Tag Archives: Croatia

Theatre notes

1. This gentlewoman of fortune wishes to announce she will be landing on Australian soil next Sunday. Regular transmission will be resumed soon after. These last weeks are always spent primarily in transition and motion.

2. Happiness is (…) finding yourself in a city, and being welcomed by a completely unexpected, unannounced and unplanned for puppet theatre festival. Those of you who know me better know that I love puppet theatre more than anything else in the world, including contemporary dance, cheese and pornography; and those of you who know Australia better know that my itch is rarely scratched. Needless to say, I am spending my last small change on abstract puppetry based on Bela Bartok, Russian puppet shows based on Tolstoy, and similar treats. Some writing may ensue, but I will be happy enough to sit, watch and shiver cold happy shivers of a cold turkey temporarily calm.

3. I have seen a lot of very interesting theatre while I was here (much more than could have been deducted from the sporadic commentary I've offered). I've learned to read German and French, and polished my Portuguese, in order to devour the coverage it generated. Meanwhile, Anglophone commentary was mostly concerned with Edinburgh. Quite short-sightedly. Andrew Haydon, a rare English speaker who grasps the extent of the problem, offers an insight in The Guardian theatre blog:

Maybe Britain's position in European theatre is more integrated than it appears, but I would be very surprised. The fact is that Britain is hopelessly isolated. While my European colleagues happily discuss the work of directors from each other's countries, I feel an overwhelming jealousy.

On mainland Europe, work tours. It doesn't tour exhaustively, but work that proves popular is as likely to be seen in Tallinn, Berlin or Bratislava, as The History Boys was in Manchester, Leeds or Birmingham. It is shocking to think that, along with my colleague Rose Fenton, I could be one of only a handful of Britons who will ever see some of this work. While everyone else talks about the work of “the most important directors working in Europe” – Alvis Hermanis, Jan Klata and Stefan Kaegi – I sit in mute astonishment at the fact that most of the names mentioned have never, to the best of my knowledge, had productions staged in Britain. At the same time, British names are highly conspicuous by their absence. Our writers are doing OK, but then, in any mainland European theatre deemed worthy of consideration, writers don't count half as much as directors.

Melbourne International Theatre Festival, for all the richness of its 2008 program, shows the same aloofness for the wealth of innovation currently happening outside the small Anglophone world. It is fine (and economically sound) to bring Cynthia Hopkins and a bucketful of Tim Crouch, and it's absolutely tremendous how much support Edmunds offers to the local artists. But it's a sort of program that feeds our belief that the world is small, uniform and safe, when in fact it's brimming with powerful, courageous, often violent experimentation.

4. Most importantly, I've come to realise how badly Australia fares in terms of cultivating broad theatre discourse. (Newspaper coverage, of course, is inadequate across the board. Although it's been a shock to realise that, in a small country like Croatia (4.5 million souls), even local newspapers will regularly offer two pages of fairly decent art coverage daily.)

What's more worrying is that Australia has no platform for serious, regular theatre discussions. Apart from RealTime, a bi-monthly magazine covering a range of media and performance arts, there is no serious publication devoting space to discussion of contemporary theatre practice in the country – of which there is much to discuss. That same Croatia, with a much smaller and much less active theatre scene, and infinitely less money for the arts, can somehow support two magazines dedicated to theatre only, one for contemporary dance, and a range of more generally-focussed arts bi-weeklies.

Book publishing is another problem Australia needs to solve. I have been stocking up on books of all kinds: playtexts, theory, interviews and collected essays. While I'm reading a two-volume collection of interviews on new theatre with the key new-theatre-makers in Croatia (often very funny, as they offer gossip, praise and criticism for each other), and organising a delivery to follow me to Melbourne, I am sure that it would be possible to run a series of similarly in-depth, inquisitive yet chatty interviews with Luke Mullins, Simon Stone, Brian Lipson, not to mention comparative giants such as Andrews or Kosky (whose ABC interview was a disappointingly slack, arts-uninterested piece).

While it's certain that Croatia has, for a long time, had a strong theory without adequate practice, it's also certain that the vivacity of the theoretical debates has helped generate a lot of the fascinating developments in the current theatre-making. In Australia, I wonder, how much more could be happening if brave experiments resonated more widely, if only the discussions and responses they generated could be channeled through an appropriate medium? As things are now, it seems certain that every break-through is muted by the small echo chamber it has at disposal. And the tyranny of distance.

