Theatre in Serbia today: the resilience of the socially engaged artists
Theatre has always been, more than any other art, influenced by social circumstances due to the complexity of its production and to its presence and immediacy of experience which are created through a direct communication with its audience, in real time and space reflected on stage. In that respect, a set of particularly adverse economic circumstances, which have been ruling Serbian society for the last six or seven years, and which had been caused by the global economic crisis, have led to a dramatic decrease in theatre production. Still, one should also bear in mind that economic circumstances in Serbia are generally way below the European level, and that in times preceding the financial crisis, when the conditions were somewhat more favourable, the production in Serbia was still significantly below European standards.
Institutional theatres in Serbia receive basic funding by the Ministry of Culture and by the regional and municipal governments for their ensembles maintenance, while the finances for new productions have been noticeably reduced. Each theatre has two to three premieres per season, which is at least two times less than they used to have until six or seven years ago. The situation applies to the country as a whole but in particularly to the theatres south of Belgrade. All the major Serbian cities have their own theatres which enjoy the status of national institutions, and are mostly financed by their local governments. In terms of production, the most favourable situation is in Belgrade, after which comes Vojvodina, namely Novi Sad, Subotica, and Sombor.
In Belgrade, there are eleven institutional theatres – the National Theatre, Yugoslav Drama Theatre, Atelier 212, Belgrade Drama Theatre, Terazije Theatre, Zvezdara Theatre, Little Theatre Duško Radović, Boško Buha Theatre, Puppet Theatre Pinocchio, and Theatre Puž (the latter four are theatres for children and young people). Most of the theatres have their own ensembles.
There are currently four privately-owned theatres in Serbia – Slavija, Madlenianum, Carte Blanche, and Le Studio, whose repertories are predominantly commercial, made of comedies, which are well-accepted by the general audience. One exception is Le Studio which offers a more varied programme with more distinct artistic aspirations. In addition to those, there are several multifunctional stages in Belgrade, i.e. cultural institutions which organize theatre, film, music, and fine arts programmes – Cultural Centre Vuk Karadžić, Akademija 28, Cultural Centre Palilula, among which the first one has had the most significant theatre productions over the last several years.
Outside Belgrade, most major towns have national theatres that are financed by local municipal governments, while still remaining eligible for applying for the Ministry of Culture’s individual projects calls. South of Belgrade, towns which have one professional theatre each are Šabac, Zaječar, Kragujevac, Kraljevo, Kruševac, Niš, Leskovac, Pirot, and Vranje. North of Belgrade, there is the Autonomous Province of Vojvodina which, generally speaking, prides itself in a more developed and worthier theatre life and cultural tradition altogether that the south of Serbia. The capital of Vojvodina, Novi Sad, has three institutional theatres—the Serbian National Theatre, the Hungarian Theatre of Novi Sad, and the Youth Theatre. In Subotica, there are also three theatres—the National Theatre with two ensembles, a Serbian and a Hungarian one, Kosztolányi Dezső Hungarian Theatre, and Children’s Theatre. The other towns in Vojvodina which have professional institutional theatres are Sombor, Zrenjanin, Kikinda, Vršac, and Sremska Mitrovica.
The Autonomous Province of Vojvodina is a unique space in Serbia with its inhabitants’ multi-ethnic and multicultural identity, and with many established minority integration projects. According to official records, there are more than twenty-five ethnic groups and six official languages in Vojvodina where, at present, there are professional theatres of the Hungarians, the Romanians, the Slovaks, and the Rusyns. In terms of artistic value, Hungarian theatres in Vojvodina are very significant among Serbian theatres— they could easily be put on the top of the Serbian theatre art. It primarily applies to Kosztolányi Dezső Theatre from Subotica, then also Újvidéki Színház from Novi Sad, and Hungarian drama of the National Theatre in Subotica.
Slovak theatre of Vojvodina, based in Bački Petrovac, has been created as the leading cultural institution of the Slovaks from Vojvodina, with an idea to develop theatre culture on a professional level. That theatre does not have its own ensemble but relies on professional actors from Slovakia. The theatre is obliged to perform in the areas inhabited by Slovaks in Vojvodina, so it often visits small Slovak places. Romanians also represent an important ethnic group in Vojvodina, with a significant number of cultural institutions in Novi Sad, Zrenjanin and Vršac. The Romanian National Theatre acts as an independent theatre within the Sterija Theatre in Vršac.
