The controversial director has received death threats, been sued by the church and accused of ‘inciting the audience to murder’. He tells Nick Awde why theatre must seek to create conflict and resist commodification…
Oliver Frljic made a rare foray to the UK last month to deliver the 2018 Society for Theatre Research’s Edward Gordon Craig Lecture at London’s Royal Central School of Speech and Drama. Entitled The Representational Weaknesses of Democracy and Theatre in the Early 21st Century, it proved a compelling introduction to the Croatian director’s working practices and vision, and yet, despite the adulation of the UK’s top spaces for European directors who make a stir, this is one maverick they might not be hiring.
Certainly things are never straightforward in the Frljic universe, even when appraising the basics of his art. “I used to say that theatre should be the mirror of society,” he muses. “But one that we can smash on the head of that same society. I don’t say this kind of thing any more – the cancer of cynicism ate up the naivete of my tender age.”
A bit of background then. Born in Bosnia, Frljic (best pronounced ‘FURL-yeech’) arrived in Croatia as a refugee when only 16. He came to theatre through performance art, enrolling at the age of 25 to study theatre directing at the Academy of Dramatic Art in Zagreb, then embarked on shows that were already beginning to polarise audiences, that eventually saw the authorities and state theatre system (the major employer in countries like Croatia) accept, then reject, him.
In 2014, he became head of the Croatian National Theatre only to find himself the target of break-ins and death threats. He left in 2016. The following year in Poland, the ministry of culture withdrew funding from Poznan’s Malta Theatre Festival due to Frljic’s presence as guest artistic director, while in Warsaw his production of The Curse became a flashpoint. Religious and nationalist groups clashed with police and free speech advocates and there were stage invasions. The theatre itself was investigated for “inciting the audience to murder”.
And, in Czechia only this year, Our Violence, Your Violence at Brno’s International Theatre Festival fuelled protests and further stage invasions, and led a Catholic archbishop to sue the festival for “violating his human rights”, citing such scenes as simulated sex with a statue of Pope John Paul II and Jesus raping a Muslim woman.
For Frljic, it seems to be all going according to plan, however. Rather than see theatre as “a community of people who already share the same system of values and go to the theatre to confirm it”, he instead seeks “to create conflict with the audience, to divide them and so reaffirm their uniqueness”, not unity. And then there’s the framing, where the broader social context is as important as what takes place on stage – the protesters need to understand that they too are a part of it, that the show starts and ends long after the actual performance itself.
‘Those who like what I do expect me to question the social reality we live in’
Frljic is the first to admit it’s uncompromising stuff, but points out that his trajectory has been the search for new ways to convey the message, while also giving voices to those who are often invisible or under-represented in society. It’s not just a matter of focusing on the themes, he explains, “but also finding adequate forms of representation, the extending of performativity of theatre as a medium. The challenge is how to minimise its fictional framework in order to make people mistake it for the reality it represents.” His oft-quoted Balkan Macht Frei is a play that does precisely that. In one particularly harrowing scene, an actor is relentlessly waterboarded by two other actors, which often provokes audience members to jump on stage to stop the ‘torture’.
The fact that this perceived notoriety doesn’t lock him off to theatres in other countries meets with mixed feelings. “Some of them have genuine interest in my work. They understand what I do and offer me the platform to go further in my artistic and social endeavour. But for some others, I am just the name, label, another commodity on the theatre market.”
“Dissatisfaction itself has become a commodity,” he says, wryly quoting Marxist philosopher Guy Debord before adding: “Every day I see the headhunters from Western Europe’s theatres searching for fresh blood from problematic countries. At one point, everybody was asking me if I knew any directors from Ukraine. Then the focus shifted to Syria and Poland.
“There’s something deeply humiliating and colonial in the reduction of the work of an artist to her or his country of birth and the political problems of that same country.”
Five things you need to know about Oliver Frljic
1. Concepts and practice evolved through staging work in the countries of the former Yugoslavia with regular themes of the devastating effects of war, nationalism, rise of ultra-right-wing movements and self-victimisation in society. I Hate the Truth is a personal analysis of the effects on his own family.
2. Theatre is “a place to remember what has been suppressed by official narratives”, and uses “counter-memory to present those parts of history that are not present in official narratives”, giving voices to those who are unseen in society as a result. Aleksandra Zec, about a 12-year-old girl killed by Croatian soldiers in 1991, “immediately caused violent responses because a war crime like this doesn’t fit into the prevailing lies about our Homeland War and self-victimisation”.
3. Damned Be the Traitor of His Homeland holds the record for a Slovenian production with the most international fixtures at more than 60.
4. Undivine Comedy went into rehearsal at Krakow’s Stary Theatre, focusing on Polish anti-Semitism, but
was cancelled by theatre head Jan Klata. Although not staged for the public, the production was hailed
by some Polish critics as one of the theatre events of the year.
