The apartment in Belgrade where I’ve been staying for the last few weeks looks out over a busy street. Ordinarily it’s clotted with traffic. I wake, not to bird song, but the rumble of buses, a chorus of impatient drivers pounding on their horns at the intersection, and the occasional eruption of expletives. But these are not ordinary days. At 5pm and for the entirety of the weekend, a curfew comes into effect. The traffic thins out. The street empties. Looking out of the window as the evening sun gilds the buildings, it’s easy to imagine you’re alone in the world.
Still, I suspect my experience of lockdown is the opposite of many people’s in that it’s brought me closer to loved ones. The majority of my family live outside the UK, in Serbia. Distance is built into our relationship. Outside of the handful of times a year that I visit, our main mode of communication is via WhatsApp and Skype. I did not need to teach my mother how to video call. She already does half her socialising that way. Now, after years of separation, and through a mixture of luck and judgement, I’m spending this crisis near my family, in Belgrade. This thing that is keeping so many people apart has reunited us.
The past few weeks indoors have felt like standing on a greasy seesaw. I’ve found myself veering between optimism and despondency, sometimes in the space of a minute, my thoughts pitching wildly between the dystopian and utopian. There’s anxiety about increasing authoritarianism, and the curtailment of media freedoms both in Serbia and internationally. But there are also contrasting bursts of hope that this will lead to a mass recalibration of priorities, a radical reassessment of the way we live, emancipation from capitalism and a global increase in solidarity and compassion.
Usually theatre would be a solace, something to hold onto; it’s both a job and passion and I’ve felt that absence keenly. Even so, I was resistant for a while to watching work online. I miss the sensation of holding your breath along with a hundred other people. I miss the ritual. I miss the buildings themselves – my beloved Battersea Arts Centre, the Barbican, the National Theatre (I wholeheartedly love those concrete cubes and the possibility embedded in them). I miss the post-play glass of wine. I miss the opportunity to debate and dissect a show in the bar afterwards. How could live-streaming possibly replace all that?
Then theatres across Europe started making their archives available online. The opportunity to see work I’d only read about proved too tempting. Serbia’s theatres were quick to start streaming. The Yugoslav Drama Theatre (JDP), one of Belgrade’s main theatres, began releasing one show a week, streaming each production for a period of three nights. Of course, I had to watch, even though the productions were being broadcast without English subtitles, and like many second-generation immigrants my grasp of my mother’s tongue is laughably inadequate (there are seven grammatical cases in Serbian which just seems unnecessary). I can read the language well enough but when I listen to people speak there is a lag in comprehension, a delay. Fortunately theatre is more than just language; it’s larger than that. Its tools are numerous.
The first play to be broadcast was Hadersfild (Huddersfield), a play from 2005 by Uglješa Šajtinac directed by the UK’s Alex Chisholm. A group of friends who haven’t seen each other since their school days get together to discuss the places life has taken them – including Huddersfield – and the hopes they used to have. Beer is drunk. Tempers flare. I’ve seen variants on this play before and I’m sure you have too, but it’s the context that marks it apart. The shadow cast by the 1990s hangs over these characters. The pain of the decade was still raw, the damage still palpable. The play bristles with the unsaid.
To my delight I discover I can follow the play well enough, though the time delay in my brain remains. Obviously the characters won’t slow their delivery while I grapple with the dative case and my mother soon gets annoyed with me asking her to translate things, but even though I miss a lot of the linguistic nuance, I understand other things. I understand that this is a play about the trauma of the past and how it shapes society, about the drowning of youthful dreams and ideals. It’s also a chance to witness a full-throttle performance by the deeply charismatic Nebojsa Glogovac, one of the best-known actors in the JDP ensemble, who died far too early.
The following week we watch Dejan Dukovski’s Bure Baratu (Powder Keg) later the basis of Goran Paskaljevic’s film Cabaret Balkan. The play premiered in 1995, at the tail end of the war years in Bosnia and Croatia, but before the war in Kosovo, and the world it presents is one of extreme volatility. The play consists of a patchwork of scenes, a series of explosive encounters. People erupt like volcanoes. It is violent and heightened, cranked up to the max, fundamentally fucked up. It’s relentless, exhausting and unconcerned with imposing a linear narrative on this brutal, absurd world.
The next week they stream Biljana Srbljanović’s Skakavci (Locusts), a stinging, satirical play about the relationship between parents and children in a country where the younger generation are economically shackled to the older generation. Their own lives in stasis, the younger generation envy their parents – and resent them. The concept of care is rejected. Srbljanović’s play is even bleaker than Bure Buratu. Nearly all the characters are petty and grasping. They flail impotently against their plight, complain ceaselessly, but take no action. They are terrified of aging and incapable of affection. Again, the shadow cast by the past is long.
Though it’s exhausting trying to keep your balance when the earth keeps shifting beneath your feet, I’ve found these weekly viewings grounding. I’m learning the culture and the country through its theatre. And more than that. Each of these plays is also, in its own way, a story of what comes after, of the world that emerges after conflict and collapse. As with so much that happened in the Balkans in the 1990s and afterwards, these plays contain a warning and a lesson. They do not make for optimistic viewing. They depict lasting societal damage and the repercussions of trauma left unprocessed. (With all this rhetoric about war being deployed by journalists and politicians, you’d think more of them would be looking to the countries with lived experience of war to see how they are weathering this, to learn from them).
There’s been a lot of discussion of late about digital theatre and the various things it lacks. The inadequacy of work directed for one medium, viewed in another. Its inability to replicate a sense of assembly. But just because the full experience of theatregoing cannot be conveyed on screen, it does not make watching it in this way a futile act. Everyone’s learning new ways of being right now. Watching archive recordings cannot replace live theatre – no one’s suggesting it can – but it can connect people in different ways, and it’s all we have for the moment. It can connect us with our cultural history and allow us to enjoy the performances of actors no longer with us. It can impart ideas, about life, art, and the systems we live in. It can still deliver a jolt to the senses. For me, it’s provided a connection with my own family’s past and, by extension my own. And not just the Serbian shows. A broadcast from the Schaubühne – Ostermeier’s Returning to Reims – led to a long discussion about my grandparents’ experience under communism. Sometimes, among other things, theatre can be a key.
Over the last few weeks I’ve found online theatre comforting, challenging, inspiring and unifying, whether that’s of disparate people on Twitter all watching a Polish production of Macbeth together, waking up to new ways of making, or two people sharing the same sofa, who have not had the opportunity to do so in a too long a time.
As l’ve been writing this, a stillness has descended over the street outside. A lone car rumbles past every 15 minutes, but that will be it until the allotted dog-walking hour begins. Cocooned in this tiny apartment, it sometimes feels as if the city is deserted; that there is no one else out there. That is until the sun sets, and the windows in the buildings across the road start to light up, one by one, each light a home, each light a life, a screen, a story.