Jeton Neziraj: the playwright exploring Kosovo’s identity on stage
Kosovar playwright Jeton Neziraj is helping to explore the national identity of the 10-year-old country, Europe’s youngest, with his company Qendra Multimedia. He speaks to Natasha Tripney
In 2008, when Kosovo declared independence, it became Europe’s youngest country. Part of the former Yugoslavia and bordered by Albania, Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia, with a population of just 1.9 million most of whom are Kosovar Albanians, it’s a country still in the process of rebuilding – and defining – itself following the war of the late 1990s.
Jeton Neziraj is one of the most significant and prolific figures in the country’s theatre scene. He’s written more than 20 plays, his work has been translated into many languages, and for a time he was the artistic director of the National Theatre of Kosovo. He is also the director of Qendra Multimedia, a cultural production company based in Kosovo’s capital city Pristina.
Neziraj’s work is irreverent and satirical in tone with a tendency towards Kafkaesque absurdity. It frequently vibrates with music and deploys post-dramatic tropes in a knowing manner.
His plays map the contemporary Kosovar experience, looking at what it is to be LGBT or Roma in the region, at systemic corruption and crumbling infrastructure, at the political, economic and social legacy of the war, the semi-deification of Bill Clinton and Madeleine Albright, and at the shifting role of theatre within all this.
The 2018 Qendra Multimedia showcase, the first event of its kind to be held in the country, began with a premiere of Neziraj’s latest play – The Hypocrites or the English Patient – at the city’s second performance space, the Oda Theater, one of just three theatres in Pristina, along with National Theatre and the Dodona Theatre, primarily producing work for young people.
The play is an attack on Kosovo’s failing health care system. Directed by his regular collaborator and wife Blerta Neziraj, its tone bordered on the cartoonish, but this heightened humour was tempered with compassion as it told of the exploitation of a young Syrian refugee by a couple of schemers who hatch a plot to sell one of her kidneys on the black market.
As with many of Neziraj’s plays, the production was aggressively topical, referencing a recent scandal in which doctors sold unnecessary medical treatments to patients. With its red and black rubber costumes and its camp quality, it occasionally brought to mind Rocky Horror in its tone and aesthetic, something which came to seem fitting given the situation it was describing encompassed both horror and comedy.
From 2008-11, Neziraj was artistic director of the National Theatre of Kosovo. However, he was, in his own words, “kicked out” for making work that challenged the dominant political narrative. The play that led to his removal is called One Flew Over the Kosovo Theatre. Written with a similar satirical impulse to his other work, it explores the complicated relationship between art and politics, particularly in a country such as Kosovo, still in the process of forging its own identity.
Five things you need to know about Qendra Multimedia
1. Qendra Multimedia was founded in 2002 by a group of young artists in Pristina.
2. It is an independent cultural organisation that aims to address political and social issues through art.
3. Qendra Multimedia has organised more than 100 artistic projects in Kosovo, as well as other places in Europe, Asia and Africa.
4. Director Jeton Neziraj is one of the country’s major playwrights and the former artistic director of the National Theatre of Kosovo.
5. Qendra also hosts the international literature festival Polip and a writer-in-residence programme called Pristina Has No River.
Set in the period leading up to independence, the play is a political satire about a troupe of Kosovar actors who are ordered to abandon the show they are currently working on so they can create a new production in which they are obliged to incorporate a speech written for the prime minister. They are told they will need to read this speech on stage. They are basically required to become compliant mouthpieces. Understandably this does not go down well.
“The former minister of culture was not very happy we were doing this play,” Neziraj says wryly. It was scheduled to play at the National Theatre and they tried to stop it. “In the end it happened,” he says, “though of course we had cases where people would go up on stage and say this is an anti-national play and shame on you. We had people wanting to destroy the play, we had police surrounding the theatre.”
They even had people calling in bomb scares, but he adds, “generally it was extremely well received”. The production went on to tour internationally, including performances in Serbia, where Kosovo’s independence is still not recognised.
Qendra Multimedia was the first Kosovar company to bring work to Belgrade after the war. It also supported the dual-language production of Romeo and Juliet that was staged in both countries in 2015. Neziraj clearly believes in the arts as a tool for bridge-building – Qendra also hosts the literary festival Polip, along with Serbian author Sasa Ilic, to promote cross-cultural cooperation between Serbia and Kosovo.