5. The Curse at Warsaw’s Teatr Powszechny, loosely based on a play by Stanislaw Wyspianski, provoked major reactions. Almost every show was accompanied by protests for and against at the front of the theatre. Polish theatre director Krzysztof Warlikowski openly declared his support for the production.
The theatremakers Frljic counts as helping shape his own theatrical language hold a revealing mirror up to our own heritage. He recalls seeing shows that broke the mould such as Goat Island’s Sea and Poison – “a formative experience” – and Jurgen Gosch’s “impressive” Macbeth. “Although it took me a while to see their work live, I made an early acquaintance of the Wooster Group while watching bad VHS copies of their shows and reading about them. And, of course, Forced Entertainment. The humour of their work – which results in one of the most serious theatrical approaches I know – the way they question theatrical representation, different strategies to introduce the ‘irruption of real’ in their work – all this had a great influence on me.
“It also helped me to understand the work of other theatre-makers. It was a great honour for me to be part of the Institute of Failure [organised by Forced Entertainment’s Tim Etchells and Goat Island’s Matthew Goulish] during the Performance Studies International conference in Zagreb in 2009, dedicated to the concept of misperformance. And I can easily identify with Tim Etchells’ words about ‘being shamed for losing in a race that one had never entered’.”
But, despite this very Anglo inspiration, Frljic remains a stranger to our shores. Employment-wise, this is unlikely to dent his prospects. He is artistic coordinator for theatre within the Rijeka European Capital of Culture 2020 programme, while in Germany he is busy at the Schauspiel Hannover developing a play inspired by Gotthold Lessing’s Nathan the Wise. Never one to shy away from the elephant in the room, here Frljic sets out to address anti-Semitism in German society with a set consisting solely of shoes that vividly evokes the Holocaust.
After that, he’ll work in Stuttgart on a Romeo and Juliet that he’s happy to say will leave everyone confused. “I don’t want to be hostage to the expectations of the audience. Those who like what I do expect me to critically question the social reality we live in, while those who disparage what I do use that same social critique as an argument for the artistic disqualification of my work. You know, the ‘art should be apolitical’ type of discourse.”
Viewed from a landscape such as the UK that is less fractured by any recent traumatic past, Frljic and other contemporary provocateurs such as Milo Rau, Zentrum fuer Politische Schoenheit and Pussy Riot raise the problem of relevance and accessibility. Their predecessors (in spirit if not in practice) such as Dario Fo, Jerzy Grotowski or Augusto Boal made transitions to the UK with varying success, but expectations are very different today.
Would Frljic’s cultural/political agenda indeed miss the mark with UK audiences, raised as we are in a different grammar of culture with a distinct vocabulary of protest? Would well-aimed social theatre come across as a form of shock-jock performance art? “I don’t think so. There are different layers of meaning in every work. The author can’t control this meaning, it depends on the knowledge and experience of the recipient. A work has to be smarter than its author, otherwise there’s no need for it.”
Frljic jokes about being given the chance to first stage his work in the UK before we pass judgement, but then turns serious: “In reality, the audience can easily find the analogies within the society they live in. We recently performed Our Violence, Your Violence in Bogota in front of an audience of 1,800. They understood the show perfectly according to their own political and historical experience.”
He shrugs. “The question is: what do we want to communicate? In which form? What is the impact we aim for? The physical act of staging a show is always a political act.”
What Frljic does find disturbing is the prevailing conservatism in theatre thinking. “In order to prove itself as profitable in the neoliberal market, theatre has to become another commodity. And, in order to survive, that’s the moment when theatre becomes the worst form of entertainment.”
Any society, he adds, must understand that theatre can only be for the common good. If we put it on the market, it becomes a slave to making profit. “Then we stop fulfilling the needs of our audience but its wishes. And that’s the death of theatre.”
Further details: residenztheater.de 
CV: Oliver Frljic
Born: 1976, Travnik, Bosnia and Herzegovina
Training: Theatre directing, Academy of Dramatic Art, Zagreb, Croatia, 1976.
• Turbofolk, Croatian National Theatre, Rijeka (2008)
• Damned Be the Traitor of His Homeland, Slovenian Youth Theatre, Ljubljana (2010)
• I Hate the Truth, Theatre ITD, Zagreb (2011)
• Danton’s Death, Dubrovnik Summer Festival (2012)
• Hamlet, Zagreb Youth Theatre (2014)
• Aleksandra Zec, HKD, Rijeka (2014)
• Balkan Macht Frei, Residenztheater Munchen (2015)
• Requiem for Europe, Staatsschauspiel Dresden (2016)
• Our Violence Your Violence, HAU Hebbel Am Ufer, Berlin; Co-production: Wiener Festwochen, Vienna; Slovenian Youth Theater, Ljubljana; Kunstfest, Weimar; Croatian National Theatre, Rijeka (2016)
• Mauser, Residenztheater Munchen; The Curse, Teatr Powszechny Warsaw; Gorki – An Alternative for Germany? Maxim Gorki Theatre Berlin (2017)