Now in its 52nd year, BITEF continues to support cutting-edge theatre trends. Natasha Tripney reports from this year’s festival, which explores nationalism and the rise of the far right in Europe
The Belgrade International Theatre Festival, commonly known as BITEF, is now in its 52nd year. Founded in 1967, by Mira Trailovic and Jovan Cirilov in what was then Yugoslavia, throughout the 1970s and 1980s the festival was a vital space where avant-garde artists from the east and west could come together.
Under the artistic directorship of Ivan Medenica, it has recently been reinvigorated and is now a major platform for political theatre from the Balkan region and beyond.
Each year, the festival takes a different theme. This year it was Svet Bez Ljudi, which translates as ‘World Without Us’. It’s an evocative term, suggestive of a post-apocalyptic landscape, a de-peopled planet. Posters showing a baleful blue-eyed gorilla were dotted all around Belgrade. It was also intended as a provocation: alongside the seven performances in the main festival programme, there were also three major installations – performances without performers.
The main programme featured work from Serbia, Slovenia, Croatia, Israel, France, Germany, Belgium, Switzerland and Estonia – the country’s first time at BITEF.
The festival opened officially with a performance of Suite No. 3 ‘Europe’ by French director Joris Lacoste – who in 2016 won BITEF’s Jovan Cirilov Special Prize for his Suite No. 2 – at the Yugoslav Drama Theatre. This piece took the form of a classical recital, in which a series of banal and sometimes repellent texts – the outpourings of YouTube shopping vloggers, right-wing screeds, and the contents of anti-abortion videos – are set to music. The chosen texts encompassed every official language of the European Union to create a kind of aural collage. Impeccably performed by two actor-singers and a pianist, the piece felt a little clinical at times, but its power lay in the way it placed language and listening at its heart.
Central to this year’s festival were two pieces by Croatian director Oliver Frljic, a controversial figure both in his home country and in Poland, where his production of The Curse resulted in protests and an investigation by state prosecutors. He has said often in interviews that if his work doesn’t create a degree of upset, then on some level it has failed.
The first piece by Frljic was Gorki – Alternative for Germany, made for Berlin’s Gorki Theater. The production begins with an ironic unpacking of the theatre’s reputation for placing marginalised voices, in particular immigrant voices, at the centre of its work and addressing the question of diversity – or rather the dismaying lack of it – on German stages.
As is often the case with Frljic, he packs a lot into this piece. Following this opening act of theatrical self-interrogation/laceration, the production shifted gears in order to tackle the alarming growth in popularity of far-right party Alternative fur Deutschland in Germany. Frljic has an interest in exposing the fragility of democracy and a fondness for acts of disruption; here he asked members of the Gorki ensemble to become AfD party members. Some refused, some went along with it, and this debate is woven into the production. At one point, a replica of the Maxim Gorki Theatre is revealed on stage. This huge model is wheeled forward until it completely fills the space; it is simultaneously monumental and fragile. The actors then proceed to dismantle it, to pull it apart and tear it down.
The second production by Frljic is a version of Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author, a piece that premiered at Zagreb’s Kerempuh Satirical Theatre earlier this year. The first 15 minutes sees the ensemble in the process of staging what appears to be a new satirical piece. This takes the form of a wedding scene in which the guests, including the former Croatian minister of culture Zlatko Hasanbegovic and Thompson, the controversial nationalist singer, cavort in pig masks while snorting lines of coke doled out by a Catholic priest.
The director of this show, played with relish by Jerko Marcic, is portrayed as a volatile and potty-mouthed individual, quick to lose his temper and prone to hurling abuse at his actors.
It’s at this point that Pirandello’s untethered sextet of characters disrupts proceedings, searching desperately for an end to their story. It’s easy to see what might have driven Frljic to dabble in text-based theatre. In his hands, Six Characters becomes a piece about Croatian nationalism and the search for identity, both cultural and political, as well as the hypocrisy of justifying reprehensible behaviour in the name of ‘the family’.
With its focus on authoritarianism, it’s perhaps not surprising that the piece ends up with the character of the director forcing one of the performers – the captivating Linda Begonja – to engage in a sexual act. Suddenly we’re in #MeToo territory. Women, for so long fodder in men’s power games, start to speak up only to be immediately interrogated and doubted: why did you say nothing before now?
The piece concludes with a scene of violence – with the attempted rape of Begonja’s character on the Croatian flag. It’s a distressing scene but while he’s no doubt alert to the irony, it’s still frustrating that, in addressing the humiliation and violation of women by powerful men, Frljic does not find a way of resisting its depiction.
As a director he’s excellent at locating people’s sensitive areas. This is certainly the case here. He also highlights audience complicity and passivity – one scene in Gorki sees two white German actors competing to see who has the most tragic backstory and therefore deserves a place in the theatre’s diverse ensemble. The audience members are told that their applause will be the deciding factor. Most of them play along.
5 things you need to know about BITEF
1. Mira Trailovic and Jovan Cirilov founded the festival in 1967. Its current artistic director is Ivan Medenica.
2. During the 1960s and 1970s, the then-Yugoslavian festival created a link between the eastern and western avant-garde scenes.