In terms of repertories, the last couple of years have led to the loss of distinction between institutions. Apart from the Belgrade Terazije Theatre, which has remained true to its repertory of musicals and comedies, almost all the other theatres in Belgrade and in Serbia choose random plays, without any clear distinction in programme or in style. This leads to a mixture of classical and contemporary plays by Serbian and foreign authors. Apart from Terazije Theatre, yet another exception is the Kosztolányi Dezső theatre, which has, since 2006, attracted attention by its experimental, powerful performances that express a venture into a new, authentic, unrestrained theatre expression. Among them is a successful, and already cult performance, Urbi et Orbi (2008) by the director András Urbán, who has also directed Turbo Paradise, The Beach, Dogs and Drugs, Passport Europe, while many other excellent plays have been directed by Borut Šeparović (Bikini Democracy), Zlatko Paković (Capitalism), Selma Spahić (4a.m.). Moreover, this theatre has established an annual international festival Desire, which takes place in November. The festival promotes the authors who explore theatre poetics, and has an immense significance not only in its surrounding but also in Serbia as a whole.
Although small in number, the productions that are artistically most valued are still mostly created in institutions, by authoritative directors, strong ensembles, and sensibly chosen plays (on average, just a few artistically relevant performances are presented per season). In terms of artistic value, contemporary Serbian theatre prides itself on several directors and playwrights.
The most significant directors in Serbia today are András Urbán, Kokan Mladenović, Boris Liješević, Miloš Lolić, Igor Vuk Torbica. In the past couple of years, one performance which has reached the highest artistic value was András Urbán’s The Patriots (2015), produced by the National Theatre in Belgrade, and which had a rich theatre life (Bitef, Sterijino Pozorje, Mitem). Taking the play The Patriots, the best work by Jovan Sterija Popović, the classic Serbian comedy playwright, Urbán has staged it as seen from the present viewpoint. In this new reading, the main plot, which condemns false patriotism, is accompanied by contemporary debates on national issues, political and war songs, but also church songs, all critically approached. Last year, Urbán staged another artistically successful performance in the National Theatre in Sombor, Gogoland, based on the novel of the same name written by János Herceg, a Hungarian writer and academy member from Sombor. The new text has an open, developed and fragmentary structure. It was a basis for a forum-like, documentary-music performance which tackles burning social issues head-on—the position of national minorities, debt bondage, political marketing, and social roles of theatre.
Yet another performance which has lately left a significant mark on theatre in Serbia is The Bridge over Drina (produced by the Serbian National Theatre from Novi Sad in 2016), directed by Kokan Mladenović, another successful director in the region. The play is based on the novel of the same name by the Nobel Prize winning author Ivo Andrić, and represents a visual spectacle with the elements of music, drama and epics, the plot of which spans several centuries describing the bloody history of Bosnia in a multilingual fashion—apart from Serbian, Bosnian and Croatian, the protagonists speak Turkish, German and Hungarian, all of which is surtitled. In terms of ideas, Mladenović is consistent in his criticism of incessant evildoing. In that respect, Bosnia is a space which speaks volumes both literally and metaphorically, since it represents an area of antagonism and intense passions, a volcano of multinational conflicts. In Belgrade and in Novi Sad, we have recently seen another successful performance by Mladenović, Jami District, written by Milena Bogavac and co-produced by the Centre for Culture Tivat (Montenegro), the Bitef Theatre (Belgrade), the Think Tank studio from Novi Sad, and the Maszk Festival from Szeged. The story is based on a pseudo-documentary and satirically-absurd situation of discovery of Jamena, a village between Serbia, Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina where, allegedly, the oldest Palaeolithic settlement in the history of mankind has been discovered. The plot tackles the social and political issues between the three countries, but also vigorously confronts the global cynicism of neoliberal capitalism.
Boris Liješević is another regionally acclaimed director who works not only in Serbia but also in Montenegro, Bosnia, Macedonia, Croatia, and Slovenia. In the past couple of years, he has become famous mostly for his excellent projects that often fall into the realm of documentary theatre. Created through the protagonists’ true stories, they have raised some socially relevant issues—corruption, false morality, privatisation, the effect of political changes on personal lives (Waiting Room, Fertile Days, The Fifth Park). Igor Vuk Torbica, the youngest among these directors, has achieved a tremendous regional success by his staging of Ernst Toller’s Hinkemann, produced by the Zagreb Youth Theatre. Taking Toller’s expressionist, anti-war play (1923) as a starting point, Torbica has developed a post-dramatic piece of art, multi-layered both in structure and in meaning, creating it by means of an amazing confrontation between fragments of drama, cabaret, physical, and epic theatre. The story is set in war-torn Europe tortured by social spectacles which entertain the masses to exhaustion, even when the topic of that entertainment is tragedy. In Serbia, Torbica’s successful performances are The Broken Jug by Heinrich von Kleist (Yugoslav Drama Theatre, 2015), and The Power of Darkness by Tolstoy (the National Theatre in Belgrade, 2017).
