Ian Herbert: Hallasz engem Mariborban?

Maribor is Slovenia’s second city, a compact town beside the river Drava that has kept much of its Habsburg heritage in the cobbled streets clustered around its cathedral. Its inhabitants, who have a healthy disrespect for the capital, Ljubljana, are proud to be preparing for Maribor’s turn in 2012 as one of Europe’s cultural capitals. An important asset in the town’s bid for cultural capital status was its fine National Theatre, which houses opera and ballet companies alongside drama in its several performance spaces. It has been joined by two more spaces in the newly created puppet theatre in a converted monastery by the Drava. Every year Maribor hosts the competitive Borstnik festival, which seeks to reward the best of the Slovene theatre season – usually choosing from over a hundred productions. In this its 45th year the festival has expanded under its new director, Alya Predan, to offer a short international season and a four-day showcase of local theatre aimed at foreign guests.

Slovene theatre is relatively young, and still probably best known outside the country for the extravagant fantasies of Maribor’s own Tomaz Pandur (now working mostly in Spain) and the brooding neo-fascist shock theatre of Neue Slowenische Kunst backed by the earsplitting sounds of the group Laibach. More than twenty years later, Slovene theatre still has an interest in both fantasy and shock, though whether it has matured any further is debatable. For much of this showcase I felt like a disapproving parent faced with adolescent attempts to make an impression. The first play I saw in the showcase, Damned Be The Traitor To His Homeland, devised and directed by Oliver Frjlic, was symptomatic. In a revue-like series of scenes transferred rather too casually from the rehearsal room to the stage, Frljic’s players offered us (male) nudity, foul language and actorly self-indulgence in equal measure, obscuring the very serious intent of a key few of them: to explore the ethnic hatred still simmering in the states of former Yugoslavia. One scene had the actors recalling, à la JFK, where they were when Tito died; another questioned the true ethnicity of a cast member who holidayed with his family in Croatia; a final episode brought theatre and politics into uncomfortable parity with a vicious wrangle over which cast members had ‘collaborated’ with Serbian theatres. Two of these three, the most provocative of the show’s scenes, were played by the actors in a single line facing the audience, with no attempt to give them physical expression. The evening’s second show, Flesh Or Revelation, performed by live actors on the object-filled small stage of the Puppet Theatre, showed a similar disdain for physicality, with its central character spending much of the time talking earnestly to his giant teddy bear, before reciting a series of long extracts from the Apocalypse. To use St John as your co-writer risks making your own part of the script seem trivial, which is what happened to the unfortunate Jernej Lorenci.

The next evening featured two productions from Mini Theatre of Ljubljana, winners of the previous festival for their impressive production of Heiner Műller’s Macbeth: Scenes After Shakespeare. The first, Ma And Al, was a complete conundrum, a conflation of three monologues (one of them a short story by J D Salinger) performed in increasingly violent incoherence by two actors, one male, one female. They began by circling each other warily around the stage. The actress then gained control long enough to speak and sing her piece, as the actor consumed useful quantities of alcohol – real alcohol, it would appear, since his own subsequent contribution was a drunken rant that involved climbing over the audience, vomiting copiously, violating his partner and finally encouraging us all to sing ‘House Of The Rising Sun’. The Croatian Ivica Buljan, so successful with the Műller, is credited as the director of this unpleasant shambles, although it showed no sign of directorial intervention. In complete contrast was the minimalist polish of Persona, a production by Janez Pipan for the same theatre of Ingmar Begman’s film about the transfer of personalities between a bored nurse and her silent patient.

The audience for Manifest K were surprised to find themselves completing a form of indemnity before entering the National Theatre’s grand salon. In return we were given five euro and very soon found ourselves organised into a production line making sandwiches – all part of Sebastian Horvat’s attempt, with EPI Theatre, to stage the Communist Manifesto, copies of which were presented to us soon after we had been allowed to eat the fruits of our stakhanovite labour. It’s all to easy to dismiss this show as a childish exercise in audience manipulation, but the naivete of Horvat’s approach can be seen as the production’s strength, and for those who were prepared to join in the trust exercises, the sandwich-making and the search for universal happiness that motivated that great comic duo, Marx and Engels, the evening was a warm and rewarding one – literally, in that we were able to leave with our five euro, after a final toast drunk in local spirit.

The last night of the showcase brought a respectable production, from Maribor’s own company, of Brecht’s A Respectable Wedding and a crowd-pleasing visit from their rivals in Ljubljana in When I Was Dead, a slapstick staging of a silent movie by Ernst Lubitsch, played with great verve and little refinement. Most of the overseas visitors, however, were still reeling from a trio of performances that began our evening, under the joint title of Being Ignacij Borstnik. They were selected from a series of twelve short pieces created for the company Via Negativa in Ljubljana. Slovenia’s theatre theorists are way ahead of their performers in obscurantist contemplation of what theatre is about, and the theorists and performers of Via Negativa have collaborated to scale new heights of self-obsessed omphaloscopy. Unfortunately, they still regard the audience as part of the performance process, so that innocent bystanders are forced to watch, in this case, three events of decreasing professionalism but increasing watchability. In the first, we observe Marko Mandic, obviously a fine actor in spite of his drunken disintegration in Ma And Al, on two screens and in the flesh between them. On the left, he poses, preens, masturbates and defecates. On the right we see a selection of clips from his greatest hits, accompanied by his commentary on how difficult it is to get an erection on stage. In the centre, Mandic himself strips, enters a large plastic bag in which he perspires throughout the two films, emerging at the end to drink a glass of his own sweat. Compared to this, the actress in the second piece who rolls around the stage in her own urine, to the accompaniment of a stunningly pretentious commentary written by a real (if slightly deranged) critic, is almost bearable, as is the final performance by an actor who appears in drag to sing a series of drab pop songs in a piss-poor performance that would have him booed off the stage of any Karaoke bar, before stripping off for more crooning.

If you want to see how theatre can usefully renew itself, the antidote to this insulting farrago lay in the one non-Slovene show I saw in Maribor, Bűchner’s Leonce And Lena performed by the Maladype company from Budapest. Director Balázs Zoltán is now working in a very different style from the ritualistic one that so attracted me to his work a few years ago, but it is just as exciting. His black-clad company can offer up to four variations on any of Buchner’s 25 scenes, according to audience choice. Whatever the choice, the spectator gets a powerful mix of flat-out physical theatre supported by considerable vocal skills, laced with wry humour. Well worth the visit.

Ian Herbert: Can You Hear Me In Maribor?, 2010