3. The theme for BITEF 2018 was ‘World Without Us’, and alongside seven performances in the main programme, there were also three major installations.
4. Companies presenting work at the 2018 festival included Serbia, Germany, Israel, France, Slovenia, Croatia, Belgium, Switzerland and, for the first time, Estonia.
5. The Grand Prix at this year’s festival went to Nachlass, Pieces sans Personnes; the Special Award went to Requiem for L and Eternal Russia; and the Audience Award went to Suite No. 3: ‘Europe’.
He’s also much funnier than people give him credit for, though he uses comedy as a weapon and is alert to the line beyond which the laughter becomes ugly. His work can be blunt at times, but, as both pieces make clear, politeness and timidity are of little use in the face of the resurgence of fascism in Europe.
As a prologue to the festival, Slovenia’s Mladinsko Theatre presented Odilo. Obscuration. Oratorio. at Belgrade’s cavernous Sava Centre – where last year Jan Fabre presented his 24-hour spectacle Mount Olympus. Directed by Dragan Zivadinov, co-founder of the Neue Slowenische Kunst movement – and the man who staged the first ever zero-gravity theatre performance – the production was simultaneously a summoning and exorcism of the Slovenian-born Nazi war criminal Odilo Globocnik. It used a chorus to avoid centring and glorifying the figure of Odilo in any way. This made for an occasionally frustratingly repetitive piece, but one that raised fascinating questions about how to create a theatrical language of rejection and resistance of national myths.
The contribution of Serbia’s National Theatre was Bollywood, a musical-comedy by writer and performer Maja Pelevic in which the inhabitants of an economically ravaged small town are so desperate for foreign investment that when they hear a big Bollywood producer is in town, a company of local actors go out of their way to appeal to him. The piece, mostly performed in verse, has a colourful kitsch aesthetic in which the cast wears costumes patterned with clouds and rainbow-coloured cows fill the stage. Though markedly different in its approach, it explored similar terrain to Frljic’s work – notably the social function of art in a broken capitalist society.
Meanwhile, over at Terazije Theatre – a space that is usually home to the Serbian version of Phantom of the Opera and other popular musicals – NO43 Filth by Estonian artists Ene-Liis Semper’s and Tiit Ojasoo saw the entire stage and all the performers covered in mud in order to show a society at a point of collapse.
The festival’s three installations included Eternal Russia, a collaboration between Russian theatre critic Marina Davydova and visual artist Vera Martynov, that took place in the backstage areas of the National Theatre. While the description as “historical parkour” was probably pushing it, this journey through Russian history felt at times like a walk-through Adam Curtis documentary, an audiovisual essay on failed utopias, Stalin’s crushing of the Russian avant-garde, and the way in which nostalgia, then and now, can be a potent political weapon.
My favourite section was a pastiche silent film about the revolutionary feminism of early 20th-century Russia, a period when nudism was a tool of protest and proponents of the ‘Down With Shame’ movement paraded through the streets naked. The parallels with radical groups such as Pussy Riot are obvious.
Pa’am, by young Israeli musician and multimedia artist Nadav Barnea, was staged at the festival’s home theatre, a converted church and one of the most atmospheric performance spaces in Belgrade. In this piece, eight TV sets were suspended from a metal scaffold. The resulting interplay of voice and video, music and light, is used to create a hypnotic collage.
The third installation was Nachlass, Pieces Sans Personnes by Rimini Protokoll’s Stefan Kaegi. It intertwined eight interviews with people about the preparations they were making for the end of their lives. What gets left behind, for family members, loved ones, society?
The day after I left Belgrade, the festival concluded where it began in the huge faintly spaceship-like Sava Center, with Alain Platel’s Requiem for L, a production that featured 14 musicians from around the world.
In a public discussion held at the start of the festival, Frljic, in conversation with Croatian philosopher Srecko Horvat, spoke of “fighting to prove the relevance of theatre in the present moment”. While it might not allow for an instantaneous response to current events, there is value in this. As life increasingly comes to resemble theatre, theatre becomes the space for “true politics”, a place for reflection, provocation and debate of the state of the world.
Artistic director: Ivan Medenica
Founded: 1967, annual
Base: Belgrade, Serbia
Date: September 13-22, 2018 (52th edition)
Spaces/venues (2018): Seven
Participating companies (2018): 10, main programme
Audience figures (2017): 3,835, plus an audience of 220,000 who watched TV live streaming of Mount Olympus
Countries represented (2018): 10
Total turnover (2017): Income – €396,640 (£354,810); in-kind contribution – €200,000 (£178,900)
Ticket sales (2017): €3,835 (£3,430), complimentary tickets – €1,767 (£1,580); sold tickets – €2,068 (£1,850); profit – €36,400 (£32,560)
Funders/sponsors: City of Belgrade – €200,000 (£178,900); Ministry of Culture – €120,000 (£107,350); sponsors – €36,750 (£32,875)
Key contact: Executive director Jelena Knezevic email@example.com 
Further details are available at bitef.rs