Some of the most significant playwrights of the younger generation are Olga Dimitrijević, Maja Pelević, Tanja Šljivar, Vuk Bošković, Milena Bogavac. Olga Dimitrijević, who has received the Sterija Award for her play Workers Die Singing, has established herself as a “total” theatre author. She dramatized but also directed the play Red Love (Bitef Theatre, 2016) based on the novel Free Love (1923) written by the Russian revolutionary writer Alexandra Kollontai. In the performance, the love story between Vasilissa and Vladimir represents the basis for a wider exploration of burning issues, the relationship between private and public, love and politics, the problems of social revolutions, and the abandonment of those. The play New Age, by Vuk Bošković, was staged this year in Bitef Theatre and represents a piercing contemporary analysis of the current social and political circumstances. The fragmented structure and the interlacing of two sequences of events brings forth current torments of social transitions. The author raises the question of privatisation and grey economy, the doings of untouchable tycoons, political marketing manipulation, post-war trauma, and the most current problem of immigration and the overall chaos in Europe.
The independent scene in Serbia has recently been artistically weaker than it used to be during the nineties, when it exuded more power both in terms of quality and of quantity. Nowadays, very few performances find their way to the audience and positive critique. Those are usually the productions by Zlatko Paković in the Centre for Cultural Decontamination, or in the Student Cultural Centre in Novi Sad – To Kill Zoran Đinđić, Don Quixote or What Are the Windmills Today and Where the Wind Comes from, Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People as a Brecht’s Didactic-Play. All of those performances are socially engaged, post-dramatic type of lecture-performances which bring forth the clashes between elitism and populism, literary-historical and documentary-modern. The most successful among the aforementioned is Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People as a Brecht’s Teaching-Play (2014), in which Paković problematizes denotational closeness between Ibsen and Brecht in terms of creating a critical, political theatre. By creating links between Brecht’s songs to drama scenes in Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People, but also to scenes based on real political and social life, actors and musicians have made a powerfully engaged theatre. Its purpose is to instruct the audience on how to discover and prove (hidden) truth in society, but also to make us aware of the necessity of fighting for personal freedom, without which we are nothing.
Festivals play an important role in the Serbian theatre system. It is often discussed whether we have too many of them in Serbia today. Given the fact that almost every major city in Serbia has its own theatre festival, and some more than one, the discussion is justified, especially since the programmes are often very similar, sometimes even overlapping. All of the festivals are, undeniably, locally relevant since they enliven local communities, which does represent an argument for their survival, but at the state level, they are less important.
The relevance of the two major festivals, Bitef and Sterijino Pozorje, is unquestionable, since they enjoy international acclaim as well. Bitef has been a Serbian cultural brand for decades – it is a festival which has always been presenting the most relevant international theatre authors who rely on the avant-garde. On the other hand, Sterijino Pozorje, annually held in Novi Sad, is the most significant national festival. It has undergone various transformations in the past couple of years, trying to redefine its identity after the breakup of Yugoslavia. Since its inception in 1956, it was the most relevant festival of Yugoslav drama. The breakup of the country reduced the space and gave rise to the necessity of its reinvention. For a few years, Sterijino Pozorje featured as the festival of the best national drama and theatre, but this year, it returned to its original concept of being the festival of national plays. The festival Days of Comedy, held in Jagodina, has an almost five-decade long tradition and the festival is given great local and national importance due to its uniqueness. The programme is highly national given that is only consists of theatres from Serbia. Other festivals worth mentioning are Infant, held in Novi Sad, which is international and focused on experimental works, and the festival Desire in Subotica, mentioned earlier, which also promotes theatre of the avant-garde heritage.
Theatre criticism in Serbia is present and influential but not in a favourable position due to the general lack of interest among the media to engage the critics. Another trend is the disappearance of theatre criticism in the media, while it has not fully become present on the Internet, yet. When it comes to daily newspapers, it still exist in Politika, Večernje novosti, Dnevnik and Danas. In weekly magazines, it is still published in NIN and Vreme, while it is also present in the electronic media, at Radio Television of Serbia (the public broadcaster), and at Radio Television of Vojvodina.
Criticism does influence the public opinion in Serbia, although artists and producers often negate its impact, pronouncing it irrelevant or non-existent. As expected, what causes this attitude is the “negative” criticism, which makes the authors relativize the influence. If the criticism were not important, it would not be talked about; if the critics were not important, they would not be insulted and belittled. Therefore, since criticism and critics are often talked about in Serbia, since “the criticism of criticism” is as strong as ever, there is no better proof of its influence and its necessity.
Published 19 July 2017