For 10 days each September, Belgrade is home to BITEF, one of the most arresting international theatre festivals in Europe. This is its 53rd year. Historically it was a site of dialogue between the avant garde scenes of eastern Europe and the West. It remains a place where you can see some of the most interesting work being produced by ex-Yugoslav countries alongside a programme drawn from Europe and beyond. Each year BITEF has a theme. The theme of this year’s festival is “Let’s start love over.” Like most of the themes they are open to interpretation. There is a suggestion of recovery and resistance, erasure of the tarnished past, renewal. Artistic director Ivan Medenica states: “theatre cannot and should not offer oblivion.”
This year’s festival programme could be broken into two parts. Over the first few days, work was presented in the city’s existing theatre spaces, including the Terazije Theatre – home of musicals, including the Serbian version of Phantom of the Opera (which I really feel I need to see at some point) – and in the National Theatre, next to the city’s recently redeveloped main square where workmen are frantically resurfacing the road after it transpired they had been using substandard material for this much-trumped improvement project, resulting in a road no one could drive on – some things render satire obsolete.
The second half of the festival, featuring the more formally adventurous and experimental work, took place at the Port of Belgrade, an industrial area on the banks of the Danube. To reach it, you have to cross dormant railway tracks overgrown with grass and walk past cranes illuminated against the night sky like Anish Kapoor sculptures, while inhaling a faint, inky river-stink. Down by the water a series of concrete buildings have been repurposed as performance spaces. There is a pop-up bar and a couple of food stalls. There is also a circus tent here for a side programme of circus shows: Cirko Balkana. According to the festival dramaturg, Filip Vujošević, there was an intention to work where the boundaries between audience and performers are erased, and this is most evident in the work programmed in this edge-land by the river.
The festival opened with Milo Rau’s Orestes in Mosul performed on the main stage of the National Theatre of Serbia.
As in Rau’s other work, the process of the piece’s creation is central to the work. Here though, there are points, where the process – the audacity of the undertaking – almost eclipses the work we end up watching in the theatre. Usually resistant to text-based work, Rau and his team of actors travelled to war-ravaged Iraqi city, only recently liberated from ISIS, to work with a team of local actors and musicians on a version of Aeschylus’ trilogy. This is enacted on stage as the production blends live performance with scenes filmed amid the devastation. This footage, of musicians playing amid the wreckage of shattered city, has a power of its own.
Though technically accomplished – the way in which the live performances overlap and interact with the recorded footage is almost seamless – the piece lacks the fist-like grip of La Reprise, Rau’s re-enactment of the homophobic murder of a young man in Belgium.
In part this is because there are a number of imbalances within the piece, the key one being the presence – the physical, in-the-roomness – of the actors on stage versus the absence of those on screen. Rau’s company includes two actors of Iraqi origin as a counterbalance but it’s not really the same. There’s also an evident discomfort with the inclusion of scene in which two young men kiss on the part of the Iraqi cast. The production addresses all these things but acknowledgement is not the same thing as mitigation.
Sometimes I feel that Rau is so interested in the political potential of theatre that there’s a danger of the people at the heart of the work getting lost, swallowed up, and yet there’s also something thrilling about the existence of Orestes in Mosul, as an endeavour. The very fact that Rau went to this place, in which centuries of culture have been swept away and made this thing, imperfect though it is, tapping into that most ancient of impulses, to tell stories, is an act of resistance.
I am standing in a graveyard, listening. A disembodied voice instructs me to find a grave and stand in front of it. It asks me to consider the person in the ground in front of me and my own humanity.
Rimini Protokoll’s audio show, Remote Belgrade, is an iteration of a piece Remote X that has been performed in a number of cities around the world. It is designed to be experienced by a group of participants via headphones. A pre-recorded voice, a AI entity called Rachel, is our guide; she issues instructions, guiding participants through the city’s streets and parks, inviting us to think about the way we navigate urban spaces, the rules we follow – how and where we walk – the surveillance we are subject to, the way we interact with our surroundings. She calls us “the hoard.”
We are instructed to hold hands like school children, to run a race with each other, to dance. We enter an empty metro station to wait for a train that doesn’t come, will never come. We end up climbing to the top of a seven storey building via the stairs, to look back at the route we’ve taken. For every diverting observation – like the fact that people tend to find voices that read as gender-neutral unsettling, that we’re still essentially wired for a gendered world – there’s a statement about group mentality that borders on the banal.
