I will begin my survey of the Serbian theatre season with a story about the “Dezire” festival in Subotica. “Dezire” is a festival of alternative and unconventional theatre, which has run for 8 years already. Incidentally, in those eight years, we had the chance to become acquainted with a brilliant show by the Russian company AXE, from St. Petersburg. This year, the festival was entitled “Borderline.”
Festival director and founder Andraš Urban - who is simultaneously one of the most notable creative personalities in the region - collects accomplished artists from the territory of the former Yugoslavia and the surrounding region at the festival. His explanation of this year’s festival title is as follows: We live in an area where the word “border” is especially important, even in the geographical sense. We constantly say that this is a border of sorts between the Balkans and Europe; in essence, Europe officially ends here. But at the same time, even though we are located at a crossroads and a transition, this border is getting stronger under the pressure of the migration crisis - and if we look into the future, then we see a fairly dismal picture. The festival’s name itself makes reference to the “lines” of the border – the red line which must (or must not) be crossed. But primarily for us, the word “borderline” is a term in unconventional psychology which signifies a specific emotional and mental state, connected with problems with self identification; in short, behaviors which a conventional point of view would harshly judge. For us artists, this is a call to study this state of mind, a call to reject the conventions proposed to us, and to ask ourselves questions about self-identification, about our behavior, and about our relationship to unconventional reality. In the central part of the festival, shows are presented from all kinds of different theatrical movements. The festival fundamentally works toward the education of its public, both by means of the shows themselves and through additional events within the “Dezire Academy” programme – a series of Q&As and masterclasses with the festival’s artists and participants. Through the ingenuity of the concept itself and the decisiveness of the artists’ desire to present their own works well and untraditionally, without any restrictions in their analysis of the actual state of affairs, this festival is undoubtedly one of the most competitive not just in Serbia, but in the whole region.
One of the most remarkable theatres in the country, Belgrade’s Atelje 212, celebrated its 60th year of existence with the premiere of “Children of Joy” (“Deca radosti”) by Milena Marković, directed by Snežana Trišić. Milena Marković is one of our best writers: her plays have a unique mythology and develop through dream logic. They always bring us back to a distant past, in order to open our eyes to the future. Director Snežana Trišić consciously created Milena Marković’s artistic world inside her own concept, giving it a special structure with the help of the brilliant work of the whole acting ensemble.
At the beginning of the season, we saw the premiere of Slobodan Selenić’s “Offense to the People In Two Parts” (“Ruženje naroda u dva dela''), as directed by Andraš Urban in Subotica’s National Theatre (Narodno pozorište). The action of the play takes place in a Yugoslavian jail after the Second World War, where prisoners of both opposing sides sit together. It decisively bring us into a sharp confrontation with our own flaws, with our relationship to power and the difference between public and private, and ultimately brings us to personal involvement with the victims, to empathy.
Incidentally, on the topic of victims and empathy, the season opened with a production of “Hamlet” at the Yugoslavian Drama Theatre, directed by Macedonian director Aleksandar Popovski, featuring one of our leading actors, Nebojša Glogovac, as Prince Hamlet. It was “theatre-within-the-theatre:” an eccentric Beckettian Hamlet, which carried on its shoulders a difficult period of time that it shared with the audience and all of us around.
And finally, the main event: the Bitef Festival celebrated its 50th anniversary. Bitef is unarguably the most important international festival on the territory of former Yugoslavia and the Western Balkans. It was founded by Jovan Ćirilov and Mira Trailović. In the geopolitical sense, it was unusually important for Tito’s Yugoslavia. It literally formed a brothership between the East and the West. During the Cold War, it was a place where artists arriving from the East could see the most meaningful Western productions – and vice versa. Bitef was a “meeting place” par excellence. It hosted such artists as Robert Wilson, Grotowski, Barbe, Lyubimov, Brook, and many others. It was always announced as a “festival of new theatrical tendencies,” and always lived up to the name.
Today, as it celebrates its 50th anniversary, the classical distinction between East and West of course no longer exists. The world exists on a different paradigm. And Bitef has become a festival which is open to the most varied dramatic forms. The main special programme at Bitef this year was the 28th Congress of the International Association of Theatre Critics, with the participation of 100 critics from 40 countries and all continents (except for Australia and New Zealand). As part of the Congress, there was an international conference on the subject of “Newness and Global Theatre: between Commodification and Artistic Necessity,” whose main idea inspired a study of how we can imagine the modernist conception of a “novum,” once considered adequate in performance practice in the 1960s and 1970s, in contemporary culture.
We live in a world where “postmodernism” has been left in the past, though we still see its traces. – said the festival’s artistic director, Ivan Medenica. Our concept was to use this theoretical platform of opinions to study the novum in contemporary theatre. It is no accident that the topic is formulated this way, to point out, among other things, that global theatre will never actually be global. In the field of culture, you must always take care of special cultural characteristics and uniquity. What is new for one environment can be completely otherwise for another. And I must stress that this isn’t some hegemonic Western project whose demands must all be met today.
At any rate, Bitef is gradually continuing its mission of studying new theatrical movements, while simultaneously reflecting on the contemporary sociopolitical environment.
According to this “map” of theatrical premieres and significant anniversaries celebrated since the start of the theatre season to the moment this review was written, one can follow the Serbian theatre’s path of development, first and foremost, thanks to the various methods and authentic artistic style. Our goal is to study the existing reality, and for such a study it can be necessary to turn one’s glance to the distant past, so that we can project the future from the point where we are right now.
Translated by Svetlana Luganskaya