Thursday 12 May 2016

Ristić Kompleks – Mladinsko Theatre, Ljubljana

[seen 06/05/16]

It’s fascinating how much ground can shift between a first and second viewing of a show. The first time I saw The Ristić Complex (at BITEF‘15) I remember watching it *incredibly closely*. Really concentrating on it, working at it; trying to dig out meaning, and interpret “accurately”. In one way, this was something of a fool’s errand; without an incredibly detailed knowledge of Ljubiša Ristić’s body of work – which stretches back to the Yugoslavian sixties or seventies – there’s an iconography at work here that is simply unavailable at its primary level. If you want an easy comparison, imagine watching a piece about, say, David Bowie, in which his life and times are obliquely critiqued but almost all the symbolism is taken from his album covers and videos etc. Simply asking “what does the Pierrot mean?” is the wrong question. On one level, it maybe meant *something* specific in its original context, but without knowing that there even is an original context, you’d have no idea why it had cropped up in the [hypothetical Bowie-]piece. And so it is here. Most of the most striking images are adaptations or bastardisations or references-to scenes from the plays and films he directed, reworked into reflections on his own life and strange political trajectory; from an “art terrorist” director at Mladinsko in Yugoslavia to Milošević’s Minister of Culture during the ex-Yugoslavian civil wars.

So, that all sounds quite hopeless, yes? Wrong. Watching again, having had the dramaturgy really fully explained, instead of “getting it” better, I actually just watched in a more relaxed way. Watched it just as a piece of theatre, without worrying at all about specifics-of-meaning, or a “proper reading”. And the revelation was, if anything it worked even better just watched as an expression of abstract art. That’s not to say it suddenly felt like some sort of floaty free-for-all (as if anything ever does). But instead, watching trajectories and tendencies of scenes and exchanges rather than details and interpretations made the whole seem far more fluid. You could be impressed by the commitment and physicality of the performers rather than the intellectual rigour of the dramaturgs, for instance.

What was also interesting was how the piece *felt* different. Yes, I was sitting in as wildly different a vantage point, in a different building, with a different view (pretty much eye-level some way back in Mladinsko’s main space rather than an almost bird’s-eye-view from the balcony of the BITEF theatre), but that doesn’t even begin to account for it. Perhaps there was the total different in audience too – a smallish crowd of locals, rather than a rammed International Festival première. There was also maybe something more comfortable than confrontational in this performance. The dynamics for watching were probably more friendly across-the-board, and I wonder if that even feed back from the company on stage; like they were presenting Art here and not A Fight. I honestly don’t know. Perhaps they’d be entirely surprised by this assessment, perhaps not at all. The “gender politics” of the casting also felt far less problematic this time round – maybe due in part to being paired with Jelinek’s Drame Princes (five women, one (somewhat perfunctory) bloke).

But, yes. While feeling less *intense* – the upside of that concentration that I’d brought to the piece the first time round – this time it struck me almost as this incredibly vivid, moving almost dance-like meditation on cycles of entropy and collapse. Motifs from art repeatedly collapsing into the horrific carnage of civil war.

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