A young woman recounts a list of her achievements. She speaks a number of languages. She volunteers in old people’s homes. She cooks. She reads. She knows how to mend things. She loves learning. She becomes increasingly fevered in this act of pitching herself. She doesn’t pause for breath. Occasionally the lights dim and she is rejected and obliged to begin again. For all her accomplishments, this keeps happening. Again and again. However much she does, however hard she tries, it’s not enough. All her energy is expended on reaching for something that remains unattainable.
Another scene and another woman. It’s her 40th birthday. She’s decided to throw a big party but she ends up being nagged by her aunt about the fact she hasn’t had children yet. She’s warned she may be leaving it too late, as if this would never have occurred to her. The woman patiently goes through her past relationships and the various reasons why it was never right to start a family. When you’re living in a shared flat at the age of 40, it doesn’t exactly make a good base for bringing more people into the world. At what point and with whom was she supposed to do this?
A Man Who Watched the World is the work of Ziga Divjak, a young theatre-maker fresh from the Academy of Theatre, Radio, Film and Television at the University of Ljubljana. His production takes the form of a series of unconnected scenes, though they’re thematically linked by the idea of being young and stuck, pulled this way and that, and unable to envision a future that’s in any way stable.
It’s global in its outlook. In one scene two Chinese factory workers make the trip home at Chinese New Year to see the children they only see once a year, the children they are supporting and yet hardly know. As they stitch innumerable pairs of jeans, they are driven by the desire that their children live better lives than them, but the pressure this puts on their children is almost unbearable.
In another scene an Indian farmer plants GM cotton in an effort to save his crops, but ends up sinking into further debt, a pit from which he can see no way out. Later we see a group of young Syrians optimistically embarking on a protest, hopeful, and unaware of the devastation to come. None of these things are happening in isolation. Everything’s linked. We all occupy the same beleaguered planet.
Divjak’s devised production is part of the new season of work at Ljubljana’s Mladinsko theatre. The over-arcing theme for the season is the cinematic, the conversation between theatre and film, and it has a kind of montage-like quality. (I wondered if Richard Linklater’s debut, Slackers, might have been a reference point). The scene with the Chinese family also reminded me (slightly) of the work of Alexander Zeldin, with its focus on repetition, its emphasis on the spaces between words, and the snickety-snick of the sewing machine.
Most of the scenes are performed quite simply, with the cast addressing the audience directly, though there is one striking moment when a tree appears and a rather lovely final image. In between some of the scenes there are slide shows, a series of photographs – childhood snapshots and the like – projected on a screen at the back of the theatre.
What’s striking is how text-reliant it is. It’s the wordiest of all the shows I saw at Mladinsko. It embraces text. There are a number of long and intricate monologues, often delivered at speed. One features a young survivalist describing how one might live in the woodland, if it came down to it, if everything broke down. He lists the tools, the supplies, the best kind of backpack; you don’t need a tent, a tarp would do, he says, as his speech speeds up, as his list growing longer until it’s in control of him; there’s a sense he can’t stop, a kind of frantic, breathless desperation.
Over the course of two hours, it can begin to feel intentionally testing, but it’s always compelling and not without humour, far from it. The job interview scene with the desperate young woman listing her skills and successes as if they were the capabilities of a new smart phone is full of wit.
It’s also striking just how much of it applies to life in the UK. That scene with the woman facing questions on 40th birthday was particularly resonant, because if you’re a woman in her 30s who has yet to use her womb, the world really likes to remind you of it, constantly. The stuff about generational division, and all the societal pressures to be economically viable, and therefore visible, is all depressingly familiar.
It’s played with precision and energy by Ivan Godnič, Anja Novak, Katarina Stegnar, Sara Dirnbek, Matija Vastl, and Prah, and it’s exhausting at times, but then, when you’re standing on unsteady ground, it takes effort just to stay upright. Finding work, keeping work, knowing that even if you have work there is no contract to protect you, is tiring and relentless. Packing your belongings into boxes at regular intervals, cramming your life into a succession of small rooms, these things eat people’s mental resources. Trying to live as an artist, to do something of creative worth in a world where your value is monetary, where the less you have the less you count. It’s hard. This is a bleak piece but an impressive one in its scope and approach. We’re all frogs in a cooking pot, but there’s some small solace in that.
To visit the Mladinsko theatre’s website, click here.