postcards from berlin # 11 // belgrade edition [language barriers and the imagination]
KINGDOM OF HEAVEN (r. lorenci) @ BITEF
so the very nice woman at the festival ticket office made a mistake on my order and booked me tickets for the wrong night and in the harried rush to get it sorted it didn’t occur to me that there might not be surtitles for this piece. it was only 10 minutes into the piece when i saw several people wearing translation headphones that i realized i wasn’t going to get any help.
i’m fine with seeing theatre without understanding the language. when i first came to berlin in 2009 i saw thalheimer’s faust at the DT which was pretty classic thalheimer, no props, no helpful costumes, everyone just talking real fast german on a big black cube. i saw a lot of theatre that year with no access to the text and some of it i even loved. i saw a piece in hungary that i thought was pretty brilliant though all i knew was that it was about a traffic jam. so i just kinda settled in. i was hoping this lorenci guy would redeem himself after the previous night.
it was pretty static, like BIBLE. this time i saw a bunch of serbians in tuxedos, a woman in a wedding dress, and some other women in gowns. the older lady in black cried at the beginning so she was probably a widow or her kid was dead or something. i could discern that lorenci’s reputation here seems to be built on russian-style psychological depth and minimalist anti-spectacle stagings. lots of people telling direct-address stories sitting in chairs facing the audience.
with my very limited serbian i could tell that they said the words “serbia” often, “montenegro” and “kosovo” less often, that someone made a stabby gesture at one point so he probably had a knife, and someone made a horsey gesture around the same time they talked about montenegro. sounds like a nice vacation he was on.
i’m one of those types who’ll do my reading about the play after rather than before, so i didn’t even know what the piece was about. with the tuxedos and the stabby gesture and the sad old lady i decided they must be serbian gangsters. the general costume vibe seemed to support it and there was a kind of balkan bro-i-ness to the way the guys were joking onstage. it wasn’t the most exciting gangster play, but i was prepared to give the benefit of the doubt, not really having enough information to render an informed opinion. i was also enjoying the exercise of applying story to what was mostly a rush of serbian with a not-very-uplifting song.
at the intermission, we changed theatres. the first half of the show was proscenium-style, and then we walked 3 blocks down the road for the second half, in the round. at the intermission i did two things: 1) chatted up some guy in a suit to find out what the fuck the thing was about, and 2) get myself a pair of those damn headphones.
aaaaaaand it turns out the whole thing was an important nationalist epic drawn from medieval serbian history, when the serbs were slaughtered defending christian europe against the invading ottoman muslim army. this was an important question, the guy explained to me, because all these serbians died in kosovo trying to protect europe and then the EU turned around after the war and took kosovo away and gave it to the muslims. um.
so mostly the second half was a chronicle of beheading and dismemberments all to glorify the serbian blood spilt and also to explain where a few serbian saints came from and where their heads ended up. also there were some nice nationalist battle songs to be sung. this two nights after the AfD made record electoral gains and entered the reichstag. it was even more eerie with the helpful serbian voice translating islamophobic vitriol and song lyrics in my ear “kill them all, kill them all, kill them all, kill them all, we will win etc etc.”
i think i preferred the gangster play i was making up in my head. sometimes, having less information makes you more generous. and all the music at the post-show party would have just seemed like benign balkan music. maybe BITEF just needed to offered something to appease all the people who found MOUNT OLYMPUS offensive (it does seem likely that if a person is offended by a fisting scene they will be fine with nationalistic bile, and vice versa).
guys, i don’t think i’m going to see any more plays by that lorenci dude.
for more on the show click here.