BITEF 2018: From political theatre to a theatre as an existential experience


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Legacy, Pieces without People, concept by Stefan Kaegi and Dominic Huber (Rimini Protokoll), VIDY, Lausanne, Switzerland


The fifty-second edition of Belgrade International Theatre Festival, commonly known as BITEF, one of the earliest and authoritative events in Europe, was undoubtedly among the highlights of the 2018theatrical events. It was traditionally held in the second half of September (13–22 September 2018) in Belgrade.

BITEF 2018: A World without People

This slogan of the Festival on the no less startling poster featuring a close-up of а rough monkey’s face in dark red-blue colours, raises unquestionably apocalyptic associations. Seen in the logic of the cultural and aesthetic policy of the Festival to challenge and awaken the society to the problems and threats facing the contemporary world, the slogan along with the whole visual publicity of BITEF ’2018 are not just a pessimistic suggestion of the developments here and now, but rather have a clear conceptual meaning and purpose, clarified in Ivan Medenica’s A Word from the Artistic Director published in the catalogue of the Festival: ‘This thematic stream has been developed from an authentic, personal feeling of uncertainty, apprehension and fear, which Bitef dramaturge Filip Vujošević and I have recognized in many performances during the process of selection.’ The very wording of ‘World Without Us/World Without People creates a myriad of associations, but we predominantly aim at three: с world without good, honest people; world of (imminent) apocalypse; and the phenomenon of death. Those three associations are firmly linked, because the world without true people––a world of bad people––leads, sooner or later, to a global cataclysm. This vision of a world without real people, which is the omen of global destruction, refers to concrete and dangerous tendencies typical of Europe and the world of today. Those are right-wing populism, xenophobia, non-tolerance, authoritarian regimes’. In the Main Programme of BITEF ’2018, various forms of contemporary political theatre covered the thematic scope of the slogan uniting two of its interpretations.

Another line of interpreting the slogan World Without People departs from the political and social plane to address such an extremely personal, intimate experience as death: what happens to the world without us; how we bid our farewell to it; what we leave and what we’d want to leave behind; does the world end with us or expands and continues to new dimensions? This eternal and eternally moving topic of a world without us, the people as individuals, was presented in three installations at the Festival.

Recently, especially under the new festival management, the selection, as a rule, apart from the main has one or several focuses dominating contemporary theatrical productions, always striving to highlight the new trends and developments in the field of theatrical forms. Last year’s edition dealt with the so-called durational performances and now it was theatre installations. Focusing on the latter for the selection of performances on the bill at BITEF ’2018 accentuates the increasing presence within the theatrical scene of a specific intermediate form occupying a position between performing and visual arts, where new technologies are increasingly active and living performers are increasing absent, being replaced by recordings of voices and authentic accounts and stories.

From political theatre to theatre installations as an intimate experience

Until 1990, BITEF was, first and foremost, a platform showcasing stage experiments and outstanding achievements from Eastern European countries and Western European theatrical productions. In the last three decades, the festival significantly changed its formula, reorienting towards showing significant productions and directors from the region and more specifically, from former Yugoslavia, including in its programmes some of the best European and world stage renditions. Ivan Medenica, Filip Vujošević’s selection for the last edition of the Festival continued and updated this tradition, enriching the scope of the latter with marked thematic and aesthetic conceptuality.

The Main Programme of BITEF ’2018 included 10 performances from 9 countries: Slovenia, France, Serbia, Germany, Croatia, Estonia, Israel, Switzerland and Belgium. Seven of these formed a great niche for political theatre on the Festival’s bill, looking into the problems of the contemporary world and evoking, radically and sharply at times, involvement and resistance from both the audiences and societies as a whole, i.e. a Slovenian coproduction: Odilo. Obscuration. Oratorio by Peter Mlakar, dir. Dragan Živadinov (Slovenia); Suite No 3 ‘Europe’, part four of Joris Lacoste’s research project Encyclopedie de la parole (France); Bollywood, a musical written and directed by Maja Pelević, dir. Oliver Frljić, produced by the National Theatre (Belgrade, Serbia); Gorki – Alternative für Deutschland?, Maxim Gorki Theatre (Berlin, Germany) and Six Characters in Search of an Author by Luigi Pirandello, Kerempuh Satirical Theatre (Zagreb, Croatia); NO43: Filth by Ene-Liis Semper, Tiit Ojasoo, Theatre NO99 (Estonia) and Eternal Russia by Russian theatre critic and producer Marina Davydova, Hebbel am Ufer, (Berlin, Germany). The rest three productions sketch a field of various forms of theatre installations, offering an authentic intimate experience of the death of an individual and the latter’s earthly sojourn continuing in their memorabilia and memories: Pa’am на Nadav Barnea (Israel); Legacy, Pieces without People, a concept of Stefan Kaegi and Dominic Huber (members of Rimini Protokoll), a production of Théâtre Vidy-Lausanne (Switzerland) and Requiem for L., staged by director/choreographer Alain Platel and based on Fabrizio Kassol’s music score, Les ballets C de la B (Ghent, Belgium).

