Thursday, 17 April 2014

A homecoming of sorts

Since December last year I have been travelling with a pram in tow, so this usually means up and down the Jubilee line, and a couple of times, exceptionally, to the British library. As a result I'm also returning more to the notion of reading playscripts rather than watching live performances. And one play I have been particularly looking forward to reading has been Biljana Srbljanovic's Princip (This Grave is Too Small for Me).


Commissioned by Vienna's Schauspielhaus to be performed as part of the anniversary of the First World War, Biljana Srbljanovic's Princip (This Grave is Too Small for Me) has already been in performance there since October 2013 and last month it also received a Belgrade premiere under the direction of the Sarajevan director Dino Mustafic. As we speak, another production of the play has just opened at the Berlin Schaubuhne  , directed by the Iranian director Mina Salehpour.

I was initially intrigued by the play on hearing a radio interview with the playwright on the Belgrade radio station Pescanik in June last year ( Here the playwright shared her extraordinarily intriguing research which she referred to as 'cinematic' on several occasions, as well as her main overriding thesis that the assassin Gavrilo Princip and his teenage collaborators were first and foremost Yugoslavs, rather than Serbian nationalists as recent history has claimed. These aspiring intellectuals, socialists, anarchists and proto-feminists from Bosnia were, according to Srbljanovic's research, seduced and brutally manipulated by a Serbian nationalist secret society which has in various incarnations survived ideologically up until the present day and can also be held accountable for the assassination of the Serbian democratic pro-western prime minister Zoran Djindjic in 2003. Testimonies from the assassins' court hearings are invoked in which Princip for example claims that he is a Yugoslav, and a Serbo-Croat speaker without religious allegiance. This is coupled with imagery of the historical person being kept in the Terezin prison, with his gangrenous right hand hanging off his arm, tied with wires... He had been spared death penalty as he was under age at the time of the trial so he received a twenty year sentence, but he did not survive the intellectual, physical and mental exhaustion much beyond four years. 

Princip (This Grave is Too Small For Me) is not a documentary or a definitive statement about historical people and events. It is not a dramaturgically flawless piece either. But having now read it I feel an urgency to share this experience, especially as it deals with a topic that concerns us all. Srbljanovic was recently invited to a panel discussion on the First World War at Vienna's Burgtheater alongside one of the descendants of the Habsburg family. Why is this kind of discussion not available to us all? Why is Srbljanovic's play not available in English? Why is it that almost no-one in the UK has heard of her work when in the 1990s Srbljanovic's name was often mentioned alongside Sarah Kane's in Germany?

But this brings me to a question which I have perpetually returned to for the twenty years of living in the UK - why is there so little interest in or awareness of any theatre work coming from the Balkans in the English-speaking world? Fifteen years ago, as I grappled with this topic as part of my PHD, I arrived at the conclusion that more often than not the work was too parochial, embroiled in its own often difficult to understand context, demanding of too much auxiliary knowledge... But there have been exceptions too. Croatian dramatist Slobodan Snajder as well as Srbljanovic have had a very successful career in Germany. Another Serbian writer Dusan Kovacevic has managed to spark some interest in the United States. My own efforts have facilitated an introduction into the English speaking world of the Serbian  playwright Ugljesa Sajtinac and some advocacy for the performance work/activism of the Croatian troupe Shadow Casters. So it is not impossible for any of this work to communicate beyond its own context. It is just such hard work for it to be heard/seen/ understood in the English-speaking world...

Vesna Goldsworthy in her book Inventing Ruritania: Imperialism of the Imagination (1998) offers a riveting analysis of the ways in which the Balkans have been colonised by the British imagination - starting from Shakespeare's Illyria, via Hope's Ruritania to Stoker's Transylvania - often as a geographically vague, mysterious and violent place. Despite some women travellers' efforts to bestow some dignity on these places - notably Edith Durham's anthropological research in Albania and Rebecca West's travelogues through Yugoslavia in the first half of the 20th century - by the time of the early 1990s' wars in the former Yugoslavia, all of the past stereotypes resurfaced and regained full currency once again. So why should a Serbian writer be asked to comment on the beginning of the First World War when we all know the story... Why complicate things when the public has barely even got their heads around the existing narrative already... I say this with irony but you only need to read the comments under Srecko Hotvat's article on the this week ( to see that the general discussion is not very far from that standpoint.

As it happens, Srbljanovic's play does not make huge demands on its potential audience. She distils the historical events into a five-hander 'in two parts'. The first part is quite naturalistic - the Berlin director Salehpour has even said the characters' relationships remind her of an American sitcom ( The second part can be read even as a postdramatic attempt at dealing with the aftermath of the assassination. Interestingly the main assassination we witness in this play is an accidental, unwitting, perhaps even clumsy murder of a young female bystander with whom the assassin happens to have been in love - thus generating a metaphor for the naive 'young love' idealism of the Mlada Bosna organisation to which Princip belonged. 

As I mentioned above, although captivating in its conceit and execution this is not a play which warrants translation principally on its dramaturgical merit alone - but it does have the potential to open discussion, and it's a discussion that should be had all over Europe, including the English-speaking parts. So my final question is: who wants to know what happens next?

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