Last year Qendra Multimedia premiered 55 Shades of Gay, a play in which a gay couple apply to get married in a small Kosovar town; they are the first to do so. This triggers much bureaucratic hyperventilating and hand wringing, as the town’s officials deal with the prospect of two men tying the knot. Blerta Neziraj also directed this production, with a stage festooned with condom balloons and neon.
“It was a big responsibility for us because that was the first play published on an LGBT topic in Kosovo.” He was uncertain what the reception would be among the audience, but the play went down well with Pristina’s gay community. Despite a police presence at the opening, there was no disruption. Though unrelated, the month following the premiere, the country had its first Pride parade, which he feels is indicative of the way attitudes are shifting.
Other work in the showcase included A Play with Four Actors and Some Pigs and Some Cows and Some Horses and a Prime Minister and a Milka Cow and Some Local and International Inspectors (originally published under the – not too tricky to decipher – pseudonym, a ‘Kosovar Cynic’), a raucous, often very funny piece in which the UK, having foolishly left the EU, has left a vacancy that Kosovo is determined to fill, though it has to compete with Serbia to do so – a competition that, in one scene, takes the form of a boxing match.
Neziraj describes the 1970s and 1980s as a golden age for theatre in the region, but under the regime of Milosevic, when the Albanian culture and language was subjugated, and during the war, theatre all but shut down. In 1999, people started making work again but because artists had little opportunity to see work or travel, and because the continuity had been lost, this inevitably had an impact on the standard of productions, he explains.
Qendra Multimedia was founded after the war in 2002. “We were students wanting to change the world,” he says. “Now the war is over, let’s do theatre, let’s do films.” But it became apparent this was not as easy as the company had anticipated so it focused on making theatre for children and young people until 2007.
After he lost his position at the National Theatre, Neziraj came back to Qendra Multimedia and “started to discuss how to proceed, to ask: ‘How can we be more interesting? What kind of theatre did we want to create?’”
The company set out to do what no one else was doing, to focus on political theatre. It was also important to find a model of making work that was sustainable. To compete with better-resourced theatres on the European theatre market, it decided to produce original work and to tell Kosovar stories, rather than producing the work of other playwrights.
This approach was successful and its work has been performed in festivals across Europe, including those in Vienna, Lugano, Ljubljana, Sarajevo and Rijeka. Neziraj’s work has not yet had much exposure in the UK, though in 2015 National Theatre Wales presented a rehearsed reading of his play Wales Gets a King/Cardiff Hooligans. 55 Shades of Gay was recently published in a collection of Global Queer Plays by Oberon Books and in March next year it will be performed at La Mama in New York.
Earlier this year the EU Office in Kosovo gave Neziraj the European of the Year award. There’s a degree of irony in this given the trouble his organisation continues to face when it comes to visas, because Kosovo’s independence is not recognised by a number of countries. “This is one of the main obstacles in our work,” he says. “You have to deal with a huge amount of bureaucracy, spend lots of money and, in the end, you might still end up without a visa.” On two occasions productions of work by Qendra Multimedia were unable to go ahead due to visa issues and it is a problem for Kosovar artists more widely.
Despite being a self-labelled Kosovar cynic, he is optimistic. “I cannot imagine myself in a different context as a playwright. It would be tragic to me not to be surrounded by Kosovo’s contradictions. This is an excellent atmosphere for a writer.”
It’s also a responsibility, he adds. Theatre plays a part in the construction of the identity of Kosovo as a nation. “We are contributing to something. We are a stone in a castle, a small stone but it is something.
“The fact we are able to engage the audience in these discussions” is a positive thing, he stresses. As is the fact that this year’s premiere took place without a police presence. “We are all working to change things.”
Profile: Qendra Multimedia
Director: Jeton Neziraj
Based: Pristina, Kosovo
Number of staff: Seven
Number of productions: Two annually (one co-production with a local, regional or international theatre partner); also Polip, a literary festival in Pristina; and an annual programme of events (talks, films, readings), including publication of up to 10 books a year
Attendance 2017/18: 15,000 people attend the performances and literary events locally and internationally
Funding 2017/18: EU Office in Kosovo (€58,000), Olof Palme International Centre (€20,000), Goethe Institute (€16,000), Municipality of Pristina (€2,500), Austrian Embassy in Pristina (€3,000), Swiss Cooperation Office Kosovo (€15,000)
Contact: +381 (0) 38 555 799 email@example.com
For more information about Qendra Multimedia go to qendra.org