The city, intentionally, is little more than backdrop, a canvas. The route is not designed to make us engage with Belgrade’s past – or its present. It’s this lack of specificity I find frustrating. Because, it goes without saying, not all cities are the same. Belgrade is not Zurich. It’s not Paris. It’s not London. Currently several of the city’s main streets are essentially building sites, with people obliged to edge their way precariously along what remains of the pavements. During the festival, a water pipe is ruptured, flooding the streets and leaving many apartments without water for 36 hours (mine included).
The show’s disruptive potential feels under-interrogated. A woman in supermarket clearly finds our presence, this large group of people being invited to stare at her and her fellow shoppers, disquieting. She reprimands us. As we walk past the Parliament building we are invited to raise our hands in the air, but this consequence-less mock protest felt timid and futile, especially considering the ongoing ‘1 in 5 million’ protests against the Serbian government. I also find distasteful the way the show uses places that are sacred to some as backdrop. Graves are visited and tended regularly in Serbia, offerings left, there are benches on some, an opportunity to visit with the dead. Later, we enter one of the city’s largest churches. I don’t believe such spaces should be off-limits to artists, far from it, but a level of care and respect is required that I did not feel the piece possessed. For the first time in a long time, as I stand in the church listening to Rachel’s voice in my ears telling me to reflect, I cross myself. I’m still not sure why I did this – in response to the piece or in defiance of it?
It also perhaps says more about me than the show that my response to such a piece is to break its rules, to resist, to disobey and there is not much room within the piece for this to happen. Though when I am given an instruction to walk backwards, I ignore it – if ever there’s a city where one should face forwards with one’s eyes open it’s this one.
Igor Vuc Torbica’s reworking of Tartuffe for National Theatre Sombor and the Serbian National Theatre in Novi Sad, while conventionally staged in many ways, is far more potent in its exploration of oppression and passivity. This is not a farce, though it is often very funny in the beginning, and there are – for the most part – no couplets. The last two productions of Moliere’s play I’ve seen have turned him into a guru figure – a new age joke, all prayer beads and barely concealed appetites, an object of comedy. Here, Tartuffe, when he finally appears, is a benign, softly-spoken middle aged man who administers love and benediction. He leads Orgon and family in a rendition of Let It Be – he is gentle but also merciless, as malevolent as he is irresistible. One by one he wears Orgon and his family down into a state of catatonia and stasis. He bores into the hearts; he saps them of their will. Elmira is stripped to her underwear; Orgon is made to kneel before him (he is not required to strip).
Torbica makes the character of Dorina the soul of the play. Vibrantly performed by Hana Selimovic, she is the only one who seems capable of seeing through Tartuffe; at first she scoffs at him, but she comes to fear him and she is justified in this fear: he realises she will not bend and so he breaks her.
The breaking of women is another image that recurs throughout the festival. A man with his hands round a woman’s neck, slowly throttling the life out of her, as she gasps for breath.
Over the course of three days I watch similar scenes play out in three separate productions by three different directors (all male). It happens in Orestes in Mosul, with the death of Iphigenia, and again Tartuffe. A protracted re-enactment of strangulation, staged to look and sound as real as possible: the struggle, the panicked expression, the flailing hands, the stillness that follows. It’s a hard thing to watch. That’s the point, I know; it shouldn’t be easy. The audience should feel uncomfortable. But through repetition it becomes numbing all the same. In total there are four scenes of strangulation in the six productions I watch – two men and two women – both women end up dead, both men survive. Theatre is a place in which we can process violence and its impact. Life is full of ugliness and it’s necessary to address this. The acts we’re watching are choreographed and careful; the actors got up at the end of it all and take their bows, but this realistic replications of humans harming one another comes at a cost. It contributes to a process of psychological erosion, each act a little chip. As I watch yet another limp female body be dragged across the stage, I start to feel weary.
In the middle of the festival I visit the big red tent at Port of Belgrade and watch some circus. Chaos Cabaret. Music, clowning, juggling. Because sometimes you just want to watch some happy acrobats with a beer in your hand as around you children convulse with laughter and delight.
