eleven domestic scenarios rife with bullying, oppression, sexual assault, verbal and physical violence. The father tortures the mother, the mother tortures the children, and the children usually kill them by the end; and then they rise again, play another house, accumulating realistic wounds from previous deaths. The world of the play is a sort of hell, in which the same patterns of violence are endlessly repeated without respite, not even after death. It shows violence as a compulsion, and trauma as a self-perpetuating, senseless force.
The Critic read many learned analyses of Family Stories in the years to come, all of them sound and accurate, but not one had been necessary to understand the play that evening, in the courtyard of the squatted factory, performed rather simply, without a set or props. The effect it had on the sixteen year old girl who would become the Critic was immense.
For the first time, the Critic had seen a work of art that cut through the over-detailed confusion of real life, and had given her an understandable explanation of reality. Life itself was condensed into this play, life as she knew it – her bullying schoolmates, their violent parents, her unhappy friends, her unhappy parents, the crooked shadow of the recent war hanging over them all, neither near nor far—all the more clear for its abstraction, for its condensed metaphor. It felt like someone had finally found words to describe the world that the girl had experienced, but did not quite understand, like her first textbook explaining electricity. That her life would be so accurately rendered by a Serbian artist, considered practically an enemy in the war that had caused so much of that depicted trauma, added another layer of revelation. The closeness of experience had been uncanny.
Dusk turned to night as the performance finished. Afterwards, she and her bestest friends had stood around a fire, shaken and quiet, looking at each other like they were seeing one another for the first time, trying to say something more than: “It’s like that, isn’t it?,” but failing, returning again to this simple statement. It is like that. They were a gang, close in the way only sixteen year-olds can be, practically formative of one another: the girl who would become the Critic; Sasha, the boy who would become gay; Luka, the boy who would become a performance artist; and Helena, the girl who would become a heroin addict. For a long time, these would be the coordinates of her universe.
The Critic saw the same play at Griffin Theatre in Sydney in 2008, in a totally decent translation by Serbian-born Australian theatre-maker Bojana Novakovic. The production, by RideOn Theatre, was probably an improvement on the makeshift sketch she had seen at sixteen. However, in trying to stage faithfully a play understood merely as an important European contemporary work, the staging ended up being both naturalistically boring, and extremely haughty. It didn’t bother trying to make connections with Australia – if such a thing were possible, which it perhaps was not. Family Stories, however layered and metaphorical a text, was immediately recognisable as reality. This production was not. Continue reading →