Monday 9 June 2014

Damned Be The Traitor of His Homeland – Sala Studio, Sibiu

[seen 07/06/14]

Mladinsko Theatre’s Damned Be The Traitor of His Homeland is one of those shows you come out of shaken, adrenalised, angry, and moved. What’s perhaps most remarkable about it is the apparent simplicity of the means used to bring this about.

The piece is played on a bare stage. It opens with the nine performers lying this way and that, each clutching or entwined with a musical instrument. Gradually they begin to play a mournful piece of folk music (which is probably something well-known and significant, but I don’t have that information). In the first “scene” proper, the performers each introduce themselves, reading their own obituaries. These are very funny. There’s a running gag about “the wanking scene in Oliver Frljić’s ‘Hey Slavs’ (Hej Sloveni)” which I won’t attempt to relate. Their deaths are variously dignified and aged, tragic (“she had clearly set herself on fire”), or funny. In between each obit. a snatch of Bijelo Dugme’s cover of Hej Sloveni – the Yugoslavian national anthem, from which the show also takes its title – is played:

The scene ends when one of the company (what I’d give for a programme with headshots in it right now) pulls out a gun and shoots the rest of the company dead at point blank range. The gun is fucking loud. The company hand out earplugs before the show. No one uses them. Every time the gun goes off you can’t help but flinch.

Mladinsko are a Slovenian company. Oliver Frljić is a much fêted director now based in Croatia. At the time of the wars in ex-Yugoslavia, the half-Serbian, half-Croatian was living in Bosnia. Which, as the show quietly implies, can’t have been super. Damned... is a kind of semi-fictionalised autobiographical piece about the members of the company. Or at least, in many of the sketch-like scenes, the performers play characters with their names. In other scenes there’s less talking and more – entirely safe, but still horrifying – knockabout depictions of violence and the brutalities of war.

Actually, in terms of structure, it really should feel like more of a mess than it does. This little cluster of sketches should feel a bit studenty and random, and yet somehow, even as you think that, it somehow feels that there’s a harder, steelier intelligence guiding the whole thing. In part, the piece is dealing with Slovenia’s role in the war(s) – Slovenia having essentially dodged becoming involved, there’s then criticism for their lack of intervention. At the same time, in one scene cast members all gang up on one performer who is half Croatian. “Your mother is Croatian. How did you come out Slovenian? If your mother was black would you have come out white?” And, “Do your Croatian friends who you drink and sing Ustaše songs with know that you self-identify as Slovenian?” There’s an implication that no-one was left out of this war.

It’s stark stuff. The accusations and counter-accusations, the chants of the opposing armies, the talk of who did what wrong when, who started it, etc. It still feels like a live, raw subject. Fewer than twenty years since the Dayton Treaty, mention of Croatian atrocities in Serb Krajina still seems to send a palpable chill.

In another section, each cast member relates where they were when they heard of the death of Tito, lined up, taking their clothes off. Kitschy pop music extolling the virtues of Yugoslavia is played:

Lepa Brena – Jugoslovenka

Using dancing, audience interaction, and oblique stand-ins, the piece gradually evokes the idea of the rape camps, of the former neighbours murdering one another, of the decimation of cities with shelling, of the racism, and nationalism, the sheer senseless hatred of it all. And at the end of virtually every scene, every cast member is gunned down again and again with the same excruciatingly loud blank-firing pistol.

Toward the end of the piece the cast gather and sing a rousing version of this song (very quiet, link to cast-recording at the end):

As the anti-war lyrics flash up in English and Romanian surtitles for the benefit of the audience (something like “No, I won’t fight my brother”), we are collectively moved. “Here’s the message”, we’re allowed to think. The song finished and we spontaneously applaud. The cast don’t bow. Instead they begin to relate a (real or imagined) rehearsal room argument in which the woman who has just sung the song refuses to sing it because the original recording by Rade Šerbedžija featured the famous Serb pop/folk star Ceca. Who later married the Serb warlord Arkan (her Wikipedia entry gives some idea of why non-Serbs may object to her). Other actors take various positions against the objecting actress, and then each other. Some are just pissed off that she threatens to withdraw from the piece (on full salary) and “get €5,000 for three months of doing fuck all”, another bluntly repeats “All I’ve learnt today is that she hates Serbs”. This sort of meta-theatrical, actors-bitching-about-actors would, in most other contexts, just seem trite. Here, precisely because of that familiarity, it is jagged and compelling. The ethical argument is totally real. The feelings equally so. And, even though it’s just an argument between members of a Slovenian theatre company (the “country that stayed out of the war”), it forcibly demonstrates how these credible, unimpeachable wounded feelings quickly turn into entrenched positions, and, well, you get the start of a war in a microcosm.

On one level, this might all sound – at worst – like an involving look at some recent history. The sheer ongoing volatility, unresolved tension and rawness of feeling makes it vital. The fact that we were watching this only a seven hour drive from the Ukrainian border made it not only vital but urgent.

Now someone transfer it to the UK, please.

- Fin -

Here’s the opening from the show (doesn’t give much away, really):

And this is a link to the actual performance of the Rade Šerbedžija song in the show (being performed *in Serbia*). The side bar there has more links to other musical numbers in the piece...


Anonymous said...

Dear Andrew,

my name is Tibor Mihelic Syed and I am managing director of Mladinsko Theatre. First of all - thank you for visiting our performance and for posting this review.
Actually it was your last sentence that gave me the motive to contact you, since we never managed to find a way to bring our show to UK. We've been through whole Europe, Canada, USA, Russia, but we can't find a way to approach the right people in UK. So, I guess you know where I am aiming - do you as and "insider' have any suggestion to whom we can talk or send materials? Please feel free to contact me via my email or cell phone 00386 41 730 432. Tibor

Unknown said...

The mournful song at the beginning is the Ceca piece on I won't kill my brother. The kitschy pop music is turbo folk, a mainly Serbian genre that has become synonimous with nationalism. Frljic has a show called Turbo Folk.

Anonymous said...

It's not true that Slovenia was un-involved. Slovenia was involved in "massive arms smuggling" to Croatia and the Bosnian Muslims, and made huge profits:

"The findings reveal massive UN arms embargo violations. Many thousands of tons of ammunition were sold from Slovenia to Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina in 1991...Tiny Slovenia with its only port of Koper was a major logistic hub for massive arms shipments to Croatian and Bosnian Muslims at Yugoslav battlefields.

Andrew Haydon said...


Thanks for that extra information. Fascinating stuff.


Thanks also.


You have mail. :-)