Apart from the Main Programme, last year’s edition offered also the traditional showcase of Serbian theatre, an abundance of collateral events including a discussion on political theatre, a conference on contemporary plastic arts and a festival management training module.

The best of BITEF ’2018

I watched several performances on this interesting and challenging bill at BITEF ’2018, some of the rest I have already seen at other international events. Of these, in my opinion three productions undoubtedly stand alone: Requiem for L. by choreographer Alain Platel and Fabrizio Cassol that not only had the same powerful effect, closing in the end of May 2018 Kontakt International Theatre Festival in Toruń, Poland, but also took the audience and guests in Belgrade by storm with their new creative energy; exquisitely fine, unexpectedly thrilling performance, Legacy, Pieces without People by Stefan Kaegi and Dominic Huber and the political installation Eternal Russia, Marina Davydova’s directorial debut, one of the leading Russian and European theatre critics and festival curators. My personal choice was backed by the awards given by the jury of BITEF ’2018: Politika daily Award and Mira Trailović Grand Prix for Best Setting went to Legacy, Pieces without People, Jovan Cirilov Special Prize was awarded to two performances: Requiem for L. and Eternal Russia, while Suite No. 3 ‘Europe’ scooped the People’s Choice Award.

Not for nothing the Swiss theatre installation Legacy, Pieces without People by Stefan Kaegi and Dominic Huber, members of the internationally acclaimed Germany’s Rimini Protokoll, stood out as one of the two most highly praised productions, along with Requiem for L. at BITEF ’2018. The performance was received warmly by the audience and critics and guests alike with its delicate and thrilling object of study: the feelings, desires and expectations what several really existing strangers, who for different reasons are about to leave this world, would leave behind. Stefan Kaegi and his collaborators spent two years recording their stories in hospice centres and hospitals, in scientific research laboratories and funeral homes, in retirement homes, among coroners and lawyers. Then together with director/set designer Dominic Huber they have built an inventive stage environment to showcase the stories, a sort of a specific capsule containing compressed time and space, travelling across a vast universe: an oval antechamber to eight small rooms, reproducing with minimalist precision the authentic ambience, keeping the ‘legacy’ of the recently deceased (a table, bed, pictures, prayer mat, book, TV set). Spectators enter in groups these rooms to listen to the voices and the stories of the recently departed inhabitants on PCs or tablets.

The political installation, a promenade of rooms, Eternal Russia by Marina Davydova, produced in collaboration with set designer Vera Martynova uses a similar aesthetic strategy. The audience moves from one room to another to find themselves in different periods of Russian history: from Russia under Peter the Great to the Socialist Revolution to Stalinism to the present. Interiors, portraits and political symbols change, but authoritarian ways of ruling and life persevere and remain unchanged.

The elegant, ecstatic and serene at the same time production of Requiem for L. by Alain Platel and Fabrizio Cassol, which closed BITEF ’2018, was in fact the right and natural finale of the festival’s programme including performances and discussions focused on matters of concern to both the present world and human existence in general. The enormous full house of Sava Centre in Belgrade gave their full and undivided attention to an hour and forty minutes Requiem for L., glued to the face of a dying woman in her late 60s, who allowed the team behind the production to shoot minute by minute in close-up each twitch on her face in the last days of her life. Facing the breath of death in real time, the audience was at first both scared of and confused about attending such an intimate existential experience, but gradually got on the wavelength of another, intermediate reality, where a human soul was bidding its farewell to this world to go over the great divide. In tune with the hardly visible twitches and shades on the peaceful face of the dying L., Fabrizio Cassol wrote, an incredible score of sounds, based on Mozart’s Requiem and authentic African funeral songs played by African musicians, initially weltering in agony and regret to then soar upwards in joy and exultation.

This was a BITEF’s outstanding and controversial edition, which realised impressively and with verve the organisers’ programming choices striving to challenge and provoke, worry and ignite debates.

BITEF 2018: From political theatre to a theatre as an existential experience

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