There’s a tendency when writing about theatre to bandy about words like ‘necessary’ and ‘bold’, in a way that can dilute their meaning, but last week in Prishtina, the capital city of Kosovo, I saw work where no other words would do.
I was in Prishtina for the second showcase of Kosovan theatre hosted by production company Qendra Multimedia. Much of the work I saw over a four-day period dealt directly with the politics and history of the region.
Kosovo is a small country, with a population of less than two million and produces just 20 new productions a year. It is also a new country, gaining its independence in 2008, making it the youngest country in Europe, in more ways than one – half the population is under 25.
Prishtina is small but lively, with a central pedestrianised street that even on a chilly Wednesday evening felt awake and alive, the cafes and bars were full. Unemployment levels are high – there’s a local joke about Prishtina having some of the best qualified baristas in the world. Serbia still refuses to recognise Kosovo’s statehood, and the same goes for Spain, Romania and Greece. This makes it very hard for artists to get visas and present their work internationally. There was a lot of talk while we were there about isolation and what this means for those trying to make work.
However, following a snap election in October, people are – cautiously – hopeful. Last week it was confirmed that Albin Kurti’s Vetevendosje party was set to lead the new government.
Most of the work presented over the four-day showcase grappled with the country’s history and politics in an incredibly direct way: endemic corruption, the broken health care system, and the psychological, political and economic aftermath of the 1998/99 war, all featured. This was most apparent in The Living Sphinx, a remarkable piece from director Blerta Neziraj for the National Theatre of Kosovo. She took a play by the Albanian writer Rexhep Qosja, written in the 1970s about the blood feud system still prevalent at the time, and condensed and reframed it to address the spate of still unsolved murders of journalists and intellectuals that took place after the war.
Her production combined the poetic and metaphorical language of the original with televised interviews with relatives of the dead – capping it all with a chilling coup de theatre involving a motorbike zooming through the stalls. The piece was underscored by the haunting voice of Edona Reshitaj and the actors were regularly positioned with their backs to the audience, confronting their reflections in the mirrored back wall, the poetry juxtaposed with the cold reality of a swift and sudden death.
Each time the production is performed a family member of one of the people killed during this period comes on stage and talks to a journalist about their experience. During the performance we attended, a man spoke about his father, who had been killed 20 years ago. By the end of the piece there were people in the audience weeping. In a country in which there has been no reparation process, the stage became a space of reckoning.
A similar direct and uncompromising approach was taken by In Five Seasons: An Enemy of the People – the highlight of the showcase for me, also directed by Blerta Neziraj and written by her husband, Jeton Neziarj, the renowned Kosovar playwright and one-time artistic director of the National Theatre of Kosovo. It used Ibsen’s play as a frame within which to explore the rampant illegal construction work that took place in Prishtina in the aftermath of the war in the name of ‘reconstruction’.
Planning laws were ignored and the conditions for workers were often perilous. Deaths were frequent, and the workers families went uncompensated. A local architect, Rexhep Luci, who tried to resist this was met with threats and resistance and later killed.
The resulting production fused the familiar satiric energy of Neziraj’s other work – it was full of scenes of people in positions of power pissing luxuriantly; the centrepiece of the set was a urinal – with a poetic sensibility and an incredibly tender and moving coda between Armend Smajli as the Architect – a dignified performance, in contrast to his lolloping vampire-clown in The Living Sphinx – and Verona Koxha as his daughter, that spoke eloquently about the emotional cost of such a loss.
The scene of the Architect’s murder was powerfully staged by Blerta Neziraj. While her work often has a punky aesthetic, featuring striking tableaux, the waving of banners, and, in one previous production, a troupe of dancing condoms – the death scene was incredibly restrained, played out on the side of stage, it was a stark and quiet scene, the Architect’s life seeping from him in the dark.
Both pieces, in different ways, made their audience confront issues that are still raw and unresolved. In this way theatre was made to play a vital part in the process of recovery, tackling trauma head-on. There was real bravery in staging a work such as this. Even a few years ago it would have been impossible, with potential for repercussions.
Elsewhere in the showcase the work was no less explicit. The Last Performance of Marie Gjoni by journalist Veton Surroi, based on his book, took the form of a gallop through the complex history of the region. A propulsive, percussive production, directed by András Urbán, it used music and dark humour to examine the Kosovan predicament, autonomy and oppression, the war and all that came after.
At the Adriana Theatre in the small town of Ferizaj, they were staging a version of The UN Inspector, David Farr’s crude 2010 take on the Government Inspector, a comedy about a south London estate agent mistaken for a UN official in an unspecified eastern European country, retooled for a Kosovan audience.
It’s tempting but reductive to draw comparisons with UK theatre. The context and systems in which work is being made are so different, but it’s impossible not to watch this work and think about the potential of theatre to hold those in authority to account, to expose and explore national pain and shame, to agitate for change but also – and perhaps most potently – to help people heal.