How Theater Replaced Parliament

Review of “Republika Slovenia,” The Youth Theatre of Ljubljana, 2016

/ by Svetlana Slapšak

The most prominent issue regarding the responsibility of the Slovenian state in the Yugoslav War remains the unsolved status of the “erased,” some 26,000 of them, whose identities and citizenships were deleted during the conflict: they do not receive just compensation, their appeals are not processed in time, some cases are currently before the Strasbourg Court, the rulings of the Court are not applied by the Slovenian government, certainly not within the time-frame set. The administration seems to just wait for biology to eventually solve the problem, and the erased disappear by the law of nature. The consequences of such an attitude could be observed at the celebrations remembering the independence: to be euphemistic, there was total confusion regarding the “values” that engendered the state independence, and the ensuing positive outcomes.

 

Clearly, art reflects best such problems of great social impact. In the case of Slovenia, a brilliant example are theater performances maintaining the relation with social and political reality, making it even more explosive, following the path opened by Oliver Frljić some two years ago, when he staged a \ play on the erased of Slovenia. Among other things, the audience was invited to hand over their IDs, which were then cut in half on stage: the replacement costs 10 EURO at the local administrative center, and it was the price many from the audience wanted to pay...

 

An even more radical interchange, if not the complete replacement job the Parliament should have done, is realized in an anonymous performance entitled “Republika Slovenija.” A mere look at the printed playbill of the “Republika Slovenija” performance at the Youth Theater of Ljubljana (it premiered in Spring 2016) reveals a simple and predictable project, though never before realized – mainly because of the barriers among the bureaucats: what you get in your hands is a revolutionary newspaper, a few pages only, mostly in red and on cheap paper, meant to spread fresh relevant documents. It looks as if just coming out of a “gestetner,” the almost-forgotten mechanical copying machine in use in the 60s and 70s. And then follows the performance, in three parts: first, a personal story by an actual witness, then the reenactment of an important meeting, word for word, based on a recently-released secret document, and finally, multiple reconstructions of an event of crucial importance for Slovenian political developments, rendered in opposing versions, according to different witnesses. The performance is made by anonymous authors (except for the stage crew, their names are listed in the program); any curiosity regarding the authorship is out of place, because the citizens (the audience) are expected to make their own choices, they have to weigh the level of persuasiveness of individual stories, and judge the events by themselves. And so they do: with a number of elements still remaining to be fully recognized, and relying on theatrical illusion (even if only by the fact that the play is performed repeatedly), the minimalism of the performance enables the citizen-viewer to develop his own vision of history. Outside theater, the history is written for all citizens in function of conflicting ideas and ideologies, or just of some self-interested and greedy projects, all contaminated by lies and individual ambitions, either sadly realized, or still threatening for the future.

 

The first act sounds like a professionally written comedy, not the story of a witness who agreed to appear on the stage, instead of at some session of a parliamentary committee. For instance, the hilarious story of how the money (from some shady arms deal) was counted and then sent to an unknown address: the clerks were just doing their job, honestly, unaware of the discrete message communicated only to the privileged, that stealing season was open... The man explains how he did it, in full detail – counting millions of Deutschmarks, putting them into a suitcase, to be dispatched. The proof is there, arms were sold to the rest of the country in war, much longer and bloodier than the war in Slovenia. Why then did somebody in Slovenia, who had the necessary access, means and authority, take part in such arms deals, expressly forbidden by both international bodies and Slovenian government? There is no other explanation there than personal profit, be it in terms of political power or just material gain. The story told by the state security clerk candidly exposes his personal experience sorting bills by monetary value, counting and packing them, perfectly relaxed, without a shadow of a doubt, but also without any clear perspective. His coming out is a citizen's gesture of the highest level: when approached and asked to tell the truth – curiously enough not by a state institution, but a theater group – he responded, because he saw some common good in this, maybe for many, maybe even for all the citizens of Slovenia. And just like in a real comedy, which uses “low” topics and situations to reveal things concerning the “high” and untouchable, the social spheres of power, the circles of empowered and immoral individuals, the simple description of the technicalities in this play opens for the citizen immense spaces for free, liberated reason, the most effective weapon against alienated power.

 

The second act is a simple reenactment, based on a document – the transcript of a meeting dated to January 6th 1993, of the then-President of the Republic, Milan Kučan, and the five other highest political representatives of the state. The document has been available for some two years now, following the lifting of the label “secret.” Well, drama authors, eat your hearts out: what a perfect study of characters, streams of ideas, transparent politics, unexpected sincerity, almost philosophical plunges into the questions of truth, public interest, humanity! In their innermost circle, politicians can speak free of the wooden language they use on a daily base. Their sincerity is sometimes quite endearing, and much more visible among those who wish to lie less than among those who would lie always. In this case, we do regret that the citizens never could witness, or even participate in, a conversation like that, where all the masks had been removed and, for once, exceptionally, a topic was debated that should always be at the forefront of politics – namely, the common good. The core of the debate revolves around the question of whether it would be in the common interest to go to the bottom of things and reveal the truth, or just to do something that would be immediately useful to the public. As it usually goes, the politics stopped early along the road. The link between the first and the second act becomes frighteningly clear, a strong warning to the citizens that they have to demand ever more truth, in order to get at least a few crumbs of it. In this way, the theater makes good use here of part of our long-forgotten cultural practice of reading out loud all texts, before Christianity changed the rhetoric, and consequently the human body, by introducing silent prayer...

 

The third act is a performative presentation of several versions, based on the testimonies of the parties involved, of the same event, which was a consequence of the practices described in the first act, and the response of the politics described in the second. The minister in charge, who did not allow even an internal investigation to reveal the truth and responsibility about the incident, was clearly driving the country towards a situation where the truth and responsibility would not matter anymore – and that is tyranny. Luckily, the incident which could have triggered such developments did not evolve further, but in the unbelievable judiciary and administrative farce that ensued, the case was dismissed. Still, the minister was forced to step down, and since then, he has been torturing the public for almost a quarter of a century with his frustration. Worse than this personal farcical political destiny, there is a frightening readiness of corrupt individuals to pursue, boldly and unpunished, beyond all limits of decency and reason the ideas of the leader, and they are even eventually rewarded for this. How is it possible for a citizen, no matter how high in the power structure, to despise so openly his fellow citizens, the state and the laws, which he is supposed to protect and serve? This is where even carefully-handled documents and objectivity from all possible angles fail to explain things: this is where we need a play, a performance, a lived-through mimesis, the theater in its full glory, a professional, empathic, perfectly-staged representation of something other, in order to snatch a glimpse of reality. Only then, at the peak of its performative credibility, the theater can “serve the people,” something that for decades, or maybe much more, we have not required from the theater. The distance that we have created and got used to, the high-brow blank spot and cultural alienation, are coming back to us as a slap in the face: yes, the theater that speaks up about things important, deliberately hidden, scandalous, necessary to be known by all, has a sense and a meaning. Yes, a direct message, like in Aeschylus' Persians, has a sense and a meaning. Yes, there is a sense and a meaning in looking into the eyes of the person sitting next to you in the theater, and have the same feeling of sense and meaning, at least for that evening.

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Svetlana Slapšak

trained in Classical Studies/Linguistics at the University in Beograd. Retired professor of Anthropology of Ancient Worlds and Anthropology of Gender at ISH, Ljubljana Graduate School of Humanities since 1996. Dean of ISH 2004-2014. Published cca 70 books. Writes academic books/articles, essays, novels, travelogue, drama and translates from Ancient Greek, Modern Greek, Latin, French, English, Slovenian and SCB languages.


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