Slovenia’s Mladinsko Theatre has a history of holding those in power to account. To mark the 25th anniversary of the declaration of Slovenian independence, they staged a production called The Republic of Slovenia, a partly verbatim piece created by a group of anonymous artists that explored the country’s illegal arms dealing with Bosnia and Croatia during the war years. Though the production finished with a visceral scene featuring several actual cars being driven on stage, with smashing glass and thumping music, the overall sense was of a piece of theatre intent on wrestling with a murky and still unresolved aspect of Slovenia’s national narrative.
The Mladinsko is currently livestreaming a number of productions from its repertoire (with English surtitles) that continue this tradition. Premiering last summer, Å½iga Divjak’s Game is based on testimony from the Border Violence Monitoring Network database, an organisation which documents the abuses faced by migrants crossing Europe. Increasingly migrants are facing illegal push-back from authorities, theft of their property, threats and violence. The resulting show is a kind of inhumane game in which people who have already lost their homes, their livelihoods and often their families find increasingly perilous ways to cross borders as the police intensify their attempts to send them back the way they came. The places to which they are being returned are often equally inhospitable. (In Bosnia for a time this winter, migrants were living in freezing conditions in a fire-ravaged camp near Bihac without electricity or hot water).
In an earlier show by Divjak, A Man who Watched the World, Chinese factory workers and Indian farmers are all shown to be cogs in the machine of capitalism. Here the focus is narrower. In a matter-of-fact manner the actors describe the violence meted out on various groups of migrants. They detail each beating and indignity, adding printed reports and photos of the injuries sustained to a display on the back wall. In between each account of abuse, the cast members carry out gestures that symbolise the brutality and inhumanity with which the migrants are treated. One actor smacks a wooden branch against a chair until it breaks. Another crumbles dry crackers on the floor, the meagre food which has been provided to them for an exorbitant sum. A woman wrings out a sopping wet jacket out into a bowl of water, having attempted to cross a river in desperation. Rucksacks of clothing are emptied out on the floor as the few possessions people have been able to carry are cruelly taken from them.
The floor gradually comes to resemble the board of a game in which the rules keep changing and the players cannot win. The narrow performance space is framed by corrugated iron wall and a bunk bed with an EU flag pasted above it. At one point the room is plunged into black and torch beams are flashed in the performers’ faces. One actor is forced to strip, his buttocks brusquely parted by a gloved hand.
The effect is cumulative. The production never lets up. The repetition becomes numbing. The same tactics keep cropping up: exposure to extreme temperatures, theft of belongings, humiliation, beatings. Towards the end the voices start to overlap, the words drowning each other out. These are not isolated incidents, the production makes this clear. Instead, they’re part of a campaign by Slovenia to keep itself clean by pushing migrants back over its borders for others to deal with.
The second show I watched, Oliver Frljic’s Damned Be the Traitor of My Homeland, premiered in 2010 and has been in the theatre’s repertory for a decade. Yet it extends a similar invitation to its audience. It scratches at scabs. It unearths dirt. It highlights Slovenian society’s complacency and hypocrisy.
Frljic is one of the best known, and arguably most notorious directors in Europe – though his work has yet to be seen the UK. His production of KlÄ…twa (The Curse) at Warsaw’s Teatr Powszech accused the Polish authorities of failing to deal with accusations of sexual abuse by the Catholic Church, and saw protestors setting off smoke bombs outside the theatre. The production ended up being investigated by state prosecutors. Another show, Our Violence and Your Violence, featured a woman naked except for a hijab unfurling the host country’s national flag from her vagina. Unsurprisingly, it’s also been a source of controversy. While it’s justified to call Frljic a provocateur, he’s also rigorous in his methods. Each image he presents is carefully weighted and interrogated within the framework of the piece. The vagina-flag is itself a reference to American artist Carolee Schneeman’s Interior Scroll, not to mention Yugoslavia’s rich tradition of visual and performance art of which Marina Abramovic is the most famous proponent. (Another Frljic show, The RistiÄ‡ Complex, features a scene in which performers literally piss on a map of Yugoslavia, which feels very Abramovic).
The piece begins with the performers lying flat on the floor playing musical instruments – cello, tuba, accordion – a slow mournful tune. One by one they rise, as if reanimated. Then each actor begins to read out their own obituary. Their role as performers within the production is forever being scrutinised and questioned. The audience is constantly being made aware that the people they are watching are simultaneously professional performers, vessels for someone else’s words and human beings with their own lived experiences. The production is forever exploring the contradictions inherent in this.
Like many of Frljic’s productions, the show is composed of a series of scenes, some confrontational, some contemplative. In between these scenes, one of the actors takes a gun and fires shots at the cast who drop to the floor. (This reminds the friend I’m watching it with of Childish Gambino’s video This is America.) Again and again, the gun comes out. Bang, bang, bang.
In one scene, the cast members all turn on one of the ensemble who is half Croatian and question his identity. How Slovenian is he really? Deep down? In another section, each cast member relates where they were at the moment when they heard of the death of Tito, Yugoslavia’s leader. Patriotic pop music – Jugoslovenka by Lepa Brena, which has, over time, morphed into a Yugonostalgic anthem – plays in the background.
At one point in proceedings one of the actors launches into an expletive peppered stream of invective – updated to include Trump, Orban, as well as the audience watching at home – in which he berates the cappuccino-sipping Slovenians desperate to distance themselves from the other Balkan peoples, their mess and their wars, the audience for their complacency, everyone.
The show closes with a long sequence in which the actors argue about the ethics of performing an anti-war song that includes backing vocals by a young singer known as Ceca. For the uninitiated, Ceca is a Serbian pop star who went on to marry the notorious warlord Arkan. Her presence on the song taints it retrospectively.
This is something that Frljic’s work often does; turning the lens on itself, unpicking its contradictions, lambasting himself as a director for saddling his actors with this piece while he swans off to the next project. It’s a device that can sometimes feel laboured, but it’s particularly effective here.
The actors argue about what they are being asked to do in the name of this performance, and whether it is even possible to make genuinely political theatre in today’s world or whether any such endeavour is inherently futile. Their reasoning takes on an extra level of resonance when watched from your sofa at home. The show ends jarringly suddenly – presumably a result of a glitch in the livestream – but this feels in keeping with what we’ve seen. The show is 10 years old but none of the issues that it’s discussing have gone away. They’re still there, pulsing under the skin, and the repertory system ensures these productions keep resurfacing.
Watching these shows made me wish we had more theatre doing these things in the UK. Slovenia’s healthy system of state subsidy gives its theatre the means to chip away at the veneer of Slovenian society; to dredge up past – and current – ugliness and force the audience to look at it.
Read Natasha Tripney’s review of A Man Who Watched the World. For more on theatre of the Western Balkans, read Holly Williams’ account of the 2019 Kosovo Theatre Showcase.
Here are more details about the Border Violence Monitoring Network.