Play reveals bitter truth to the Serbs

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The Independent Online
SERBIA MAY be stumbling towards a confused revolution. Meanwhile, much of the country still finds itself in a moral no-man's-land, where otherwise decent people are encouraged to deny the undeniable.

Ethnic cleansing? Yes, but not when talking about Albanians - only when talking about Serbs driven from Kosovo. Burnt-out houses? Rape? Civilian killings? Ditto.

To write about this flight from reality is to invite an angry mailbag that accuses you of ignorance, prejud- ice, and above all of being "anti-Serb".

There are, however, some surviving corners where you can be heartened by the existence of another, painfully honest Serbia - one that is just as real, and much more truly patriotic than the Serbia that lives a lie.

One such refreshing oasis is to be found inside the courtyard of 21 Bircaninova Street - rambling premises on an unexceptional street in central Belgrade. Here the visitor can breathe untainted air, in great refreshing gulps.

This is the Institute for the Decontamination of Culture, whose official goal is "to transform a social atmosphere that has been contaminated by orchestrated nationalism, hatred and destruction". In modern Serbia, there can be no more difficult task.

The institute's creator is the indomitable Borka Pavicevic, a mother- hen figure whose energy fills the building. Under her patronage, the institute has organised events ranging from an exhibition on life in besieged Sarajevo to a theatre production about the events of the past ten years - called Alzheimer.

Its full title is the Institute for the Decontamination of Culture and Denazification - though the reference to denazification is usually left out, to avoid provoking the authorities more than absolutely necessary.

Pavicevic argues: "Serbs like to describe themselves as the Jews. From the beginning of the [Balkan] war, being a victim meant being right. This is the worst position. If I'm a victim, everything is allowed."

Under this roof, in a building known as the Veljkovic Pavilion, performances challenge and broaden the mind. Peter Brook famously declared: "I can take any empty space and call it a bare stage." Those words become real in Belgrade.

The Veljkovic Pavilion resembles a down-at-heel outsize squash court, with the addition of tiered benches in faded red velvet along one side. Theatre here comes without frills.

The experience of the Third Reich is ever-present. The repertoire includes Eva Braun, a play about Hitler's mistress set in his bunker during the last days of the Second World War. Currently in rehearsal is a play based partly on correspondence between a German and a Jew after 1945, which also includes the writing of Hannah Arendt, author of the phrase "banality of evil". The working title is On Germany, but few can miss the implied lessons for Serbia.

The director, Ana Miljanic, emphasises the obvious truth that there is no equivalence between crimes committed in the two countries: Nazi crimes were on a quite different scale. None the less she believes that the characters in the play provide unmistakable echoes.

"The German finds himself more obsessed with what the Americans and Europeans have done to Germany than why it happened. He is so fed up that in the end he loses the link between present and past," she says.

The government of Slobodan Milosevic is not a conventionally repressive regime. Communist-style censors do not hover at the institute's rehearsals, nor do the authorities seek to close the institute. Instead, the authorities rely on the hope that the capacity for independent thought - which was alive and well in Serbia before Mr Milosevic, and one day will be alive and well again - will not prove contagious. For the moment, only a devoted minority hear what the institute has to say - even though Ana Miljanic insists on the need "not just to preach to the converted".

Next week, theatregoers in Britain will have a chance to see one of the Institute's productions for themselves, when Kafka's The Trial is performed at the Gate Theatre, London. It was uncertain till the last: the British authorities, displaying their familiar light touch, looked likely earlier this week to refuse visas for the Serb visitors.

Sonja Vukicevic, who directs the dance drama and stars as a female Joseph K, wants her character not to be seen as the traditional victim, but more as a hero. "He's an extraordinary person, if he has survived the meltdown of society," she says.

One character in The Trial declares: "Every crime begins with the self- mutilation of the soul." The institute is a place that tries to heal the Serb soul - painfully but effectively.

Borka Pavicevic and her colleagues don't bang drums, they don't stand on soapboxes, they are in hock to no political party. They simply confront difficult truths - through their exhibitions, their theatre and their art.

Like Vukicevic's version of Joseph K, they are unassuming but wondrous heroes.

`The Trial' runs at the Gate Theatre, 11 Pembridge Road, London W11 3HQ, from 20 to 24 July at 7.30pm. Box office: 0171-229 0706

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