I dreamed about penguins last night. At least I think they were penguins. They were penguin-shaped and had beaks, although they were also six-foot-tall and distinctly furry. One of the penguin-things took me in its wings and held me. For a while after waking, the penguins stayed with me. They didn’t fade away as dreams usually do. They lingered.
A fair bit has already been written about the phenomenon of coronavirus dreaming. I know I’m not alone in experiencing vividly strange dreams at the moment (though the furry, man-sized penguins I suspect are less common). Increased anxiety levels, disrupted routines, disordered sleeping patterns are all likely to be contributing factors, though sleep is still something of an uncharted country.
As I understand it, dreams happen during REM (rapid eye movement) sleep, the period when the brain is more active. I know anecdotally from friends who are writers that they sometimes experience intense, almost cinematic dreams with elaborate plots when they’re working on something; I’ve experienced this too. These dreams are different from nightmares. They are rich and textured and complex: creativity unconstrained by consciousness.
All of which is to say I was already thinking about dreams and dreaming when I sat down to watch Jeton Neziraj’s The Department of Dreams, a production staged last year in Los Angeles’ City Garage and streamed as part of the International Theatre Festival.
Neziraj’s plays take the form of caffeinated allegories, grotesque fables set in broken systems. The Department of Dreams is set in an ominous government facility, in which citizens are obliged to “deposit” their dreams, to be interpreted, monitored and filed away for future use.
Dan, the green, keen new recruit is introduced to the department’s workings by a seasoned, and initially genial, senior official. Dan is shocked to discover that within the department there is a man who, through repeated self-flagellation, is able to absorb the dreams of significant people, statesmen and celebrities (they discovered this ability during some ‘routine torture.’) The harvested dreams are divided into the ‘useful’, those containing valuable information, and the ‘useless’, the kind of stuff that’s only of interest to writers and artists. Even the building itself has a kind of dream-topography, its physical boundaries, floors and hallways, slippery and shifting.
As one of the Kosovo’s leading playwrights, Neziraj’s work is ever-alert to venality, oppression, corruption and the machinery used to grind down the human spirit. This is not coincidental. Even in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, the government of Kosovo, led by Albin Kurti, was toppled on 25 March, less than two months after it was formed. Officially the result of a vote of no confidence, it’s a move that some have described as coup.
There’s nothing specifically Balkan about The Department of Dreams; its concerns – tyranny, surveillance, the erosion of people’s privacy, state infiltration of the imagination – are global. There’s an election imminent so everyone’s under pressure. “This country is in a state of political tension and crisis,” says one character. “This country is always in a state of political tension and crisis,” says another.
However, while it’s relatively common to see western texts reinterpreted by eastern European directors, it’s relatively rare to see a contemporary play by an eastern European writer viewed through a western lens. In Frédérique Michel’s production, Neziraj’s dystopian satirical fable is filtered through an American (or, in this case, French/American) lens. With a couple of exceptions (the Royal Court, the Gate), it’s hard to imagine a UK theatre being this open in its programming.
Previous productions of Neziraj’s work that I’ve seen, those directed by Blerta Neziraj, have had a vibratory energy and abrasive punk aesthetic. This production takes a different approach. The characters wear crisp white, short-sleeved shirts, red ties and occupy an office space littered with boxes of files, a distinctly 1950s bureaucracy. Even when the play careers into the realm of the absurd, or when characters start prodding at human brains in metal trays, the tone remains relatively restrained. The production has a lulling, meandering (dreamy) quality which at times seems at odds with text, and which persists even during the irreverent interludes in which Erdoğan, Putin and Queen Elizabeth II pop up to relay their dreams. These sections don’t really work, but then humour doesn’t always travel well.
Dan displays talent as a dream interpreter which makes him a cause for suspicion; he starts to questions the humanity of the system, and his disquiet only intensifies when he meets a mysterious woman called Night, an actress, and helps to decode her dreams. She’s the play’s only dreamer – and, incidentally, the only woman.
Film and TV frequently allow you access to a character’s dreams, be it the worlds within worlds of Inception, the dad-wank fantasies of American Beauty or Saddam Hussein buffing bowling balls in The Big Lebowski. These cinematic dreams can be scary places; in the Nightmare on Elm Street films, Freddie Kreuger could hunt you down in your dreams, but they are also zones of escape and adventure, as in The Wizard of Oz, with the characters emerging from the dream wiser, happier, enlightened.
Here, the content of the dreams themselves is mostly reported rather than re-enacted. Theatre doesn’t often dip explicitly into the realm of dreams, though Strindberg’s A Dream Play deployed Freudian ideas and the memory plays of Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller are dream-like in their way.
Some reviews described the ending of the play as a cop-out. Dan is psychologically broken down only to be offered increased status within the department; he picks another way out. The production pitches it as escape though it’s arguably more ambiguous than that. Wings are not always symbols of liberation (or at least they’re not in the Salvador Dali dream-sequence in Hitchcock’s Spellbound).
The play itself is also a reminder that our dreaming is in many ways already policed. Under capitalism, dreaming is considered empty time, wasted time; we keep our minds busy with an endless stream of content even during this period of global hiatus; we equate dreaming with dormancy, yet our brain is active when we dream. Idling, doodling, wandering aimlessly, sitting quietly and looking out of the window; these are some of the most subversive things we can do. Dreams are where the future is forged and what is theatre if not a dream-space? After all, if we’re going to build a better world, we first need to be able to dream one.
The Department of Dreams is available to watch, along with the rest of the International Online Theatre Festival, until 15th May.
For more on Jeton Neziraj’s work read Holly Williams’ account of last year’s Kosovo Theatre Showcase.