Day-to-day newspaper and magazine criticism is not an adequate tool to support the national scene: it is conceived as, and works as, primarily a consumer guide. In order to follow through-lines of formal or philosophical inquiry that a company or a director develop, in order to discuss paradigm shifts and collective changes of direction, in order to propose and denounce poetics and systems of interpretation, in order to argue, we would need a place to come together in peace. Blogs, I need to disagree with Alison, are not enough to fill this gaping hole. Blogs are personal spaces, not meeting points.

5. All of which reminds me: my article on Eurokaz festival in Zagreb is now available, in print and online, in RealTime 86, and can be accessed here.

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Riječke ljetne noći: Penelope / Song of songs

A version of this text was published on vibewire.net.

…practically all metaphors for style amount to placing matter on the inside, style on the outside. It would be more to the point to reverse the metaphor. The matter, the subject, is on the outside; the style is on the inside. As Cocteau writes: “Decorative style has never existed. Style is the soul, and unfortunately with us the soul assumes the form of the body.” Even if one were to define style as the manner of our appearing, this by no means necessarily entails an opposition between a style that one assumes and one's “true” being. In fact, such a disjunction is extremely rare. In almost every case, our manner of appearing is our manner of being. The mask is the face.
– Susan Sontag, On Style

I wonder whether love is really as trite a subject as we are often made to think, on the basis that everything has been said. While it is easy and common to view life as a supermarket of choices, better or worse-stocked, one's life as an empty thing to be filled with Content, at its most basic life simply evades this. One's fundamental life experiences are not to be chosen: birth, deaths of parents, having children, illness. Love, of course. The main answer, not only to the incessant proliferation of love-themed artworks, but to the fact that we still readily fall in love, knowing the endpoint of the experiment, it seems to me, is that the problem we are trying to solve is essentially one of style, not content (to use a dated division that, however, is still going strong in theatre). “What new can be said?” we ask about the three-minute love song just like we could ask about a marriage proposal, forgetting that we do not stop falling in love just because we know how it ends. Life is an attempt at formal innovation, not a statement made in the form of life, to paraphrase Sontag yet again. This is why the plots are so few, and the artworks so many; why so many people do the same things all over again.

And if so, I wonder whether dance may not be the purest, crispest realisation of love on stage. Dance which, in itself, has been largely liberated from the struggle of form and content. With inexistent texts the execution is built only out of the performance itself, and a prescribed thing like classical ballet may be the closest in western dance where the rift is even possible, where one can be accused of stylistically disrespecting the content, of hanging a curtain between themselves and their matter of discourse. Everything else is pure expression.

Penelope / Song of Songs (Penelopa / Pjesma nad pjesmama), a diptych on love, is a collaboration between Portuguese ballet ensemble CeDeCe and the National Ballet of Rijeka, with the choreographers swapped. In Penelope, thus, Louis Sousa directs and choreographs HNK dancers, while Staša Zurovac creates Song of Songs on the CeDeCe bodies. The uniting element is music, by Macedonian Marijan Nećak, a semi-classical landscape for a mini orchestra (strings quartet, bass, timpani, clarinet, oboe, horn, trombone, guitar and piano) and a handful of vocal soloists. It is a strangely de-classicalised new classical music, fragmented, contrasting, open to noise yet overwhelmingly melodic.

Sousa may have had a harder job, as Zurovac and Nećak have collaborated in the past and clearly share artistic sensibility. Penelope is a strangely straightforward piece of dance, programmatic in literalised narrative detail. Contemporary ballet is a type of dance this spectator rarely has a chance to see, and always enjoys for its straight lines, its clean technical bravura and near-literary purposefulness, of which Penelope too had plenty. Sousa brings a Portuguese simplicity of means to the mise-en-scène, creating individual tableaux full of grace and strength: gripping birth of Telemachus, the nightly tearing of the daily weaving work, Penelope's mourning after the massacre of suitors and servants. But the narrative, as familiar as it is to us from The Odyssey, is often the invisible key to much trite stage movement, with no purpose other than somewhat obscure story-telling. The soloists, particularly Marta Voinea as the Helen of Troy, fill their straight lines with passion and engagement, yet the mannerism of ballet, of story-telling, keeps the emotional potential of the piece restrained.

