On stage as in life, Serbs call the shots

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The Independent Online
PROFESSOR RADOSLAV Stojanovic has a Tolstoy beard and volumes of poetry to his name. He is managing director of the National Theatre in Pristina. And he is a Serb. Asllan Hasaj is an actor and playwright and looks like Jean-Paul Sartre.

He once sat in Mr Stojanovic's office - until his dismissal in 1991. Mr Hasaj, you see, is an ethnic Albanian. He now works from a makeshift office in the theatre bar downstairs. Without a telephone.

So let's start upstairs, in Mr Stojanovic's opulent premises with its secretary, sofa and armchair, its massive desk, its two 19th-century Italian ecclesiastical oil paintings and its naive portrait of Tito's partisans liberating a Kosovo town.

It is from here that Mr Stojanovic - an appointee of the Serbian minister of culture in Belgrade - runs his 110 employees, who include 26 ethnic Albanian actors and 22 Serb actors. There are, he admits, more Serbs than Albanians in the theatre administration. "Albanians work more on the technical side - scenery, music, lighting and costume."

The administrative imbalance is suggested gently. So are the rules which are, in every sense of the word, theatrical. "Before I was appointed five years ago, the directors here decided to play only cultural plays. Politics had to be kept out of our theatre.

"The most important thing, you see, is the people's work - not their nationality. Perhaps this could be a model for a way of living here in Kosovo. Our drama productions take place individually - but we use the same administration and technique. All the players are friends in the bar downstairs."

At no point does Mr Stojanovic mention that the bar is also an office for Mr Hasaj. Nor, for that matter, does he mention Mr Hasaj. But he is in a generous humour. "Come along to our presentation of Gogol tonight," Mr Stojanovic insists with bright, cheerful eyes. "You'll see how much we love our drama."

And when I turn up to watch The Government Inspector at 7.30, there is a packed house; there are teenage lovers in the audience and parents with three-year-old children on their laps, all listening in pin-dropping silence to Gogol's story of Balkan-style corruption.

The audience are all Serbs. So are the highly professional actors. The Albanians will perform tomorrow. But for those who believe that art crosses borders, that culture reaches across the sectarian divide, Kosovo's National Theatre is a lesson in brutal reality.

The Albanians are staging Chekhov's Uncle Vanya and recently performed Strindberg's The Father. The Serbs have put on Alfred Jarry's painfully funny King Ubu - the story of a Milosevic-style dictator who is forced to dispose of every rival with the words "Open the trapdoor!"

What fascinates me, however, is Mr Stojanovic's division of art into plays "cultural" and plays "political". Had he not recently staged Macbeth? Wasn't this drama of a power-mad dictator who ethnically cleanses his rival's family and retainers a bit, well, political?

Not a bit of it. "There are no problems with these plays, no problems with Shakespeare or the classics," Mr Stojanovic says confidently. "In 1995, the Albanians wanted to put on Kasem Trebeshina's The History of Those Who Are No Longer Here. I read the text and didn't think it very creative. Even the title could have been provocative. But I put the play on because the Albanian press were attacking us for not staging it."

But a visit to Asllan Hasaj casts a different reflection on Serbia's cultural life. He is not in his office bar tonight but in a dingy cafe under a motorway intersection.

"I am glad you have spoken to Mr Stojanovic and heard his side of the story," he says carefully.

"But I, too, was the legitimate director of the National Theatre of Kosovo until 4 January 1991. I was thrown out from my post then without any reason - when I refused to leave, they brought the police to order me out.

"Mr Stojanovic was appointed much later - everything is now directed by the cultural administration in Belgrade, which is run by Slobodan Milosevic. Now I have responsibility just for Albanian drama. It's my job to speak to Stojanovic - I do so on a professional basis, because in this way I can defend Albanian art. He is imposed on us."

So, one might add, is a form of censorship. The Albanians could produce King Lear and Moliere's The Miser. But according to Mr Hasaj, Death Comes from Those Kind of Eyes by Rexhep Qosja, Digging Up Bogdan by Teki Dervishi and The Victims of Tivar by Ekrem Kryeziu - all Albanian plays - were not allowed a performance.

"We asked for a written reason for this but were never given one," Mr Hasej says. "Last year, we wanted to stage Anton Pashku's Sokol and Mirusha - it's a play set in the Kosovo town of Prizren - about a Muslim and a Catholic who are in love but are destroyed by society. Just before our premiere, Stojanovic said we couldn't perform it."

It's easy to see why Digging Up Bogdan didn't clear the censors: the play tells the story of a Christian intellectual who so angered the Serbs that they dug up his body and fed it to the dogs.

Although a few of the Serb actors attend Mr Hasaj's productions, the audiences are now ethnically 100 per cent divided. But he dreams dreams. "Our theatre is a real treasure and if I am ever the legitimate director again, I would insist that Serb drama is performed in my theatre. "But this depends on them as well as me. If you look at every play, the subject is about human beings and their destiny - theatre cannot be abstract because all plays have the same aim: to fight against wrong and to help humanity progress."

There is, needless to say, an irony in Mr Hasaj's life. He earns just over pounds 100 from the Pristina theatre - but it comes from the coffers of the Serbian Ministry of Culture.

"It's paid by the ministry, yes," Mr Hasaj says. "But the ministry takes this money from my people in taxes." And I wonder if this wouldn't make an interesting equation for Mr Hasaj's next play.

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