Monday 21 September 2015

The Ristić Complex – BITEF Theatre, Belgrade

[seen 20/09/15]

there aren't any production photos on Google Image search yet

Right. Let’s go.

The Ristić Complex (Ristić Kompleks) is the new piece made by Bosnian-Serb Croatian director Oliver Frljić, who made Damned Be The Traitor of His Homeland with Slovenia’s Mladinsko Theatre, which I saw at Romania’s Sibiu Festival last year and fucking loved.

The Ristić of the title is Ljubiša Ristić, a very important ethnic-Serb theatre director in Yugoslavia, who in the mid-seventies, began to revolutionise Yugoslavian theatre which was in something of an artistic crisis. He founded the very important KPGT theatre company. Then, when 1991 happened, when Yugoslavia began to disintegrate into the series of extremely bloody civil wars, Ristić became Slobadan Milosevic’s Minister of Culture[? -- or some similarly supported, symbolic position at any rate]. He is still alive, and still working in Belgrade to this day.

So *obviously* this piece is a pretty grenade-throwing bit of iconoclasm, right?

But, Christ on a bike, it’s dense iconoclasm that I’m not necessarily in the best position to appreciate. I *think* I ended up really loving it. I was a bit *hmm* for maybe fifteen minutes. Then a) basically the war starts in the narrative, and consequently b) the stage imagery got a lot more readily comprehensible and just more *moving*. Then it progressed to all-out strangeness that I adored.

A thought I had on the way out: theatre criticism really is an incredibly dumb medium. This whole “I liked it”/”I didn’t like it” shit. Pfft. What Ristić Kompleks made me think it was: well, this leaves you in less of a state than Damned Be The Traitor... Obviously, it does. That was always going to be the case. Just as (say) Much Ado About Nothing tends to leave you feeling less wrung out than King Lear. (Maybe this also harks back to irritability about “Greatness”.) So, well, *obviously* I have an entirely different emotional response – not least because my response to this was much more appreciative/curious about the intellectual means and what some of the stage pictures *meant*.

Yesterday, I also happened to go to a symposium entitled “The Critic is Present (at the International Festival)” [there will be links], in which some IATC members discussed how we deal as a profession with writing about (what is ultimately) unfamiliar work presented in unfamiliar surroundings. I will write elsewhere about that, maybe, if I get time, but the crucial thing in that discussion, which was if nothing else useful to hear someone say out loud, was that: *obviously* local signifiers will get differently interpreted at an international level. *Obviously*. So, there’s a thing where, yes, I’ve been to at least one city in most of the countries of the former Yugoslavia, and was alive when the civil wars happened, so I might do slightly better than someone who wasn’t born at the time, and hasn’t. But a teeny bit of travel doesn’t make me a native or even close. So, as I noted with Iliada the Big Things That We Know About Ex-Yugoslavia rose to the top in this performance. And the things that maybe seemed to be about theatre more generally also stuck out.

And then there was the question of what we might call Current British Morality/Feminism, which meant that I was acutely aware that there were only two female performers out of seven, and the younger one was dressed as a bride throughout, while the five men and other, older woman were dressed as soldiers. And it didn’t escape my attention that the younger woman also at one point reveals her left breast to the audience, and etc. Or that, objectively speaking, she more closely resembled someone you might find in tasteful black and white photograph advertising maybe perfume than not. And, yes, I’m also acutely aware that on one level I think we’re maybe meant to shut up about this information now, but at the same time, when it’s *visual information* that’s being presented on the stage, I’m not convinced you can discuss something that clearly signifies within the performance without referencing the world within which it exists (or substitute that information for saying something bland or euphemistic). Which is not a perfectly equal world at present. (In Frljić’s defence, for this one breast, you do also see six willies. Weeing. On a map of Yugoslavia. So, y’know, something for everyone.)

[I would use performers’ names, but ironically, despite the gendering, it is still very much an ensemble piece; the performers move very much as a unit within a bigger picture, if that makes sense...]

Have I actually said much about the performance itself yet? No. Jesus. So...

Another thing that one of the panellist at this symposium yesterday said was that in terms of trying to stack up what elements exist in the mise en scene (they’re still Very French, the AITC/IATC), she imagines those audio-described performances for the blind, and the way that the people doing those are asked to describe without value judgements so the person listening can make their own associations. Which is excellent and good. (Although I might skip it for this one, and load up everything with my own associations and let you untangle it yourselves. I mean, even my objectivity is pretty compromised, right?)

So. What happened? The seven performers come on, stack up the desks which were at the back with Ristić written on them. The young woman bride-figure sits on top of it. The performers spit what looks like semen into each others mouths until it gets up to her. She then performs a long and elaborate blow job on a bottle of coke while the rest of them run round in a circle in their pants. There is music playing. Music plays pretty much throughout. I’ll try to get a playlist off someone.

The songs change, the movements around the stage changes. There are several costume changes. THEY ALL WEE ON A LARGE MAP OF YUGOSLAVIA ON THE FLOOR. This is then cleaned by the older woman, weeping copiously, before the map is dried properly and carted off-stage by biohazard-suited

At another point, they all come stamping on stage in wooden boots shaped like tanks. (I imagine this is just before the war?) Unsurprisingly, what I took to be the war imagery is more powerful, and also more abstract; less slightly clunkily point-making in how it feels. The company dance with each other while black liquid pours out of their mouths onto their dance-partner’s shoulder, they put small blood bags over their eyes, bandage them up, and them pop them. The means by which the resulting pictures are created aren’t hidden, but the images remain powerful.

Something else that was striking for me – watching this new work by Frljić (and watching very much as an Englander) – was the extent to which, despite the brilliantly detailed dramaturgical notes in the programme, this feels like work that that has at least echoes in our own work. It’s true that as a country the UK suffers for want of a subject as definitive and unimpeachably serious as the ex-Yugoslav wars (see Iliad review for further discussion of this name), but nonetheless, in terms of how this thing actually works – as pictures arranged to move through time to music, essentially – there was something of A Series of Increasingly Impossible Acts and something of Some People Talk About Violence. I think Meg Vaughan was right to say that Barrel Organ have changed the game as regards assumptions re: UK dramaturgy, and, if anything, the sense of familiarity while watching Kompleks Ristić is proof. It’s striking also how, as far as I remember, there wasn’t a single word spoken by the performers. Only the words of the recorded music, occasionally sung along to live, but as often not.

Beyond that, there is a category of thing in it that I’ll call “strangeness”. At the end – and in a way that made me grin, if only because it was *exactly what you want to see happen in any piece of Eastern European Avant Garde performance* (worry about this *exoticisation* later) – the whole ensemble put on photocopied masks of Stalin in a frozen tableau. They then all leave the stage except bride-woman-Stalin. Then a kind of skeleton pantomime horse comes on, and Stalin-bride leads it off. Very Slowly. While the legend “This scene was lost when in care of the state” (paraphrase). Which is both THE MOST ALLEGORICAL THING EVER and ENTIRELY ILLEGIBLE TO ME. But it was, nonetheless somehow brilliant.

I think, in order to ever get any other work done, I shall leave this “review” here, and maybe come back to writing about the piece in a different way at a later date once I’ve had a conversation or two with the dramaturgs and so on, so I can maybe present a more accomplished, *informed* persepctive. But for the time being, this is the first draft. The raw account, if you like. More questions than answers, probably. But I really like that as a state after watching theatre anyway.

So, yes: Oliver Frljić. Can someone get some of his work transferred to the UK, ASAP, please. It’s starting to get a bit embarrassing now.

No comments: