Ifyou had tried telling Mladen Materic a few years ago that he and his company from Sarajevo would find themselves touring their first show to Edinburgh, London and New York, then a quizzically raised eyebrow and perhaps another drink might well have been the reply. But it just happened that one Richard Demarco was in Sarajevo for an exhibition opening and, deciding that he couldn‘t face another offical dinner function, thought a trip to the theatre for a short respite in a hectic schedule was in order. It just happened that the show playing was Open Stage‘s Tattoo Theatre. Demarco thought the show was the greatest thing he’d seen since . . . well. since the last greatest thing he‘d seen and the rest is, ofcourse. history— ofa kind.
Tattoo has been described as an attempt at ‘a theatre ofgentleness‘ as opposed to a once fashionable ‘theatre ofcruelty’. Magic realism is another catchphrase that springs to mind. Whatever the descriptive terminology. critics and audiences alike found Tattoo a revelation amidst the arid intellectual sterility of so much self-styled experimental theatre. The story is a simple one of a young couple caught in a cycle of violence and mute passion and is told almost entirely without words — but not without a naive kind of surrealism and a trio of rabbits. The rest is a surprise
Surprise is something that Yugoslav theatre has rapidly gained a reputation for at the Festival. Until 1986, British general knowledge of things Yugoslavian revolved around Laski Reisling, nudist beaches and cheap suntans rather than alternative experimental performance. That all changed drastically with the appearance of the Sisters of Scipion Nasica from the Slovenian cultural capital of Ljubljiana at the 1986 Fringe. Invited over by Richard Demarco, the Sisters, past masters in the art of self-publicity. had no trouble in doing it for themselves — with punters being stuffed into holes in the stage while chaos, fire, knives and dead fish broke out all round.
Though the show was closed down after only six performances, the impact was startling. Under the auspices of a group of painters, designers and architects ominously called Neue Slowenishe Kunst, the Sisters’ penchant for fascist-looking uniforms and symbols and a calculated line in rhetorical press statements provided them with an image that the British media found distinctly odd.
Russia and Poland we knew about. Glasnost, food queues. communism in crisis, underground rock bands, endless colour supplement ‘photo-essays‘ in grainy black and white, Solidarity and intense-looking directors who couldn't understand why exit signs in British theatres had to ruin their blackouts. Here was some kind of context, however nebulous. But
Further visits from NSK groups probably reinforced the few existing preconceptions about artists from
Fringe find of 1987, Open Stage from Sarajevo return with Tattoo Theatre and a new show, Moonplay. Recently returned from Yugoslavia, Simon Bayly looks behind the excitement, hype and simple myth surrounding Yugoslav theatre.
‘Eastern Europe‘ as much as it did to change them: eccentric people with mysterious ‘Slav souls' doing deep and obscure things. unimpeded by a British obsession with accessibility. DASKA from Croatia offered a very different fusion oftheatrical experiment and cabaret-style delivery at three Fringes— but their generous blend ofcomedy and pathos went largely unnoticed. And then Open Stage (from Bosnia) came along, with Demarco once again pulling the strings. and confused us all again.
Not surprisingly, more than one pundit writing about Tattoo in 1987 took a short cut and decided that Yugoslavia was ‘Eastern bloc' and that therefore the show undoubtedly reflected the oppressive forces of totalitarian state socialism. Serious people began talking about Yugoslavia as a theatrical ‘second Poland‘, recalling the impact of
Grotowski et al in the 1960s. However, the analogy goes no further. The Polish people share a
common language, the Catholic faith, a ‘planned‘ economy held up by the dollar and a quietly introspective cultural pride.
By comparison. Yugoslavia is an ethnic and religious melting pot of six republics. several languages, Catholics. Greek Orthodox and Muslims held together by an unwieldy system of regional ‘self-management’. With inflation now over 1000 per cent, there are only two alternatives: convert your money to deutschmarks or spend it fast. So while fashion unashamedly stalks the streets of Belgrade and Zagreb, visiting Poles stock up on paper serviettes.
Talking in Sarajevo last month. Mladen Materic and his colleague Vesna Bajcetic sigh wearily at the mention ofstereotypical Western
images of the country: ‘Yugoslavia is just not “Eastern bloc“ . . . Why does it always have to be that we are theatre FROM YUGOSLAVIA,‘ she says, ‘as ifwe are some kind of special, oppressed people?‘
Materic denies that his work springs consciously from political concerns at all. ‘If I had to say the things that have had some inﬂuence on my work, it would be Franz Kafka‘s short stories, Robert Wilson‘s stage work and the paintings ofVermecr. As for theatre and politics. sometimes I do feel bad that we are rehearsing at all — that‘s how I connect the two things.‘
While overtly political drama in Yugoslavia has fallen off considerably since the early l980s. experimental eclecticism continues unabated, ofwhich Open Stage‘s work is just one small strand. In its concentrated regional diversity. Yugoslavia is not unlike Britain — but there is often a fine line between xenophobic nationalism and the legitimate rediscovery of ethnic roots currently taking place in areas such as Serbia. Perhaps one of the more disturbing pieces of theatre taking place that month was Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic‘s open-air address to allegedly more than a million Serbs in the predominantly Albanian province of Kosovo. the scene of recent unrest. But by and large. theatre manages to. escape the ugly divisions of ethnic rivalry.
The performances I saw over four weeks included a group of 18 year-old skinhead Hungarians. Yugoslav only as a result of post-war border changes, performing what can only be described as a spasmic. homoerotic Dance of Death that stunned everyone at the annual BRAMS Festival in Belgrade. The next evening provided brilliantly incisive political comedy written in 1971 that had a group ofpost-war Communist Party officals putting on Hamlet — and the audience rolling in the aisles. Elsewhere, there was a Macedonian Medea on a Montenegran beach at midnight (l) and Butoh-inspired Russians performing a mesmerising spectacle in the ruins of a reconstructed medieval town.
All the evidence points to the uncomfortable truth that in a country with nightmarish economic problems, a volatile and uncertain political future and no shared attitudes as how best to deal with it, theatre is perhaps in better shape than its UK counterpart. The quality is uneven. but the sheer volume of work and energy being generated is genuinely vital. In this respect. there is perhaps no more telling statistic than the one with which Vesna
Jezerkic. Professor Of Dramaturgy in Belgrade. is politely regaled ifshe grumbles to the authorities: only pilots training to fly supersonic jets have more state funds spent on them than theatre students. That bald fact is not merely impressive but, as British theatre struggles in the current political and educational climate, frankly alarming. Tattoo (Fringe) Richmond Demarco Gallery (Venue 22). 23—27Aug.
The List 18—24 August 19897