Ivan Medenica, Bitef Artistic Director
Ivan Medenica, Bitef Artistic Director

“Let's Start Love Over”

The thematic line of the previous, 52nd Bitef, was met with a unanimously positive response, both in the media, and among the audience and theatre professionals. Truth be told, the claim that the present-day Europe and the world are beset with serious problems in the form of an explosion of right-wing populism, xenophobia, authoritarian regimes (“non-liberal democracies”), uncontrolled capitalism and deterioration of workers’ and human rights, and consequently, the explicit need for theatre to react to them, could hardly be challenged at all… In spite of that general consent, however, some different opinions were voiced, wondering whether, despite the intransigent insight and condemnation - as epitomized by the close-up of a gorilla face on the 52nd Bitef poster - theatre could and should offer an alternative, a consolation.

As an art form deeply connected to social (self)representations, theatre cannot and should not offer oblivion, but an alternative to the current, predominantly oppressive forms of the functioning of the society. In line with the concept of politicalness in theatre, developed by the German theoretician Hans-Thies Lehmann in his book Postdramatic Theatre - later slightly changed, in the spirit of more “orthodox”, Brechtian thoughts on the topic - one could say that theatre does not act politically in terms of its topics, but rather through its forms, its ways of representation, the types of interaction between the performer and the audience. “Theatre - not as a thesis but as a practice - demonstrates, in an exemplary manner, the connection between the heterogenous which symbolises the utopias of a “different life”: indirectly spiritual, artistic, and physical work, individual and collective activity”. In other words, the very manner in which it is organized and in which it functions, the community which is, in the performative here and now, built by the actors and the audience, can pose an alternative to the existing communities: interaction instead of domination, collective enterprise instead of singular success, solidarity instead of individualism, cooperation instead of struggle, compassion instead of egocentrism… It is our belief that the theatre, thus understood and realized, can still offer hope, and invite us to, as the famous song states - “let’start love over”. 
The form of contemporary theatre in which this alternative form of community is most visibly created, is the one based on an emphasized audience participation, the break of the naturalistic fourth wall between the social reality of audience space and onstage fictional reality, the mutual permeation and cooperation between the performers and the audience… The act of audience participation is most certainly not a novum in performing arts, since it represented a distinct feature of numerous phenomena and tendencies in the historical avant-garde movements of the 20th century, which does not mean that it does not renew itself, only to appear in new forms and under new names. The most recent form of that type of interactive theatre is nowadays mostly called “immersive theatre”. According to Patrice Pavis, immersive theatre is rarely created on classical stage but rather in site-specific surroundings, where actors address the viewer (usually in their own name) as an individual, not as a part of an anonymous group, they care for him, invite participation, offering a unique transformative experience which will let him rediscover the world, the people, himself. “Immersion is more thorough than mere participation or interactive acting, it cleans and bathes the viewer in the water of emotions, which is to help him get reborn” (Pavis). 

The new community of this sort, based on participation, self-abandonment and cooperation within a performing situation, is the ultimate core of 53rd Bitef main programme. It is presented through the performance Invited, by the choreographer Seppe Baeyens, produced by the renowned Belgian troupe Ultima Vez from Brussels, which closes 53rd Bitef. In an empty, neutral, undefined space, performers of various sex, age, and ethnicity, who do not differ from the audience in their appearance, one by one (until the very end we are unsure of how many of them there actually are) start inviting the audience to join them in making simple movements, actions, and choreographies. It leads to a continual constructing and deconstructing of various constellations of people in space, to physical and spatial dynamics, to testing and build up trust, to the creation of ever stronger energy and spiritual exchange which culminates in a pervasive, liberating oceanic feeling. On the same day, yet another performance takes place, as a culmination of an organic whole which represents the peak of the concept “let’s start love over”, the performance Rare Birds by a French new circus (the troupe “Un Loup pour l'Homme” from Lille).  It is neither participative nor immersive, but displays the same quality of the relationship among its performers like the one between the performers and the audience in Invited. Without a single prop, the performers climb one another, lift each other onto their shoulders, twirl and throw each other about… In short, they develop relationships based on an absolute trust, unconditional support, and a complete physical correlation, creating thus an essential, physical, organic unity.
The transition to this ultimately happy end, the development of a true, powerful, organic community is accomplished by the performance Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, directed by Sebastian Horvat in SNG Drama from Ljubljana, based on the eponymous Fassbinder’s film. The breaking of the fourth wall, immersion of the audience into the world of fiction, mixing the audience and the actors, which happens in the second part of the performance, none of this, here, however develops a community. On the contrary, we, the audience, assume the role of the representatives of a petite bourgeoisie society, we meddle, in a rude and direct manner in a love affair of an elderly German widow, a cleaner, and a young Arabic migrant worker, causing its ultimate destruction. But as this immersion of audience into the world of the protagonists during the performance Ali: Fear Eats the Soul will make us feel strong empathy, so will love triumph through the magnificent performance of Nataša Barbara Gračner and other Slovenian actors.