If there is a key to this neoclassical exercise, one that may need to be spelled out to an audience less familiar to CeDeCe, Sousa keeps it all to himself. But, I wonder, how purposeful may it seem to a more knowledgeable eye? The subtleties of the second piece, perhaps, would be utterly lost to someone less familiar with his sources.

Song of Songs opens in a mental hospital, and immediately expands its field of reference by jumping from the Bible to the homonymous poem by Janko Polić Kamov, Croatia's most precocious avant-garde author, a raging, nihilistic, pre-expressionist, whose freely structured prose was at complete odds with the early 1900s' preference for harmony, finesse and nobility, and reappraised only in the recent years. The iterative praise to love of the biblical original is transformed into a rhythmic chant of Kamov's lyrics:

The world is dead, my love, and it's so dark in its boredom;
the people are dead, my love, and dreamy is their song,
the silence is insane, my love, and silence is their speech;
look, they're sleepy and yawning is their day's music;
their soul's as empty as the whores' laughter, and their laughter as lifeless as the law;

their sun is as pale as the death candle and the walls are their forest;
it is so desolate, dark, my love, and their days are like their thoughts;

there's no blood in their body and their soul is empty like God.

The piece does not attempt to locate its figuration in Kamov's intensely short and tragic life, yet it resonates very strongly with the themes of his rather autobiographical oeuvre: unrequited love to his best friend's wife, the possible illicit child, his desperate refusal to denounce his love, his pain and his radicalism to the comfy morality and the vapid lifestyle of the fin-de-siécle middle-class Austria-Hungary, down to his untimely death in a Barcelona hospital in 1910, at the age of 24. Song of Songs rejects any plot other than the infinite tragedy of love, any characters other than the collective lost to reason.

Zurovac's choreography is highly responsive to Nećak's music, blending over and echoing the musical variations, the motifs. Both develop in a counterpoint between abstraction and articulation of concepts, following an impressionist logic that stresses the felt, the emotional over the logical and the rational. CeDeCe dancers respond with enthusiasm to Zurovac's movement, developed in filigree detail yet potent and focused, grotesque yet often rather pretty: a pas de quatre of madwomen, a duet of The Lost Ones, the final persistent loneliness of the Little Girl, who tears a feathery white pillow on the dancers only to end the show curled up on a still warm, empty bed. Choreographically, it is rich in contrast: unison groupwork interrupted by lone soloists, duets merging into mass chaos, unbridled orgy of thrown limbs and gentle, restrained motion. It is both resolutely bleak and bursting with ecstatic energy. Lovers lose each other among the deranged bodies, wander off and on stage in their bare white insanity: they are alone in mass and alone when together. It is love as a nightmare, wringing out all the emotional detritus with the nihilist urge and desperate grip akin to Kamov's writing. There is nothing in this madness that isn't enormous pain, it says, yet they would not give it up for anything in the world. Even as their agony is presented as an entrapment, an illusion resisting disillusion, Song of Songs shows the emotional landscape of love with enormous compassion. Ultimately, it returns to another one of Kamov's thoughts:

I lay naked before a woman and we both remained cold, for we felt neither shame nor passion… The shame that broke one mankind into two sexes was dead and – to the new temple, to the hospital, where all people are brothers!

The formal intelligence of the choreography comes with a fierce emotional skeleton that in this case deserves to be called romantic. Not merely the romance of love-as-madness, the eternal allure of the lost mind. Watching the performance, I was reminded of literary impressions of Goethe, of Wagner. The forceful delivery of unashamed emotion must have felt as intoxicating as it did to me. (The audience, for the sake of reporting, was rather delirious.)

Where this diptych fails is in the way Penelope, with its cool perfectionism, driven by narrative and uninterested in but most formalised of emotion, seems somewhat oblivious to the secret understanding between Kamov, Nećak and Zurovac. Song of Songs, on the other hand, is dramaturgically as uninterested in plot, character or metaphor as it is attentive to all senses: the visual free association of costume and mise-en-scène; the close relation to music; the textures of movement, from hard to soft, full and deep to lithe and fragile; the freewheeling emotion. (Love, I have said already, is an underrated subject.) The result is a sensual and emotional feast of the highest order, a dance for dance gluttons.