Back to the strangulation. There’s another scene of choking in Thomas Ostermeier’s History of Violence, his 2018 production for the Schaubühne in Berlin. Based on French writer Edouard Lewis’ 2016 novel, it’s an intense chamber piece about the psychological impact of trauma but also the potential for recovery.
Louis’ book was based on real events in his life. The protagonist, a young gay man living away from home in Paris, has a liaison with Reda, the son of undocumented Berber worker. He invites him back to his flat. Their interactions are tender and playful at first. They have sex, but it goes awry after he accuses the man of stealing his phone. The man is affronted at first, upset, agitated; he ends up raping him at gunpoint.
History of Violence probes at the places where xenophobia, homophobia and classism intersect. The police can’t see past the fact the attacker is North African and Louis is often treated, by both the police and the doctors, as if he were in part to blame for his assault. It’s also about the way Louis processes this attack, how it impacts on his relationships with other people and himself, crucially how he remembers it, and how he learns to live with it – to make it part of his story.
The production flails around tonally at first. There’s an opening prologue with nudity and bellowing, that feels almost like a parody. Ostermeier uses iPhones to hone in on the actors’ faces, to magnify smiles and glances, and Reda tells his father’s story using drawings projected on the back wall. But the scenes between Laurenz Laufenberg’s endearing, naive Louis and Renato Schuch’s charming, enigmatic Reda, are captivating, from their initial uneasy flirtation to the terrifying attack in which Ostermeier shows Reda choking Louis before bending him over the bed and raping him. Both actors are superb, though once again I found the focus on the simulation of violence, complete with bloodied underpants, troubling within the framework of this particular play. It has a horrible power certainly, and it’s rare to see a male rape given such space, and perhaps there is an element of catharsis in it, exorcism even. There is something violent about watching violence.
Other characters – including Clara, Louis’ well-meaning sister, and his mother, played by a male actor in a denim dress and wig, drawing misplaced laughter from the audience – interrupt and disrupt the narrative, forcing Louis to silence them, to insist this is his story.
In a post show Q&A, Ostemeier explains how there has been a lot of discussion of who can tell which stories in Germany recently, and he says that the entrusting of the story to a company who are not necessarily of the same race, class or sexuality as the characters, can be an act of solidarity. He uses the word “unburdening.” I think about this for some time.
Finally, in one of the bunker-like spaces down at Port of Belgrade, I watch my favourite piece of the work I see at BITEF, Sebastijan Horvat’s Ali: Fear Eats Your Soul for the National Theatre of Slovenia. Horvat is a director I’ve previously connected with excess, with actors gobbling spaghetti from the floor and smearing things on their skin. His staging of Fassbinder’s film in contrast is contained and tender. Fassbinder’s film is set in 1970s Berlin and tells the relationship between a young Moroccan migrant, a “guest worker” and the middle-aged German woman who treats him kindly while others are hostile. Their initial friendship soon becomes sexual. Neither of them has been wanted for a long time – and they want each other. The more people react with coldness towards Ali, the closer they become. They decide to marry.
Horvat brings an incredible delicacy and intimacy to his staging. Though the space is vast, the audience start out seated in rows facing one wall and leaving only a sliver of floor-space for the performers. We’re privy to every small exhalation of breath, every anxious flicker of the eyes. The performance of Natasha Barbara Gracner – her gradual awakening to the idea of desire and being desired – is quite remarkable. It’s a performance full of poignant details: the little glimmer of defiance in her eyes, the faint glazing as complacency that sets in and she becomes accustomed to her husband’s presence in her life and her home.
Then, at the interval, the audience is asked to help transform the space. Chairs are stacked and carted away, a stage is created and filled with furniture. Chairs, televisions, lamps, a working cooker, a bed. Milk crates are passed hand to hand to fill the remaining space. The audience crowd onto the stage, perching on every available surface. The intimacy of the earlier scenes is replaced with something else: we’re almost too close to the performers. It feels intrusive. Arguments happen over our heads and when Ali has sex with another woman, this happens on the bed on which several audience members are sitting. The actors strip and perform a long, naturalistic sex scene, full of groaning and bobbing – those around them seem unsure quite where to direct their gaze. The audience engulf the performers – we are the people who will not leave them be, but also the surrounding community. We are one with them. And though the ending is ambiguous and abrupt, it is not without hope.
BITEF was on from 17th-26th September. More info here.