Projecting new forms of togetherness, based, among other things, on interactive scene practices as a unique laboratory of interpersonal relationships is what, as it has been emphasised, our utopian aspiration at 53rd Bitef is. Still, an attempt to build a new community is inevitably preceded by the crisis and the destruction of the current one. The causes of that destruction (right-wing populism, authoritarian regimes, xenophobia…) were tackled at 52nd Bitef, while 53rd mostly states, maps out, checks the forms in which it appears, i.e. it points out which forms of society are collapsing in the contemporary world: romantic relationships, family, the entire society, and the state.
The central performance of the first part, the one which opens 53rd Bitef is Orestes in Mosul by NTGent, based on Aeschylus’s Oresteia, and directed by one of the politically and artistically most radical and most provocative directors in the world, Milo Rau. Oresteia is a formative dramatic tale of our western civilisation: Aeschylus celebrates the transition from the tribal society based on retaliation, which destroys families, cities and states (Troy, regal home of Argos…) to the legal, democratic order of Athens in the 5th century BC. Rau places Oresteia in the Iraq town of Mosul, destroyed by the ISIS terror and American bombing, combines actual footage from this town and theatre plot which re-enacts the documented scenes, entwines the story of the destruction of Troy and the regal home of Argos with the destruction of Mosul, which houses Niniva, a civilization much older than the one of the ancient Greek, links Belgic and Iraqi actors, fiction and document… Unlike Aeschylus, and in line with contemporary directions of Oresteia (P. Stein, M. Erceg, M. Thalheimer), Rau does not offer reconciliation, but demonstrates the fact that violence breeds violence, that we live in the world of total deterioration of justice, law, and democracy. 
Like in the past three years, the beginning of Bitef is once again not its grand opening but the Prologue Day, which this year presents the project Remote Belgrade by Rimini Protokoll and the authors Stefan Kaegi and Jörg Karrenbauer. Remote Belgrade is scheduled for the Prologue not only because it is not a recent production (it has already been played in a dozen cities worldwide) but also because it represents a wonderful introduction into the thematic line of the programme (study of community), but also into the artistic one (participation, immersive theatre). It displays a thoroughly immersive character since the audience does not fit into drama fiction or theatre situation but, actually, creates one: following the instructions of a digitized voice coming out of headphones, the audience are walking through their city, from one location to another, as if they were discovering an unknown place, encouraged to reconsider their attitude to their own city, their own community, and the mutual connection between the individual and the group.

After the performance Orestes in Mosul comes a range of those which deal with various types of complete entropy of contemporary society in its various forms. Like a number of other performances at 53rd Bitef (some of which have already been mentioned) these also do not belong to performative forms such as new circus, contemporary dance, or performance-installations, but can in a broad sense be called “drama theatre”, often based on supreme acting skills. Of course, those are not classical drama performances, but display a “Bitef-like quality” in their use of various contemporary theatre techniques such as “rewriting” (writing a new text based on a plot and characters of a classical play), an elaborate use of video, but also, like in the aforementioned performances, emphasized audience participation. They do not reach the full degree of immersiveness but, through playing directly to the audience and the proximity between the performing space and the audience (the stage almost literally “dives into” the audience space), they close the divide into viewers’ reality and the world of fiction. This group is represented by two performances from Serbia, Tartuffe by Igor Vuk Torbica (National Theatre Sombor and SNP Novi Sad), and Why Does Herr R. Run Amok? Directed by Bobo Jelčić (Yugoslav Drama Theatre). In neither of the two performances does audience involvement aim at the creation of a new community but, on the contrary, at articulating an ideological attitude about responsibility of the contemporary society, of the audience, for what the protagonists are going through. And what they are going through is a disintegration of individual existence on every level (wonderful Boris Isaković in the role of G.R.), or a family disintegration as the result of manipulative representatives of authoritarian regime (excellent Saša Torlaković as Tartuffe).
After more than fifteen years, Bitef once again hosts one of the leading German and world directors, Thomas Ostermeier and his Schaubühne from Berlin. The performance under the title which, for the concept of 53rd Bitef, can almost be considered a leitmotif, History of Violence, reminds of this director’s “early works”, based on contemporary topics (urban violence), vehement acting, live music, and an elaborate use of video. Thematically speaking, the performance, based on the young French writer Édouard Louis’ bestseller, fits perfectly into the topic of the disintegration of the community. Like the performance Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, Ostermeier’s History of Violence also revolves around a socially problematic erotic-love relationship between a young French provincial student and a young Arab, exposed to outside, complex and contradicting factors, from provincial bigotry and intolerance, unprofessionalism and prejudice in public service (police and health system), to poverty and other forms of a complex colonial heritage. 

The first festival whole, the one dealing with the phenomenon of the disintegration of the society/community, is rounded off with the performances Youth Without God by Borut Šeparović (Montažstroj and ZKM, Zagreb), and YUROPA, choreographed by Qudus Onikeku from Lagos, Nigeria. Youth Without God deals with the problem of peer violence induced by the obsession with video games and photographing everything including extreme brutalities, and sharing it on social networks, but also with the rise of Nazi ideas among the young, linked with “white, Christian” terrorism, like the one Breivik committed. After a number of projects which have presented the refugee crisis from the western, European point of view, the dance performance YUROPA is an authentic, utterly moving view of the same topic as seen by the victims, the Africans themselves.
The culmination of 53rd Bitef, the one after which we try to offer a hope that, on scene or off of it, it might be possible to renew love, trust, support, solidarity, empathy and other humanist values a community should be based on, is reached through the French performance The Mother House by the famous transgender conceptual artist Phia Ménard, and the dance installation On Flesh and Concrete by the Brazilian choreographer Luciana Lara. The performance The Mother House completes the arc started with Orestes in Mosul: from Rau’s problematizing the formative narrative of Ancient Greek and therefore also our civilization, to the Phia Ménard’s firm attitude that we have not done anything to prevent the destruction of an ancient temple, the symbol of our civilization, which we spent centuries of arduous labour to build. Luciana Lara’s immersive dance installation is very abstract in terms of choreography, but also vehement and direct, it dumps our flesh over concrete and confronts us with garbage monstrosities our society has built… Apart from the fact that it is, alongside the Nigerian performance, important because it arrives from outside of the European context, it is socially relevant because it comes from a country which nowadays, on international level, represents the most traumatic expression of social destruction, ideological revisionism, and a turn towards extreme right-wing politics.