Penelope / Song of Songs premiered on 8th July 2008 on Riječke ljetne noći, in Tvornica papira Hartera, Rijeka, Croatia.

Penelope. Choreographer and director: Louis Sousa. Costumes: Sandra Dekanić. With: Paula Rus, Andrei Kőteles, Marta Voinea, Ashatbek Yuzupzhanov, Kristina Kaplan, Irina Kőteles, Anka Popa, Sabina Voinea, Roberto Barbosa Pereita Junior, Svebor Zgurić, Vladimir de Freitas Rosa.

Song of Songs. Choreographer and director: Staša Zurovac. With: Benjamin Duran, Catarina Correia, Haruka Fukuizum, Camila Moreira, Erica Gawley, Joana Puntel, Vanessa Vieira, Alia Crutcher, André Zachery, Miguel Areias, Marco La Perna.

Music: Marjan Nećak. Set Design: Žorž Draušnik. Costumes: Joao Taborda. Lighting design: Boris Blidar and Antonio Rodrigues.

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on form and theatre; vignette

My most cherished discovery has been a generation of very young Croatian theatre-makers, absolutely fearless. This year, Gordana Vnuk, the iron lady of Eurokaz and an uncompromising believer in new forms of expression, pulled out these kids that haven't even graduated yet, and what beautiful things they have shown. I have seen so much brave, crushing, beautiful form on Eurokaz 2008, so much of it absolutely riveting.

Point one. Marina Petkovic.

Black box. Four actors wearing black. They describe exactly who they are, what they do. I am Gertrude. From here to here is my bed. It has four pillows on it. I sleep here alone, when I'm not performing my marital duties, in which case my husband, the king, sleeps here too. There is a double door here, a window over here, and a long red curtain covering it. I am wearing a white nightgown. I am Hamlet. I am wearing black, with a dagger hanging here. I am Polonius. I am hiding behind this curtain.

Gertrude and Hamlet sit down, chair to chair, holding pages of Shakespeare's text, reading as neutrally as they described the setting, the costumes. Hamlet gets up, stabs Polonius, and comes back. Gertrude, still neutrally: Oh what you have done? Argument; neutrally. Meanwhile, Polonius is dying in a most naturalistic way, shaking and curling on the floor. About five minutes. Hamlet is getting upset: he stammers, misreads his lines, sweats, has to repeat the words multiple times. Slowly, minutes passing, Polonius drags himself to the two chairs, grips Hamlet's leg. Hamlet chokes, tries to shake him off, still reading from the pages, very upset. Gertrude gets up, pulls, sits on Polonius, keeps reading. Both very upset now: words are mangled, phrases interrupted, repeated. Sweat. Polonius dies. It takes them time, cooperation and physical combinatorics to carry him out, through the double door. End.

Point two. Same performance.

Claudius, Gertrude and Horatio describe the setting of a ceremonial hall in great detail, each focusing on the parts that matter the most. This is my throne, because I am the king. Here hangs my portrait, 7×7m… No, 9×9. My throne is made out of gold, with a big sphere here, all covered in gems. My throne is a bit smaller. It's made out of wood. It has a golden sphere here. My portrait hangs with the king's. 6×6m. The hall is really big and spherical. If I stood here , and the actor leaves the performance space through the side door, walks out in the middle of the courtyard, I would be in the centre of the room. It feels good and comfy, like a church. Here is where Hamlet and I used to play when we were little. Now we're not allowed anymore. Then Ophelia. There is a river flowing through here. Break. She creates, with words, a natural landscape on top of the ceremonial hall. She describes her daydreaming in the forest. End.

This is all fantastic to watch. The rise or fall of this kind of theatre – of any kind of theatre, I believe – is in the extent to which they can engage their audience. Not merely for entertainment value: engagement improves attention, concentration, focus. Yet to qualify why something is engaging theatre, and something else fails to engage, is near-impossible. Finally, Some people can read War and Peace and come away thinking it was a simple adventure story. Others can read the ingredients on a chewing gum wrapper and unlock the secret of the universe.

