“Migration is one of the key aspects of modern society,” says playwright Tena Štivičić. Her current play, Invisible, a co-production by Transport and the New Wolsey Theatre in Ipswich, reflects this. Her characters are all on journeys and Štivičić says she would struggle to tell a story set in contemporary society that doesn’t in some way address the issue of migration. “The subject merits many more plays than there currently are; there’s a sense that when there’s one play about it, then it’s been ‘done.’” But she is careful to stress that migration is often not a story in itself and it’s a mistake to think of it that way, it’s a “context within which a story takes place”.
Her earlier play Fragile!, which was performed at the Arcola in 2007 could easily have been – and indeed often was – labelled as a play about migrants, but “it was also about love and aspiration” just as Invisible is also about love and “the frenzy of contemporary living”; it even contains “elements of murder mystery”, she says with a smile.
Invisible opens with a scene of a man lying in a coma in hospital. “We don’t know who he is and we only gradually find out what happened to him.” The resulting play is about journeys, both internal and external. It’s a play that explores migration “in a world where the borders are constantly reshaping is not exclusively the experience of ‘the other.’” People move for work, for leisure; they up sticks and move to Cyprus when they retire. Migration is also in no way a new phenomenon; “the beginning of the 20th century saw movement on a much larger scale than is the case at the moment. It’s a part of the system that we live in.” Without wanting to be didactic, Stivicic hopes that through drawing attention to these parallels, it will highlight the universality of the migrant experience: what it is to be somewhere where you don’t belong, to be a foreigner coping with a new culture and new social rules. “This is something we should all be able to understand.”
Štivičić was born in Zagreb but she studied for her MA at Goldsmiths University in London and has made her home in the UK for the past eight years. She writes in both Croatian and English. In his review of Fragile!, Jeremy Kingston, writing for The Times, commented on the way in which her writing is “alert to the way the English language is imperfectly spoken by those not born to it,” a quality that also struck me when I saw it. It takes a good ear and a good grasp of how people use language to do this well. English, spoken by so many, in so many ways, is the most malleable of languages, “an exciting thing to play with.” Broken English, cracked and patched English, is a gift to a playwright. “Characters live in their language; it’s such an important facet of who they are and that can often dictate the story.” Štivičić became particularly aware of this when translating her own plays from English to Croatian. “The language sometimes takes me in different directions and I can end up with two quite different drafts of the same play. It’s so exciting when language takes over like that. You don’t want to fight it.”
She still visits and works in Croatia regularly. She has an ongoing relationship with the Ulysses Theatre on the Croatian island of Brijuni, where she works as a dramaturg in the summer months. Productions at the Ulysses are staged in an old Austro-Hungarian naval fortress, “a Sleeping Beauty’s castle” set within a national park, “a really glorious” space. Cabaret Brecht – Zadržvi uspon Artura Uija, was their most recent production, a Croatian take on The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui. I ask her if there are any significant differences between making theatre in Croatia and the UK? She explains that Croatian theatre often favours the repertory system, within which there is usually more time and space for a production to develop, but Štivičić also relishes the intensity and concentration of creativity that results from staging work in the UK, with a quicker turn around. Though there are clear benefits to having such a dual career there is also the consideration that “Britain can be quite insular, and what you do elsewhere doesn’t really have any bearing on your career here. It’s almost like having two separate careers.”
It is a scorching late September afternoon, the heat is Mediterranean in its intensity, and we are sitting in the comparative cool of the café at the Jerwood Space in south London while the company take a break from rehearsals. She is excited to have the opportunity to work with Transport – an international company based in the South East of England and committed to producing ‘theatre without borders’ – with choreographer Darren Johnston and with Complicite’s Associate Director, Douglas Rintoul. “They think about theatre in very visual terms,” she explains, “which can be unusual in Britain.” The company had already been exploring the issue of migration through movement and visual imagery but eventually decided to bring a writer on board; they’ve since developed the piece together. As the play depicts a world in flux, “we wanted a fluidity that the reflected that.” The world of the play is “constantly moving, and the production will convey this through its staging, “with scenes seeping into one another.” Štivičić is clearly getting a kick out of the collaborative process and believes that it is entirely possible to achieve a “happy middle ground between writers’ theatre and directors’ theatre,” one does not preclude the other, and it is this territory she hopes her play will occupy.
Invisible will premiere at the New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich, from 13th -15th October ahead of a national tour. For tickets and further information visit the New Wolsey website.