Critics and audience about the performance

I am not familiar with all the references to Ljubiša Ristić’s work and yet I could enjoy the performance. It is exceptionally poetic and powerful. It uses very little devices and accomplishes, I’d say, a huge emotional impact on the audience and I think it’s wonderful. Particularly the fact that it renounces language, the explicitness, and remains in a very limited area, within the map and the tables we see on stage, and within the play with wedding dresses.

Bojan Đorđev, theatre director

I find it very interesting indeed. Naturally, I have some questions but this performance is symbolic. It was dedicated to former Yugoslavia and contemporary history of this country and the countries that Yugoslavia used to consist of. In some way it is closely connected to the history of Russia; all those difficult questions which cannot be answered, as it is when it comes to Russia, all the problems between Russia and Ukraine. Our problems are the same. It was symbolic, with lots of humour and irony, bitter irony, but also philosophical discourse through human problems towards defence, attack, interpersonal beating up, and then interpersonal kissing, sex. As usually, we are human beings. Therefore, this was not just about Yugoslavia or Russia, this was about human beings in general.

Alla Smenderova, the editor-in-chief at a theatre magazine, Bitef guest from Russia

I quite liked the performance and the way in which Frljić approaches this entire problem of today and what has preoccupied us in the past 15 or 20 years. Generally speaking, the aesthetics of the performance, the actors and the poetics which permeates the entire performance, I think that all of that is well composed into one whole. Even the striking decadent, extravagant moments are perceived and accepted easily. What I like about his work is the consistency and the ability to show a problem or a topic in his own, unique way.

Ivan Hrkaš, Bitef guest from Sarajevo

Postcards from the Gods

20 september 2015

The Ristić of the title is Ljubiša Ristić, a very important ethnic-Serb theatre director in Yugoslavia, who in the mid-seventies, began to revolutionise Yugoslavian theatre which was in something of an artistic crisis. He founded the very important KPGT theatre company. Then, when 1991 happened, when Yugoslavia began to disintegrate into the series of extremely bloody civil wars, Ristić became Slobadan Milosevic’s Minister of Culture [? -- or some similarly supported, symbolic position at any rate]. He is still alive, and still working in Belgrade to this day.

So *obviously* this piece is a pretty grenade-throwing bit of iconoclasm, right?

But, Christ on a bike, it’s dense iconoclasm that I’m not necessarily in the best position to appreciate. I *think* I ended up really loving it. I was a bit *hmm* for maybe fifteen minutes. Then a) basically the war starts in the narrative, and consequently b) the stage imagery got a lot more readily comprehensible and just more *moving*. Then it progressed to all-out strangeness that I adored.

So. What happened? The seven performers come on, stack up the desks which were at the back with Ristić written on them. The young woman bride-figure sits on top of it. The performers spit what looks like semen into each others mouths until it gets up to her. She then performs a long and elaborate blow job on a bottle of coke while the rest of them run round in a circle in their pants. There is music playing. Music plays pretty much throughout. I’ll try to get a playlist off someone.

The songs change, the movements around the stage changes. There are several costume changes. THEY ALL WEE ON A LARGE MAP OF YUGOSLAVIA ON THE FLOOR. This is then cleaned by the older woman, weeping copiously, before the map is dried properly and carted off-stage by biohazard-suited

At another point, they all come stamping on stage in wooden boots shaped like tanks. (I imagine this is just before the war?) Unsurprisingly, what I took to be the war imagery is more powerful, and also more abstract; less slightly clunkily point-making in how it feels. The company dance with each other while black liquid pours out of their mouths onto their dance-partner’s shoulder, they put small blood bags over their eyes, bandage them up, and them pop them. The means by which the resulting pictures are created aren’t hidden, but the images remain powerful.

Something else that was striking for me – watching this new work by Frljić (and watching very much as an Englander) – was the extent to which, despite the brilliantly detailed dramaturgical notes in the programme, this feels like work that that has at least echoes in our own work. It’s true that as a country the UK suffers for want of a subject as definitive and unimpeachably serious as the ex-Yugoslav wars […], but nonetheless, in terms of how this thing actually works – as pictures arranged to move through time to music, essentially – there was something of A Series of Increasingly Impossible Acts and something of Some People Talk About Violence. I think Meg Vaughan was right to say that Barrel Organ have changed the game as regards assumptions re: UK dramaturgy, and, if anything, the sense of familiarity while watching Kompleks Ristić is proof. It’s striking also how, as far as I remember, there wasn’t a single word spoken by the performers. Only the words of the recorded music, occasionally sung along to live, but as often not.

Beyond that, there is a category of thing in it that I’ll call “strangeness”. At the end – and in a way that made me grin, if only because it was *exactly what you want to see happen in any piece of Eastern European Avant Garde performance* (worry about this *exoticisation* later) – the whole ensemble put on photocopied masks of Stalin in a frozen tableau. They then all leave the stage except bride-woman-Stalin. Then a kind of skeleton pantomime horse comes on, and Stalin-bride leads it off. Very Slowly. While the legend “This scene was lost when in care of the state” (paraphrase). Which is both THE MOST ALLEGORICAL THING EVER and ENTIRELY ILLEGIBLE TO ME. But it was, nonetheless somehow brilliant.

I think, in order to ever get any other work done, I shall leave this “review” here, and maybe come back to writing about the piece in a different way at a later date once I’ve had a conversation or two with the dramaturgs and so on, so I can maybe present a more accomplished, *informed* persepctive. But for the time being, this is the first draft. The raw account, if you like. More questions than answers, probably. But I really like that as a state after watching theatre anyway.

So, yes: Oliver Frljić. Can someone get some of his work transferred to the UK, ASAP, please. It’s starting to get a bit embarrassing now.

Andrew Haydon

Postcards from the Gods

6 May 2016

Watching again, having had the dramaturgy really fully explained, instead of “getting it” better, I actually just watched in a more relaxed way. Watched it just as a piece of theatre, without worrying at all about specifics-of-meaning, or a “proper reading”. And the revelation was, if anything it worked even better just watched as an expression of abstract art. That’s not to say it suddenly felt like some sort of floaty free-for-all (as if anything ever does). But instead, watching trajectories and tendencies of scenes and exchanges rather than details and interpretations made the whole seem far more fluid. You could be impressed by the commitment and physicality of the performers rather than the intellectual rigour of the dramaturgs, for instance.

What was also interesting was how the piece *felt* different. Yes, I was sitting in as wildly different a vantage point, in a different building, with a different view (pretty much eye-level some way back in Mladinsko’s main space rather than an almost bird’s-eye-view from the balcony of the BITEF theatre), but that doesn’t even begin to account for it. Perhaps there was the total different in audience too – a smallish crowd of locals, rather than a rammed International Festival première. There was also maybe something more comfortable than confrontational in this performance. The dynamics for watching were probably more friendly across-the-board, and I wonder if that even feed back from the company on stage; like they were presenting Art here and not A Fight. I honestly don’t know. Perhaps they’d be entirely surprised by this assessment, perhaps not at all. The “gender politics” of the casting also felt far less problematic this time round – maybe due in part to being paired with Jelinek’s Drame Princes (five women, one (somewhat perfunctory) bloke).

But, yes. While feeling less *intense* – the upside of that concentration that I’d brought to the piece the first time round – this time it struck me almost as this incredibly vivid, moving almost dance-like meditation on cycles of entropy and collapse. Motifs from art repeatedly collapsing into the horrific carnage of civil war.

Andrew Haydon

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