I am sure that these two essays did not attempt to give the answers I found. They were results of a workshop around Gavella, a Croatian theatre theorist and maker, whose writings I have never read. The first was almost certainly not a critique of text-based performance as promulgated in Anglophone countries, although it was the single most powerful critique I have ever seen. The second could not have been a reply to the West End Whingers, regarding the absolute mimicry of life in the direction of the ugly one by Ramin Gray, performed at the Royal Court in London. It may have been a demonstration of how little theatre needs to create setting, a mise-en-scéne, and how easily the audience can juggle in mind multiple, contradictory sets of signs, but it probably responded to Gavella instead. And yet, I cannot forget these two scenes. They were simple, minimalist, and unforgettable.

My sister, a 14-year-old with no experience of experimental theatre, not only sat through the 120 minutes of this black narrativeless experiment, but excitedly quoted moments from the performance days later.

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Attempts on Her Life; or the anatomy of a decade.

Melbourne University Student Union Theatre: Attempts on Her Life. Written by Martin Crimp. Directed by Susie Dee. Sound Design and Composition by Kelly Ryall. Set and Costume Design by Jeminah Reidy. Lighting Design by Niklas Pajanti. Audio-Visual Design by Nicholas Verso. Cast: Rhys Aconley-Jones, Chloe Boreham, Ananth Gopal, Kali Hulme, Joshua Lynzaat, Jen Mackie, Laura Maitland, Jan Mihal, Ella Roberts, Anna Teresa Scheer, Sophie Testart and Megan Twycross. Guild Theatre, University of Melbourne, 16 – 24 May 2008. Bookings on 03) 8344 7447 or www.union.unimelb.edu.au/tickets.

A virtually identical version of this article can be found online on vibewire.net.

There is something about the theatre of blood and sperm (in the sense of a distinct spatio-temporal artistic trend, centred on the UK, but also a bit of Germany, Austria and the ex-Balkans) that seems to me to speak most clearly and precisely of what 1990s were. Watching Attempts on Her Life, a Melbourne University Student Union Theatre production of a 1997 text by Martin Crimp, for the first time I came to realise how our entire worldview changed with the war in Bosnia. It is a view from the distance, and yet to me (who has spent the 1990s somewhat closer to the epicentre) this enormous, eye-opening change of perspective was never reported as accurately as it is in these wounded, screaming plays. Not even by, say, Kusturica. I had a vague idea, previously, that Bosnia became Western Europe's big trauma, a failure of optimism, but never took it seriously ('our suffering is so much bigger'). In retrospect, the crash of hopes within Bosnia was probably complementary, rather than contrasting, to the larger disillusion.

So what really happened in the 1990s? There was our war, a brutal, senseless and incredibly immediate war. In Britain, there was the introduction of CCTV and the rise of surveillance society. There were the first doubts on consumerism, channelled through the early slacker fiction. After the ambitious 1980s, it started becoming apparent that our enormous appetite was not just a consequence of our fulfilling ambitions, that it was not a constructive consumption, a transformation of elements. It had turned into consumption for consumption's sake, blind and insatiable, until, to paraphrase both Slavoj Žižek and Viktor Pelevin (1999), it became a monotonous murmur of absorbing and disgorging, joyless but for the punctuating, ever briefer wow!-moments. There was the first mention of eating disorders. Yet the formal rhetoric of the mass (and not so mass) media, inherited from the 1980s, was that of the end of history, the best of all possible worlds, endless joy, how lucky are we?!

Today, the lag between what we feel and what we are told to feel is slightly different – post-9/11 world is a sombre world – and the dissident behaviour nowadays is, perhaps, to trust thy neighbour and not feel afraid (see American indie). Then, however, the arts reacted with an explosion of violent nihilism, as if subconsciously we were trying to heal the gap between what we heard and what we felt. It was the decade of Trainspotting (1996), Nirvana (1991-1994), Tracy Emin, The Prodigy (early 1990s), Fight Club (1999). Even reading early Bridget Jones (1995) leaves an aftertaste, for all the shopping and gossiping is framed by dysfunctional eating and persistent binge drinking. When the towers collapsed, Baudrillard said they had to; we had been making them collapse in films so persistently we brought it on ourselves. Our return of the repressed. But perhaps it was simply the external reality bursting the same feel-good bubble that we were trying to burst from the inside, through our art, all along.

