One of the principal events of the 51st Bitef and indubitably its biggest attraction is the production of Mount Olympus by the renowned Belgian director Jan Fabre. The production lasts 24 hours without intermission and is based on the Greek mythology in its totality, as articulated in Homeric epics and tragedies by Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides. It uses a very specific theatre language which could be subsumed under the broadest possible definition of the physical (rather than dance) theatre: a group of some thirty supreme actors and dancers perform multiple episodes of a physically and even spiritually highly demanding choreographic score remindful of ancient rituals, modern sports or military ‘drills’, recovered ancient sculptures or frescoes, Dionysian orgies... In terms of its sensitivity or spirituality, the production is above all the renewal of the Dionysian cult in a modern key, with everything in it that is horrifying, seductive, dangerous yet above all beautiful, thrilling and cathartic: as such, Mount Olympus is a majestic ode to life.
Its duration would present a challenge to the audience of any historical period and any culture, and it is beyond doubt a major challenge for modern spectators in the Western world whom the modern media and the consumerist lifestyle have fully “calibrated” for visual effects, short formats, speedy rhythm, i.e. changes... In this sense, a durational performance, which requires us to surrender to its rhythms and energy waves and, in forceful togetherness with other spectators and performers, to shed daily and all those other shackles imposed on us by civilisation for centuries, ergo, such a performance is a compelling civilisation alternative to our lives and to the world marked by selfishness, superficiality, hastiness, rashness... In this specific shared experience, in this civilisation alternative to modern experience, one recognizes its social significance, i.e. its political nature. This interpretation is in line with Hans-Thies Lehmann’s claim about performance forms and ways of communication between performers and spectators as a specific manifestation of the political nature immanent in postdramatic theatre. The production arrives at Bitef as one of the most significant theatre achievements of the early 21st century: prominent Belgian critic Freddy Decreus has stated that as of now the theatre history will be divided into the period before and after the production of Mount Olympus. Note should be made that due to its high organisational and financial requirements, it went only on a few tours before Belgrade and those were to world theatre centres.
Mount Olympus has determined both main streams in the 51st Bitef programme: the aesthetic and the thematic one. As we emphasized last year, contemporary performing practices do not accept “spontaneous” references to the notion of “new” anymore, as it used to be acceptable in the (modernist) times of Bitef inception, but impose a requirement of selecting one or more concrete aesthetic phenomena which can nowadays be regarded, if not “new”, then surely still radical, provocative, emancipating and political, in the broadest possible sense. Last year, we stayed true to the great anniversary celebrated by this festival of “new theatre trends” by drawing the line and confirming the variety of forms in the contemporary performing arts, which in the local context is still not self-evident: drama theatre, contemporary dance, documentary theatre, lecture-performances, etc. This year, as announced back then, the aesthetic focus sharpens. In order to adequately map and contextualize the aesthetic phenomenon, we are again organizing a theoretical debate, which this time, however, welcomes not only the world’s most eminent theatre scholars (Maria Shevtsova, Georges Banu) but artists as well.
Aesthetically, the 51st Bitef marks an important tendency in contemporary performing arts: durational performances. In addition to Fabre’s stage spectacle, the phenomenon is also observed in Quizoola!, by the celebrated British company Forced Entertainment to be shown on the Prologue Day, immediately before the festival opening ceremony and Mount Olympus. It is a production which in its original version also lasts 24 hours but the Bitef artistic-production team seized the opportunity offered by the company and opted for an abridged version lasting “only” six hours (the decision has been reached due to our realisation that regardless of the artistic and conceptual justification, it would be too radical and challenging for the audience to be offered as many as two 24-hour-long productions). As its title suggests, the production is conceived as a never-ending quiz competition (remindful of the film They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?) with relatively short scenes and two alternating and switching actors who interpret words they draw out. Due to the outstanding improvisational skills of English actors, combined with the choice of words, the production is very witty yet imbued with keen political awareness and very poignant. It was scheduled for the Prologue Day for two reasons: as a tribute to the British company as one of the first to address the performing forms that came to be called durational performances and because fifteen years ago they toured Serbia although not on the occasion of Bitef. We could have chosen another, more recent “durational performance” of the same company but we deliberately chose this one to emphasize another specific aspect of time in theatre: long duration of not only one performance (24 hours) but the long life of one and the same production (several decades). Another fact worth mentioning is that Quizoola!, although based on improvisations, has been changing throughout the years of its existence, adjusting to the new problems in the world.
The Bible, the First Attempt of the SNG Drama in Ljubljana, directed by the renowned Slovenian director Jernej Lorenci is also relatively long (over three hours), but it belongs to the other, thematic stream of this year’s Bitef. As it has been noted, the stream also derives from the production of Mount Olympus: Fabre’s production is based on the Greek mythology in toto; Lorenci’s is based on the Bible. In both cases, therefore, the reference is to the basic mythical narratives of our Western civilisation. At the 51st Bitef, Lorenci appears with yet another production: a festival coproduction which Bitef Theatre is preparing in cooperation with the National Theatre in Belgrade, and which is to have its opening night during the festival. It will be staged in two parts in the same evening: the first part in the National Theatre on the “Raša Plaović” Stage, while the second one will be seen at the Bitef Theatre, which, in terms of venue and concept, is an original approach, at least in our context, and fully in line with the Bitef tradition. The most important thing regarding the aforementioned concept is that the production whose working title is Kingdom of Heaven is based on the Serbian epic literature. Therefore, like Lorenci’s other production and like Mount Olympus, this one is also based on major epic narratives, which in this case have taken shape in the epic literature.
