53rd Bitef – Overall breakdown and alternative

On the photo: Ivan Medenica, Bitef artistic director and Seppe Baeyens ; photo: Vesna Milosavljevic


Orest in Mossul by Milo Rau, one of the politically and artistically most radical and significant directors today, will be presented at the opening ceremony of the 53rd BITEF on 18 September and Invited produced by a Brussels company Ultima vez will close the festival on 26 September.

The lead concept of the 53rd BITEF consists of productions addressing primarily the breakdown of the political community (and that of the family and romantic/ partner relationships) and those trying to offer an alternative. That alternative comes down to the renewal of humanistic values as the bases of the modern community since the Age of Enlightenment to this day: freedom, equality, solidarity, collective endeavour and dedication, trust, Medenica said at a press conference at the Flemish Cultural Institute.

The action in Orest in Mossul, which premiered in April this year, takes place in the Iraqi city of Mosul ravaged as much by the terrorism of the Islamic state (ISIS) which had made it its capital as the attacks of the US aviation against Islamists.

The production combines film material from Mosul and live stage action re-enacting the recorded scenes and interspacing the story about the destruction of Troy and the royal house of Argos with the destruction of Mosul, i.e. Nineveh, a civilisation much more ancient than our/Greek civilisation; it brings together Belgian and Iraqi actors, fiction and document. Unlike Aeschylus , Rau does not offer reconciliation and establishment of democracy and shows instead that global devastation, violence breeding violence and collapse of democracy are the general features of the modern-day world.

In a video message shown at the central conference of the 53rd BITEF, Rau stated that the question his production asks is if democracy is still possible today.

The answer of a kind will be provided by Invited, a production by Seppe Baeyens, as one of the principal building blocks of the main programme embodied in the artistic line dedicated this time to the so-called immersive theatre, i.e. that which erases the difference between the stage and the auditorium, the performers and the spectators and includes the participation of the audience.

As Medenica pointed out, Baeyens’s production asks if the theatre by itself, with its strategies and forms, can be a means allowing to construct new communities in the contemporary society which is politically collapsing.

The most exciting part of Seppe’s production for me is its political aspect even if, perhaps, this was not the artist’s intention, Medenica said, adding that almost to the very end one does not know who the performers are as they are of different age, sex, origin and mix with spectators in a shared empty space.

We realise that a person is a performer only when he approaches us or somebody else, offers his hand and invites us to run, lie down, make different spatial-choreographic configurations and thereby shed fetters, put to test the relations of trust, solidarity, support, collective endeavour, i.e. creation, Medenica said indicating that Baeyens’s production is the symbol of hope and an example how theatre strategies may be used to create a better world and novel communities.

Baeyens said that eight years ago when he began his cooperation with Ultima Vez Company, he organised workshops with different groups of people in Molenbeek, a borough in Brussels with a large migrant population. Three musicians and 12 performers participate in the production; the youngest is12 and the oldest 85 years of age. At some point during the performance, after the spectators have entered, there are as many as 150 individuals on the stage.

According to Baeyens the spectators can decide what to do on the stage and at a given moment it becomes their exclusive responsibility as the performers withdraw.

People become aware of their responsibility for what is happening, Baeyens said, adding that the performers return to the stage after a short while, which depends on the reactions of the spectators on the stage.

Baeyens said that in this manner “theatre returns to the people”.

Nonetheless, the message conveyed by the production is not optimistic only as some spectators refuse to participate. This is also a part of the community, of our life, Baeyens said. 

The conference of the 53rd BITEF at the Flemish Cultural Centre was also attended by representatives of European theatre networks: International Network for Contemporary Performing Arts (IETM) and the European Festivals Association (EFA) and Mrs. Marina Jovićević , Serbian ambassador to Belgium to whom Medenica also offered his thanks.

Belgium will be the most represented country and have the most visible national production at the 53rd BITEF thus continuing the tradition established by its productions these last years: Mount Olympus To Glorify the Cult of Tragedy by Jan Fabre which won the Grand Prix in 2017 and Requiem for L. by Alain Platel which the audience greeted with ovations in the Sava Centre in 2018 and which won a special award.

As the tradition wants it, the forthcoming festival will  take place in the latter half of September. The main programme will feature productions from non-European countries, the best domestic and regional productions and, traditionally, productions by leading European theatres.