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Natasha Tripney: Oliver Frljic, the Malta Festival and the continuing crisis in Polish theatre

Goran Injac and Oliver Frljic. Photo: Marcin Oliva Soto Goran Injac and Oliver Frljic. Photo: Marcin Oliva Soto
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Poland’s Malta Festival, which came to a close on June 25, is a multi-arts festival that takes place annually in Poznan. This year, this vibrant event was overshadowed by controversy that led Oliver Frljic, one of the festival’s two guest directors, to accuse the Polish Minister of Culture of an act of financial blackmail, “unprecedented in my artistic career”.

In February, Frljic presented The Curse (Klatwa) at Teatr Powszechny in Warsaw, an updating of an 1899 play by Polish dramatist Stanislaw Wyspianski. Critic Andrew Haydon described the show as a “provocative, moving, and intelligent dissection of artistic freedom in a nationalist theocracy”.

Frljic is something of a provocateur. His work is concerned with the things people hold sacred. His theatre explores nationalism and organised religion. There is often nudity. In one of his pieces, The Ristic Complex, the entire cast urinated on a map of the former Yugoslavia.

His production of The Curse was critical of the Catholic church and included a scene in which an actor performs an oral sex act on a statue of Pope John Paul II. It set off a cultural storm. It was condemned by the Church and the outraged reaction of the right-wing press led to protests; threats of violence were made against the actors and the director.

Each year a strand of work at the Malta festival is curated by a guest director. In 2016, Dutch artist Lotte van den Burg curated work on the paradox of spectatorship. Frljic and his collaborator Goran Injac, artistic director of Slovenia’s Mladinsko Theatre, had already been confirmed to curate a strand of work about the Balkans in 2017. The Minister of Culture had approved these plans. “The minister knew who was going to going to be the curator this year and what kind of art he makes. That was part of our application and he decided to accept this. It was not hidden information,“ explains Michal Merczynski, general director of the Malta Festival.

But after the premiere of The Curse, people started to take notice, and “the right wing media asked how is it possible that this man will be given the money to programme Malta?”

The contractually agreed funding – 300,000 zloty, which amounts to around 6% of the festival’s total budget – did not materialise. Eventually Poland’s Minister of Culture and National Heritage Piotr Glinski, of the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party, announced that this year’s festival would no longer receive the promised money as a result of Frljic’s involvement.

The festival went ahead despite this but the organisers have had to turn to crowd funding in order to make up the shortfall; an auction of items donated by artists was also set up to help raise funds. This strategy was successful and the festival managed to raise 307,090 zl – all through crowdfunding.

There has also been a lot of local support for the festival, which is now in its 27th year. “The country is to the worse, but the city is to better,” Merczynski says. The mayor has been supportive and there’s a general feeling of positivity towards the festival in the city.

Though a repurposed version of an earlier Frljic piece, Turbo Folk, an exploration of the intersection between music and nationalism which included scenes of Yugoslav folk songs and frankfurter fellatio, was presented as one of the main pieces in the festival’s Balkan platform, the director took the decision not to attend. Frljic is not a stranger to protests; another piece of his – Our Violence, Your Violence – in which a performer withdraws the flag of the host country from her vagina, also resulted in threats being made against him when it was presented in Croatia. Injac was in attendance though and the Balkan programme went ahead as planned.

In his statement, Frljic made the point that: “When Mr Glinski accused me of threatening the basic principles of social coexistence, I would like to notice that he didn’t say a single word to condemn all the violence that has been directed towards actors and management of Teatr Powszechny.”

There were no protestors in evidence during the festival, but while Frljic was absent, he did add a new and accusatory section to Turbo Folk about Glinski’s act of cultural blackmail in the piece, a middle finger raised in absentia.

Merczynski is very clear that the minister’s decision to deny them funding is a breach of contract, something which clearly sets a worrying precedent. He says it is now a matter for the courts.

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