Observations: Drama with the 'ex' factor

Click to follow
The Independent Culture

Belgrade's international theatre festival, Bitef, has long been a significant cultural interchange between East and West. During the Cold War, it was the one place you could find the great Russian and Eastern European companies alongside the Living Theatre or the Royal Court.

Now there's a new urgency as the fragmented former Yugoslavia faces for the first time, in the theatre at least, its recent and very bloody past in the wars of two decades ago.

The impressive international programme – with Andrei Serban directing Bergman, Frank Castorf directing Chekhov, and Flemish bad boy and botanist Jan Fabre creating what the festival director, Jovan Cirilov, calls "sound and fury" at the opening performance – has sandwiched an "Ex-Yu" (former Yugoslavia) in focus bill of painful self-examination.

Agitprop has suddenly recovered a good name, as the Slovenian company of actors in Damned Be the Traitor of His Homeland assault the audience, and each other, with nationalist and racist accusations and confessions, stripping naked, draping themselves in flags and shooting each other.

You are given ear plugs on the way in, not for the music, but for the pistol shots, of which there must be about two hundred. The shocking events of the 1990s are re-awakened in a spirit of trial, trauma and tribulation. The actors are in tears; and so, by the end, is the audience.

Because "Ex-Yu" features actors and writers from Slovenia, Croatia, Serbia and Bosnia, Cirilov can justly claim that the artists are way ahead of the politicians in the healing process, even suggesting they might point the way to a renewal of Tito's old federal spirit. But that, one feels, could still be wishful thinking in the aftermath.