Letter from Novi Sad

Last Thursday, the Olympic Airlines flight from Belgrade to Athens, scheduled for 7.30 p.m. was delayed, and eventually left at 3.15 a.m. on Friday! Those of us weary passengers who witnessed the long wait at an inhospitable airport will undoubtedly hold periodic reunions in the noble tradition of survivors of the Titanic. Well, at least I had an interesting week prior to that. Indeed, I experienced one of the most fascinating drama festivals of my life. Novi Sad, a charming city of some 400,000 inhabitants on the left bank of the river Danube, was the setting for the 50th Sterijino Pozorje – a theater festival. Once this festival had a distinctly Yugoslav character. Yet after the collapse of the bipolar world, the most dramatic development was, no doubt, the implosion of Yugoslavia. While in other Balkan states the major preoccupation has been internal reconstruction, international realignment and – the ultimate goal – admission to NATO and the European Union, a dismembered Yugoslavia faced a tragically ruined economy. All the same, in the country with the most important theater tradition in southeastern Europe, the arts kept flourishing. During the war in the 1990s, the younger generation turned to theater and music as a form of protest. «National pride is to countries what self-respect is to individuals: a necessary condition for self-improvement,» according to the US philosopher Richard Rorty. And although the former Yugoslavia consists of several countries, it still seems to feel that if it does not evoke enough pride in its people it will find it hard to tap their capacity for achievement and sacrifice in those difficult times of transition. For «transition» seemed to be the slogan of many of the productions we have seen in Novi Sad. Transition from East to West, from Socialism to Capitalism. «A play on Transition» was the subtitle of «Montenegro Blues» by Radmila Vojvodic from the Montenegrin National Theater in Podgorica. A play on national pride as well. «The trivial plot has emerged from the reaction of our sudden democratization, political pluralism and suspiciously quick emancipation…» according to local theater critic Natasa Nelevic. The most interesting aspect of this festival was that, some 15 years after the beginning of the wars of Yugoslav dissolution, a cultural approach by all former republics was alive and kicking. There were the best productions from all the ex-Yugoslav states. «The theme of this year’s Circles is ‘New Ex-YU Drama’ – this terms refers to plays written in the former Yugoslav republics. It has been our wish to see, during the 50th festival, the contemporary state in national dramaturgies of our former country…,» said the festival’s artistic director, Ivan Medenica. «Had someone told me 10 years ago that a play in the pure Croatian language-dialect would be staged at the elite Belgrade Theater (Atelier 212) and performed by Belgrade actors, I would have thought this person at least crazy if not ready for the people’s court!,» says Goran Cvetkovic, a journalist from Radio Belgrade, speaking of «The Two of Us» by a young playwright from Zagreb, Tena Stivicic. There is no mention of politics in this play, but political it certainly is. It’s also crammed full of jokes and swearing and the consumption of drugs. Only six years ago, NATO bombs were raining on Novi Sad. Bridges on the Danube were destroyed and reconstructed. All the same, I would advise anyone to visit this beautiful place. Being in a recent war zone adds a distinct frisson to any city’s appeal. Anyway, today daily life in this city is completely safe, as opposed to reality TV shows, where in unsafe situations of extreme exposure and aspiration for success the competitors become more and more dehumanized. Matjaz Zupancis’s play «The Corridor» is set in the only space of a reality show, a corridor, that is without cameras and microphones. Directed by the author with the unblinking, unmoving eye of a surveillance TV camera, this play was one of the successes of the festival. Disaster and crime is often built into the theatrical process. The Topalevic family, in «The Marathon Men Running the Honor Circle» by Dusan Kovacevic, earn their living by making and selling coffins, which they secretly dig out and resell. It was a dark Serb comedy, magnificently staged by Dejan Mijac at the Slovenian National Theater. And the no-plot «Jazz» is another «transition» black comedy by Filip Sovagovic, staged by Ivica Buljan for the National Theater of Rijeka, Croatia, and depicts «the energy of blunt despair and hopelessness,» in the words of a local critic. «After more than 10 years of isolation, we are completely lacking in confidence and asking ourselves what the future might bring to us.» Yes, I could see that at the theater. One could clearly sense a vicarious shiver of uncertainty in many of the productions in Novi Sad. And many of the plays coming from the ex-republics showed a distinct portrayal of a dysfunctional society – of societies that are clearly in transition. There is some sort of «Waiting for Godot» atmosphere. If not waiting for God, then at least anticipating a date for joining the EU. Indeed, only last week Serbian Deputy Minister Miroljub Labus announced that in the next few days his government will adopt its national strategy for the country’s EU accession. Young and successful playwright Dejan Dukovski from Skopje (his «Powder Keg» has been translated and performed in Greece as well) has written «Other Side» – a bittersweet play based on several interwoven stories, full of foul language and clearly designed to shock. With an excellent cast of four, crisply directed by Slobodan Unkovski (who will also direct «King Lear» at our National Theater this coming season) for the Drama Theater of Skopje, this work remained the sharpest look at that twisted thing called love. Another remarkable production bore the title «Unredeemable.» In this extremely elegant revival of a Miroslav Nastasijevic play from the 1930s, six alienated actors moved splendidly in the exquisite dreamy tableaux designed by one of the most talented set and costume designers I have ever encountered – Angelina Atlagic. Another sub-note: As the festival began on May 26, hundreds of admirers of former Yugoslav President Josip Broz Tito, who was credited with holding the restless country united for more than 30 years, gathered to pay tribute to the 113th anniversary of his birth.

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