Features Published 8 November 2019

Kosovo Theatre Showcase

Holly Williams encounters the "stories of a fledgling nation" at an intensely political festival of theatre from across Kosovo.
Holly Williams

‘The Hypocrites or The English Patient’, part of Kosovo Theatre Showcase

“Kosovo is the most isolated country in Europe; the citizens are the only ones that can’t travel freely without visas. And so the theatre, too, is isolated.” Jeton Neziraj is on a mission to change that: the playwright, former head of the National Theatre of Kosovo and founder of the company Qendra Multimedia, last year set up a showcase in the capital of Pristina, inviting the world to come to their work. Its second iteration is broader in scope, offering a fascinating snapshot of theatre being made across a country still grappling with a troubled recent history.

Kosovo is the youngest country in Europe: following the collapse of Yugoslavia and a war with neighbouring Serbia – after Slobodan Milosevic’s ethnic cleansing saw citizens of Albanian heritage killed and displaced in the late 1990s – Kosovo was only officially recognised in 2008. And even by then not by all: Serbia still claims Kosovo, while Spain, Greece, Russia, and China (among others) do not recognise its independence, making international travel often difficult.

Nonetheless, Neziraj has been making a name for himself around the world; his plays have been widely translated and performed across Europe as well as the US. Earlier this year, the 42-year-old’s play 55 Shades of Gay – the first LGBT play in Kosovo, which won him death threats on social media and required armed guards at its premiere in Pristina – played at La Mama in New York. And there’s not just one Nezriaj in the Kosovo theatre scene: Blerta Neziraj, his wife, is a close collaborator, as well directing her own acclaimed projects.

The work I see during three days of the Kosovan Theatre showcase, by Neziraj and others, is often strikingly direct in its staging of real cases of corruption from Kosovo’s recent past. Does he believe that it is theatre’s duty to amplify such issues? “That’s what theatre is supposed to do: be direct, confront the audience, put them in sometimes uncomfortable situations,” Neziraj says, when we grab a chance to chat while driving between theatres, first through the smoggy, clogged traffic snaking round half-finished block of flats on the outskirts of Pristina, then around the serene lakes and slopes of russet-turning forests of the countryside.

The political situation can feel hopeless, he acknowledges. “But then I look at all the productions in the last couple of years, and the impact they’ve had on society, the debate that was ongoing after several of the shows… I think it shows that theatre matters and can really be a tool to help society move forward – and to confront it with its own demons.”

The work here is usually stylised and heightened, and exhibits the very blackest of humour. Theatre-makers from the Balkans are leading a wave of “political theatre and direct language onstage, confronting the audience with issues very directly,” Neziraj suggests, pointing also to controversial Croatian director Oliver Frljic, “and I think [Kosovo] could be seen as part of that. But we use humour much more. In our case, humour us another weapon.”

Humour helps draw an audience too, of course – and while it’s hard to get an exact reading on demographics (several performances were put on specially for the showcase, and only drew small crowds), it seems that in Pristina at least there’s both an older, established theatre-going crowd and an engaged, young population keen for culture. Around half of Kosovo’s population of two million are under 25, and I’m quickly struck by how vibrant and switched-on Pristina feels: the city is stuffed with cute or hip cafés and bars, that seem to be busy almost all the time. Unemployment is high and you can feel that this is a populace without a lot of spare cash to flash. But a coffee or local Peja beer – or the fiery rakia spirit, shots of which seem to appear after every performance, part of the cheerfully warm welcome visitors to the showcase recieved – can be purchased for as little as a euro. I doubt everyone is discussing that state of political theatre in the Balkans, but wherever I go, conversations thrum in cool bars lined with books, decorated with movie posters, or playing live music. Qendra also organise a literature festival, and a graphic novel festival in Pristina, while another town, Prizren, hosts a documentary film festival. Culture, it seems, has real currency.

The first play of the showcase started life as a best-selling novel, by a leading former journalist and politician Veton Surroi. But from the first scene of The Last Performance of Marie Gjoni, this show insists on its own theatricality too: staged by the National Theatre of Kosovo, which has pride of place in the centre on town, it opens with three men of the Lale family squabbling over which of them the theatre should be named after, in increasingly foul-mouthed terms.

As with several of the shows, the surtitles aren’t always in sync or terribly easy to follow, but the overwhelming initial onslaught of colourful, petulant swearing (“I will fuck you and everything you own”, “You will fuck nothing. You necrophiliac!”), certainly establishes that work here does not politely pander to the establishment. A serio-comic cynicism is woven through every piece we see, in fact – but clearly the theatre is happy to take swipes at itself too.