These three productions are the cornerstones of the thematic stream of the 51st Bitef which comes down to shifting the focus to “great narratives” as Lyotard would put it, i.e. the key tales on which our civilisation is based. The choice of the theme was motivated by the realisation that Frances Fukuyama’s „end of history“- a utopian and meanwhile largely relativized projection of a non-conflict, post-cold-war epoch dominated by the unquestionable values of the liberal democratic world - has definitely not happened. Quite the reverse: we are re-living very intense historical moments marked by the global crisis of capitalism and vicarious democracy, a proliferation of wars and conflicts the world over and the refugee catastrophe. At an age like this, it seems that the time has come to return to the indubitably most significant great narratives. These narratives have, historically speaking, shaped our world, which is presently undergoing one of the biggest crises in modern times. This shift is all the more necessary as we had a long period of addressing „personal as political“, the principal ideological concept of the second wave of feminism, and scientific and political projects which have emerged from it. Of course, this does not mean that the concept of „personal as political“ has been rejected, but only that the contemporary experience takes us back to the “classical” political problems we naively believed we had overcome.
The link between both of the Lorenci’s productions and, up to a point, the Fabre’s, is their common quality of not being dominated by the dramatic mode (or representation) based on constructs of the story, conflict and character, but rather by the one based on the narration. In other words, the emphasis is on the act of onstage narration, on its meaning and equally, or perhaps even more so, on the auditive, on the energy and generally speaking, on purely physical aspects of the stage speech. This is particularly evident in The Bible, the First Attempt, both monumental and minimalistic, which can be seen as a stage essay or experiment in power and recital of the biblical text in modern theatre... Both the long duration of these productions and focusing the spectators’ attention on different aspects of stage narration with the emphasis on its physicality, correspond with the political nature of performing arts which, according to Lehmann, characterizes the postdramatic theatre. That political nature is not found in the content of the production but in the manner of its rendition. Concretely, the attention directed at listening is a political and in the broadest sense, civilizational alternative to the world of easy, quick, trivial and undemanding visual information.
A production which fully focuses on listening has an appropriate title - Hearing. The production by Amir Reza Koohestani, a young Iranian director, has already achieved considerable success at the leading world festivals. It is structured as a hearing based on listening and eavesdropping (hence the ambiguous title). An actress seated in the audience plays the head mistress of a girls’ boarding school and thus, by her position equalised (like the position of the spectators in the theatre) with the society, community or the public, conducts a hearing of several young women educated in the boarding school because one of them has heard (and reported to the relevant authorities) a male voice from an adjoining room. In Koohestani’s production, the form and the content interlace splendidly: a story about a society in which many themes are glossed over in silence, swept under the carpet, rumoured, whispered and told softly, is articulated as a staged hearing. With a leap of critic’s imagination, one could say that this production brings back to life the ancient Persian tradition of story-telling and links up with the line of basic civilization narratives which take us from the Greek mythology to the Bible, and then even further, to the medieval Serbian epics, and The Thousand and One Nights. Hearing marks the transition from the ancient practice of story-telling to modern themes as it addresses the position of women in modern-day Iran.
The challenges of the Muslim world, including the status of women, are also the subject of Snow, a production of the celebrated Thalia Theater in Hamburg. It is also based on “epic” material, i.e. the novel Snow by the Turkish Nobel Prize winner Orhan Pamuk. His main character and the narrator called Ka (clear allusion to the main character in Kafka’s Trial) sets off on an “epic trip” to his fatherland, returns from Germany to Turkey, where he becomes a participant of and a witness to an oneiric web of dramatic events reflecting at a number of levels the conflict between the Islamist and secular Turkey. Ersan Mondtag, a young Berlin director of Turkish origin takes this material to build a highly ironic political theatre with elements of trash poetry which cleverly toys with recognizable elements of the Turkish culture, from dervish dances to the architecture of steam baths.
If one draws the line here, one can conclude that all six productions share the notion of epic in its various meanings. As has been mentioned, the epical, narrational mode of presentation rather than the dramatic one prevails in all the productions. Most of them take their material from epics, novels or, in broader terms, myths; a number of them are of an epic duration too, thus conforming to the durational performance concept. If one adds to this that resorting to epical material is, in fact, a specific “trip” to the past and that the long duration puts the audience in a unique psychophysical state, a kind of dizziness, hallucinations, then all the arguments explaining the slogan of the 51st Bitef: Epic Trip are there.
The Epic Erip at the 51st BITEF ends with the production of The Extermination, also directed by Ersan Mondtag, based on the text by Olga Bach and performed by Konzert Theater in Bern, Switzerland. The text of this very young author addresses the relationships among a group of young people who test and abuse all freedoms of the modern Western society and experience ecstasy which, however, does not bring them happiness, but provokes fear, insecurity, helpless longing to experience the reality. The director has moved the story from the modern environment to the space of a bizarre, collapsing pastoral with artificial ponds, meadows and wild beasts, where the protagonists are clad, from head to toe, in costumes representing naked human bodies. It all creates the impression of extreme trash stage poetics. The universe of these young people is a spectacular Arcadian tall tale similar to the modern Western world free of conflict and brimming with well-being (for the privileged ones)… The director Ersan Mondtag (true name Ersan Aygun) is a young man (29) of Turkish origin, born and living in Berlin, and is the brightest rising star of the German-speaking theatre world, (two of his productions, including the Bern one, participated in Theatertreffen, the leading national festival). The broad international audience, however, is still not acquainted with his work. These two productions at the 51st Bitef will be the first major international presentation of the work of this gifted young artist who will, we are positive, shortly score the worldwide success.
The production titled The Extermination represents a splendid end of the “epic trip” to which comes down the dramaturgy of the 51st Bitef: from the cosmogonic vision of the origin of the world in the Greek mythology with all its horrors, fears, hopes, joys and ecstasies to the total decadence of that world shown as a disintegrated, impotent and trash pastoral.