It was all slightly different elsewhere. While Europe had a real war on its doorstep, the US had a televised one that – again quoth Baudrillard – never happened. I would be curious to know what an Australian subject in 2008 may find in Attempts on Her Life, what sort of reading they would have. Perhaps the war on terror has created the same de-localised anxiety here. But my entire life flashed before my eyes. In-yer-face was so good, so accurate at nailing the threads that connected our fears. Perhaps it is the theatrical medium that allowed these plays to circumvent plot, cause and effect, setting or rounded characters, and keep alive the tenuous threads between acts and emotions, that now makes them such a mirror of a decade. In Blasted (1995), the violence Out There and its impact on our ability to love. In Family Stories (1998), the guilt for our children's future. In Woman-Bomb (2003, but it counts), the raging impotence in the face of coerced serenity, governmental soothing.

In Attempts, the inability to quite pinpoint what it is that worries us, between the everyday hedonism here and immense suffering elsewhere, results in a disconnected series of semi-portraits, of semi-stories, of variations on a feeling. The text is subtitled 17 Scenarios for theatre: the death of Anna, Anny, Anja, Anushka, figurative, artistic or medically sound, is narrated in fragments, dialogues, commentary, songs, video, arguments, answering machine messages. Recurring motifs are war, femininity, surveillance, despair. Not innocently, the empty vessel on whose person the scenarios are played out is a woman.

Melbourne University Student Union Theatre's production, in the skillful hands of Susie Dee, plays with the possibilities of theatre. As much as the context of certain dialogues is transparent, they are never staged literally, but hover in a dreamspace, a not-quite-space. As a result, the production refrains from situating the meaning in any one place (imagine the boredom of 17 times same), leaving it both associative and open-ended.

Photo credits: Vicki Jones

Jeminah Reidy's set puts the audience in the centre, in a swarm of swivel chairs, while the stage hugs the sides of the theatre, as a long, white, tiled underground station. The actors (for there are no characters) talk to each other, argue, across the auditorium, which results in some beautiful mass movement, as audience members swivel left to right, following the action. From one fragment of a story to another, the focus shifts from left to right, backstage to front, until, all possibilities exhausted, it ends exactly where it started. Cyclic nature of life or exhaustion, it nonetheless feels complete, concluded.

Some of the attempts on her life are simply exquisite: a battle of art criticism over her posthumous exhibition of suicide notes, despite all its mime of realism staged as a dream, a nightmare, of a gallery opening. Autobiography of a sex worker (replete with vivre-sa-vie-claims), confessed in third-person (restrained and fragile Megan Twycross), behind a screen, with a mass dance, interrupted half-way and from then on dictated by the translator (militantly French Chloe Boreham). An unexpected song (excellent Kali Hulme). The central point of the performance to me seemed to be a faux-advertisement for pink caddillac Anny, presented in Bosnian Croatian (I may have misheard here, and if so I apologise for any offense) with a sexy MC (rather good-looking Jan Mihal), turbo-folk music and three dancers in fluorescent pink parkas (overflowing with references to nouveau riche, war profiteers, the new bad taste). As the advertisement progressively degenerated, turning from the sum of our desires („always a beautiful blonde inside“) into the sum of our repressed anxieties (with „no room for Gypsies, Arabs, Kurds, blacks“), I was reminded not only of the vast semantic cathedral attached to the possession of a good car in a place like Bosnia, but also of those sarcastic news programs Danijel Žeželj created in Sun City (1993), in which genocide, wars, and new ozone holes were interspersed with hardcore porn and an order: smile wider!, wider!

Is Melbourne University Student Union Theatre always this good? Was I meant to be aware? Only the occasional acting glitch points to this being a non-professional production, rather than something that Malthouse could be staging. Right. Now. It did help that Crimp’s play may be the most brutally, icily poetic text I have encountered in a Melbourne theatre in a while. Whichever way, this outstandingly creative and courageous production may be the best thing currently playing.

See also: On Stage (and walls)

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