Many of the plays in the showcase also revisit contentious parts of Kosovo’s history. Directed by the highly regarded Andras Urban, a Serbian theatre director, The Last Performance tells the story of a several generations of informers: the Lale family, who manage to survive, and thrive, whatever the political situation. The opening scenes cycle rapidly through the occupation of a village by the Serbs, the Italians, the Germans, then Albania, Yugoslavia… revealing how the region has constantly been a pawn or prize. Each time, there are hectic reconfigurations of uniform and national anthem; each time, Haxhi Lale saves himself and informs on a neighbour.

His son, Fehmi, continues the snooping tradition when he moves to the city as a student, reporting on political activity. There is a lot of debate about the struggle for a constitution – some of which I clearly missed the layered subtly of, although the struggle of a nation to be able to speak its own language comes through loud and clear (a majority Albanian population was for a time governed in Serbian): “What is liberation, what is freedom? … Freedom means expressing yourself in your own language”.

Those words are spoken by a Communist party ruler Met Rroka – and the play is also a love story, between him and and a beautiful actress, the Marie of the title, who struggle to stay true to their selves, and their love.

Urban’s production seems committed to undercutting any moments of heart-felt seriousness with reminders that it’s all just a game to those in power. One especially memorable moment sees several small coffins laid on the stage, as Marie recounts the murder of Albanian children in her village. There’s just no repressing or shaming people like the Lales however: the men burst, triumphant, out of the coffins. The show reminded me of Lucy Prebble’s A Very Expensive Poison, in its bold juxtaposition of the gleefully absurd with the heart-wrenching, in service of a real story – and a political point. Like her play, much of the theatre I see in Kosovo uses theatre as a platform for provocatively revisiting contentious issues that those in power would rather lay dormant.

The Last Performance also features mocking, Brechtian songs, often led by Marie, played by the magnetic Edona Reshitaj. A band is onstage throughout, adding dynamism – and music seems central for a lot of the work here.

During Qendra’s production The Hypocrites or The English Patient a live guitarist noodles and niggles away – but also helps create the horribly cartoonish, exaggerated sounds of the operating theatre. Neziraj’s play, which is staged at staged at independent venue Teatri Oda – a smaller venue, tucked inside an spiked and steepled example of bananas Yugoslavian Brutalism – takes a sharp scalpel to the subject of private healthcare scams and scandals in Kosovo. They’ve been many, doctors proving more hypocritic than Hippocratic.

The Hypocrites or The English Patient, at Kosovo Theatre Showcase

The plot is based on real, exceptionally grim allegations: a Syrian refugee has a kidney removed in a dangerously ill-equipped private hospital, so profiteering doctors can sell it to a corrupt EU official. Yet there’s a fast-paced, farcical energy to the proceedings, directed by Blerta Neziraj and Agon Myftari. As befits a show about how the country gets fucked by corruption, the dodgy private clinic it’s set in is really a ‘massage parlour’; while deals are struck, the domineering brothel keeper pulls her clients and collaborators across tables, spikes them with stiletto heels – and screws them.

Over-the-top performances fizz around a hard core of scornful cynicism, but it feels less finessed and scrappier than some of the Nezrirajs’ shows. Transitions between scenes could be slicker, or more stylised; it can feel a little cramped.

Blerta Neziraj finds surer footing in The Living Sphinx, a truly astonishing production that makes you think – no, I mean really think – about what theatre is and what it can do.

‘The Living Sphynx’. Photo: Blerta Hocia

She adapted and directed a play by esteemed Kosovan Rexhap Qosja, written in the 1970s about blood feuds and honour killings. The new, very free version, however, focuses on the political assassination of around 140 Kosovans, post-war, labelled collaborators and saboteurs.

20 years on, these killings have still never been properly investigated. The context, motivations, and results of the assassinations – and how they’re used rhetorically by politicians today – is too head-spinningly complicated to go into here, but The Living Sphinx is a profound attempt to use art to expose injustice.

Much of the action is again stylised, the actors’ faces painted white like bleak clowns, while cute directorial flashes enhance the absurd senselessness of it all: a murdered journalist’s bust is revealed within a giant Kinder surprise egg, for instance. Yet the tone will suddenly flick to the deeply serious.

