Letter from Sarajevo

– I can count to… infinity (The Student in Ionesco’s «The Lesson») – We must know our limits (The Professor) Although a «Balkan» myself, I am still a stranger in this country, even though I have visited it several times in the past, mainly in my capacity as a journalist. Still, being a drama critic I cannot help transposing myself to some theater situations. Now, in the case of Bosnia and Herzegovina – where more than a decade ago we faced a three-way ethnic, civil, religious war very similar to what we now face in Iraq – I consider the Romanian born playwright Eugene Ionesco, «father of the Theater of the Absurd,» as the most appropriate specimen of this place. A country with two entities, three semi-autonomous economically viable states, numerous cantons and an interminable number of confusing acronyms (OHR, IFOR, SFOR BIS, CE, CEI, EBRD, FAO, G-77, IAEA, IBRD, ICAO, ICCt, IDA, IFAD, IFC, IFRCS, ILO, IMF, IMO, and so on). At the end of the Bosnian war in 1995, this country was split into two parts, a federation of Croats and Bosniaks (Muslims) and the Serbian Republika Srpska (RS). Politics and power struggles that determine who is the real boss here is always an issue. More so than in most parts of the world suffering from similar maladies. So, who has the upper hand in this country at the present time? After an agreement with the EU, Miroslav Lajcak, a Slovak diplomat took over in July as «high representative,» as they call him here. It proved to be a most difficult post. For endless months Lajcak has tried to persuade Bosnia’s leaders to agree on a number of political reforms, mainly the reorganization of the police. Anyway, to cut a long and complicated story short, Bosnia again appears to be anticipating more political chaos. For although Bosnia’s economy is forecast to grow by a healthy 6 percent this year, a dark political shadow indicates that even a fight could be in offing. But don’t worry. Whatever happens, it will be duly televised. Bosnian independence will be supervised by the so-called «great powers,» and everything else will be advertised. Thus the renewal of the mandate of the remaining 2,500 EU peacekeeping troops in Bosnia is almost certain. But I digress. For it was the MESS drama festival that brought me to Sarajevo. The other night while watching an important seminal work in the Theater of the Absurd, «The Bald Soprano,» performed by the National Croatian Theater of Split and directed by Aleksander Ogarjov, I could hardly restrain myself from comparing what I was hearing on the stage – a language disintegrated into disjointed fragments of words – with some other absurdities that were translated for me from recent local press reports. For instance the absurd threats of some members of parliament (Serbs) who simply refuse to show up, practically blocking all legislation. So again back to Ionesco, who had the capacity to transform simple truths into wild caricature and parody. It happens in Bosnia the way it happens in Greece all the time. Yet, thank God, the world is not filled just with people relating to one another only on a superficial and surreal level, as in Ionesco or as in the Bosnian – or Greek for that matter – parliament. As a Greek I was pleased to see a German blood-soaked «Oresteia» in Sarajevo. Greek tragedy is still essential. And not only because of the war in Iraq and Afghanistan. «The moral of the play that I directed,» concluded Michael Ostermeier, from the Berlin Deutsches Theater, in an interview with the local magazine DANAS, «is that we suffer and suffer but in the end we have learned nothing at all.» In all probability, that is why he omitted the third part of the trilogy, «Eumenides,» where justice triumphs. A few years ago in the Guardian newspaper, the British critic Michael Billington asked where contemporary theater instinctively turns in times of crisis. His answer was, «Not to Shakespeare or Shaw but to the Greeks.» Listening to tales of cosmic and personal chaos on the stage of Narodno Pozoriste and watching cycles of bloody reprisal in this exceptional «Oresteia,» at the opening of MESS was quite an experience. Another unique experience was the address of MESS’s festival director, Dino Mustafic, a courageous theater director in his late 30s. Typically, festival premieres seldom allow the theater to shake off its good manners and high-culture pedigree. Yet on this occasion, Mustafic could hardly be described as well-behaved, as he addressed the «politicians in the Council of Ministers and the Ministry of Civil Affairs, headed by Minister Sredoje Novic,» asking them «to leave, to resign from their posts, as we shall not allow them to drag us into the darkness of cultural isolation.» And there were good and plausible reasons for his appeal. During the 47th MESS festival, the viewer was invited to indulge in art that is innovative, gutsy and far from well-behaved too. Elsewhere, festivals began as «a financial imperative,» filling the dead time between seasons. Not so in Sarajevo, where such festivals present opportunities for an array of newcomers. This MESS was indeed a joyous celebration. In the program there were works by Eugenio Barba, one of the best-known and most influential theater directors of the past 50 years («Andersen’s Dream»), a one-woman show («Une Femme Seule» by Franca Rame and Dario Fo) from France, a local National Theater production, «The Cripple of Inishmaan» by Martin McDonagh staged by Dino Mustafic, a theatrical version of Dostoyevsky’s «Crime and Punishment» by the National Theater of Montenegro, «BeautySeries» by Apostolia Papadamaki of Greece, featuring three solos «that are all nude» as the program revealed. Being president of a jury in Sarajevo, I am not at liberty to evaluate any of the works – and they were many more, with two or three shows every night. Anyway my personal view is that Sarajevo should put aside its competitiveness altogether. I am speaking in general. At festivals as well as in real life, everything should be about common ground. If possible.