“The Stage” about Jovan Cirilov

Jovan Cirilov was the co­founder of the Belgrade International Theatre Festi­val (BITEF), one of the most significant theatre festivals in the post-war era, and a leading figure in the performing arts not only in the Balkans but also throughout Eastern Europe. Josip Broz Tito’s Yugoslavia was a bulwark, in many ways a cultural melting pot, between East and West in the Cold War years, and Cirilov was always alert to introduc­ing British and American companies to the festival in September each year.

When he and his BITEF co­founder Mira Trailovic met me off a plane in 1973 shortly after Tom Stoppard’s play had opened at the National Theatre, their first question was “Ow eez Jumpers?”. Polymath, linguist and poet, Cirilov translated the play into Serbian soon afterwards. He also translated the plays of Brecht, Genet, Sam Shepard and David Mamet.

But it was as a travelling selector, collaborator and producer that he made such a great contribution, right to the end of his life. He invited Peter Gill’s Royal Court rediscovery of the DH Lawrence trilogy to an early festival, as well as the first visit beyond Moscow of Yuri Lyubimov’s Taganka troupe, and New York’s Living Theatre. The Taganka pro­gramme included Vladimir Vysotsky’s sensational Hamlet with an endlessly mobile curtain (“walls have ears”) and a revolutionary vaudeville based on John Reed’s Ten Days That Shook the World.

Cirilov was a dedicated champion of, and enthusiast for, innovative, radical directors, from Peter Brook, Jerzy Grotowski and Ingmar Bergman to Robert Wilson, Eugenio Barba and Lev Dodin. He’d bring them all together, too, at the morn­ing-after debates and conferences in the original BITEF headquarters, the Atelje 212, founded by Trailovic.

I became a friend of his more than 40 years ago while editing Plays and Players magazine – Cirilov was a subscriber – in succession to Peter Roberts and Peter Ansorge, all three of us unofficial friends and advisers to BITEF.

After the heyday of the theatrical avant-garde, Cirilov increasingly favoured the wilder reaches of dance and sexually explicit repertoire, sometimes to the annoyance of Trailovic, who died in 1989. They made an extraordinary pairing: Trailovic the queen bee and arch diplomat, a woman of enormous charm and persuasion, and Cirilov, restless, quizzical, driven, who travelled the world and brought home the festival bacon; critics and practi­tioners in Western Europe always depended on him for the latest news in Estonia, Latvia or Lithuania.

Cirilov was born in Kikinda, Serbia, the only child of a council clerk and his socially well-connected wife. After graduating in philosophy from Belgrade University in 1955, he joined the Yugoslav Drama Theatre as dramaturg the following year, becoming manager in 1985. From 2001-07, he was chairman of the national committee of Yugoslavia, and later Serbia, with UNESCO.

Impresario, lexicographer, opinion-former, writer and antholo­gist, Cirilov’s work-rate was phenom­enal, bordering on the obsessive. He wrote theatre reviews, newspaper columns, dictionaries, novels, poetry and, since 1986, a “word of the week” paragraph in a leading magazine.

Politics and theatre were indivisi­ble for Cirilov. He lived by his dislike of ideology while being, for most of his life, a committed member of the League of Communists of Yugoslavia. As such, he was the first person in Serbia publicly to demand the decriminalisation of homosexuality.

I always felt that he was wired, through his art, to what was happen­ing on his own doorstep. When Tito died in 1980, BITEF presented a Hamlet directed by Ljubisa Ristic that seemed suddenly to be about the succession. Cirilov was a barometer of his time and a great figure in our contemporary theatre.

Jovan Cirilov was born on August 30,1931. He died, aged 83, in Belgrade on November 16.

Michael Coveney