Towards the end of the play, a relative of a victim comes onstage, and is interviewed by a journalist; a different person participates in each performance, discussing their loved one, who they suspect was responsible for their death, and the continued lack of accountability. Neziraj first found volunteers through a victim support network; since opening in May, the play has drawn many relatives keen to embrace this – incredibly difficult, incredibly charged – opportunity to speak out and be heard. There’s visible emotion among the Kosovan members of the audience, at the sharing of such experiences in public.

This is political theatre for when politicians have truly failed you. And it is a salutary reminder of the intent, and impact, art can have.

Not everything in the showcase is about such pressing issues. Godot Arrived, by American writer Daniel Curzon, is the Beckett sequel no-one needed: nothing happens, again. You can understand why the futility and questioning of life’s meaning(lessness), as well as the vaudeville physical comic of Beckett’s original, would be popular here. But Durzon’s sequel, although performed at the City Theatre of Gjilan (a smaller Kosovan town) with lively performances, adds little, rather rehashing and over-explicating Beckett’s ideas to tiresome effect. The same company’s other production, My Father Loved Adolf, looks at the aftermath of the Second World War in Albania (I think), using rambunctious humour and sprightly storytelling that teasingly plays with artifice of theatre. But despite some nice visual flourishes (red umbrellas can fire like guns, or billow into a boat), it feels rough around the edges – and the garbled surtitles currently make it impossible to really follow.

The strongest offer of the showcase, for me, is Qendra’s In Five Seasons: An Enemy of the People, again staged at the National Theatre. Jeton Neziraj adapts Ibsen’s play, loosely, to tell the story of Kosovo’s corrupt construction industry during the rebuilding of Pristina, and how the UN turned a blind eye. The focus is again on real murder: the assassination of an architect Rexhep Luci, who attempted to curb illegal construction and unsafe practices, and campaigned for more strategic urban planning and greater public spaces. After spending a little time in Pristina, you wish he’d succeeded: while the city has some genuinely iconic Soviet buildings (google their fantastic library) and a bustling pedestrianised boulevard which residents stroll up and down at all hours, there’s also a lot of cramped, ugly buildings, frustrated traffic, and a dearth of green space.

In Five Seasons is a persuasive marriage of a theatrical classic with recent history, the timeless struggle of the individual in the face of capitalist greed repurposed for good purpose. But Neziraj’s writing is generous, understanding the yearn for growth. Of course, when you’ve had your home destroyed you want a new roof over your head, to own a place called home. Of course, politicians and big business will also exploit that.

‘In Five Seasons’. Photo: Jetmir Idrizi

The show is staged by Blerta Neziraj with muscular assurance: it’s bombastic and bold in its songs and its satire, pulling zero punches. Characters get fucked again. A urinal squats stage centre. The French UN representative is a sleazy buffoon in striped trousers; there’s a God of Construction that demands workers be sacrificed to him for continued growth. Yet most aspects feel coherent and deliberate here, from characters’ signature movement styles (a TV presenter struts as if on a catwalk; a union leader performs an exaggerated Albanian dance whenever he needs populist appeal). The music blends arch, Brechtian choruses (“Let’s put the cement mixer on the flag/For cement we’ll die, and our dead we’ll cover with cement”) with bursts of furious, aptly grimy heavy metal.

But you can also feel both Nezirajs trusting themselves to take things down a notch, to allow quieter moments of reflection and real emotion. There’s a touching conversation between the architect (the excellent Armend Smajli, who gives a performance of quiet nobility very different from his scampering jester in The Living Sphinx) and his daughter. Allowing the madcap scepticism to subside for a moment is a relief – and ultimately gives the anger elsewhere greater force.

It’s not hard to spot a theme, then, in the work being staged: plays insisting that the sicknesses of a society must be acknowledged in public if it’s ever to make a full recovery. In the face of a rank lack of accountability, theatre-makers demand that shameful stories of a fledging nation are retold, reheard. Learned from.

This is only an outsider’s view; you can’t understand a country in a few days, of course. But for such works to be onstage at a National Theatre does seem galvanising – and hopeful.

Kosovo Theatre Showcase ran from October 31st to November 4th 2019. For more info, visit the website

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Holly Williams

Holly is an freelance journalist and staff critic for What's on Stage. She was lead arts writer for the Independent on Sunday before its demise, and has since written for Time Out, The Stage, the BBC, The Observer, the TLS, Elle and The Telegraph, among others. She hails from Wales, but lives in London. There's more here: hollywrites.com.

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