A magician was doing something on the Royal Mile. Quite what I cannot tell you because my view was obscured by a flock of camera-phones, but from the cheers he elicited it must have been impressive. We are, collectively, determined to capture an ever-increasing quantity of life – what we eat, what we see, what we wear – uploading it constantly to a vast online archive, immediately accessible to friends who long ago stopped looking; gifting our memories to a presumed future populated by people who, even if they did care, or didn’t have their own experiences to upload, could not possibly find the biscuits of interest amidst the bran of selfies.
Into this setting then, comes I, Who Have Hands More Innocent, billed as a ‘psychoanalytical séance’ of a neglected writer whose compelling, irresistible poetry is entangled with biographical fragments. It cries out for an attention it entirely and urgently deserves.
Winner of the 2003 Tin Ujević charter, Vesna Parun (1922-2010), enjoyed considerable renown in Croatia but is elsewhere neglected to an almost pathological extent. The poems performed here – Dasha Čulić Nisula’s maddeningly out-of-print English translation is used for the subtitles – are literally revelatory: existential meditations of extraordinary power and insight. The brutalities of her time intrude heavily into Parun’s life – her experience of war is hardening and without the consolations of belief in the political aims of the victorious which may have softened the agonies of loss (and most particularly, loss of self-identity) that Parun endured.
The moral seriousness of Parun’s poetry is well-served by a dignified performance. Vesna Tominac Matačić is emotionally intense whilst studiously avoiding histrionics. Her shockingly direct addresses to the audience dispel barriers of language and wonderfully conveys Parun’s full personhood in its guilt-ridden, erotic, and playful complexity.
The intimate chapel venue, all giddying incense and gloomy corners, magnifies the religious overtones of the text, a theme subtly reinforced by Dies Gaudii and Mirjana Zagorec’s costume design – the white Hellenic robe imparting to Matačić’s performance a prophetic Cassandra-like disclosure of wisdom. A dark and hypnotic score by Ozren K Glasner and Zvonimir Dusper amplifies Matačić’s reading, itself low and reverberating as if spoken from inside some vast cavernous mountain. The language’s undeniable beauty quells Parun’s anxieties at the auditory inferiority of Croatian.
Another excitement – compared with, for instance T. S. Eliot who had a similar spiritual trajectory and was likewise galvanised by a particular conflict into general, timeless reflections – is the apparent absence of literary reference. This point may collapse after better acquaintance with the Croatian poetic tradition, yet it is difficult to envisage an English poet so entrenched in religious and philosophical questions yet prepared to anchor those thoughts to the island seascape, the domestic, the biographical rather than allusions and quotations from every canonical (and particularly classical) text they can lay their hands on. This highly individuates Parun’s work and makes its subsequent neglect all the more baffling.
Technical snafus with the subtitling, sometimes badly out of sync and thence hurriedly catching-up flash-card-style, were either – depending on your indulgence of the postmodern – a powerful reminder of the uncommunicability of translation; or an ironic final attempt at the patriarchy’s silencing of the dissenting voice. Even this though, did not diminish what was a cathartic and, frankly, grown-up performance.
Parun’s feminism springs from a determination that her perspective, her voice, has the right to set its own agenda and express itself – herself – in a way that is truthful and personal. My strong recommendation to anyone tiring of the studenty vibe that looms over much of Fringe is to put down the camera-phone, the festival catalogue and never-ending performance schedule, and allow this beguiling voice to speak to you. Unlike so many you’ll hear in Edinburgh this month, this one is genuinely worthy of preservation.