BITEF Bravo in the BalkansDate: 20 September 2011
It was almost like old times. On the way in, you are handed a piece of cotton wool to stuff in your ears. The actors strip naked and cry openly at the accompanying music. They insult the audience and abuse the Belgrade festival-goers as "Serbian pussies."
But this wasn't some Pip Simmons re-heat from 1969, or a nostalgia jag for the New York avant-garde. It was a tough, raw, stunning piece of new Slovenian theatre called "Damned Be the Traitor of his Homeland" and it itemised the grievances and hurt of the wars that ripped former Yugoslavia apart in the 1990s.
It's taken this long for the theatres of Serbia, Croatia and Slovenia to confront their recent history in any sort of collaborative artistic exercise. And now at last the pain is giving a whole new push to new theatre in this part of the world, and even to hopes beyond of building a new Yugoslavia among the new independent nations.
You are given the ear plugs not because of the loud music but because of the incessant gun shots. The naked actors instigate a fashion parade draped in national flags, brandishing kitchen knives. They line up and are all shot.
They profess Croation nationality and Slovenian maternity, or gypsy ancestry, or disloyalty to the Bosnian genocide, or admiration for the tennis player Jokovich giving some kids some rackets. They are all shot.
At first, the actors (eight men, two women) are prostrate on the floor, playing musical instruments as if composing music while decomposing. They will end in this tableau.
In between they rise from the dead to reanimate their guilty differences in a sort of macabre lament for their lacerated country. (Even before the war Milosevich was selling off the natural resources as fast as he could.)
They turn the spotlight on themselves as actors, and how they evolved in this piece directed by Oliver Frljic. They expose their arguments as artists, and then it gets personal. One actress refuses to sing a song made famous by the pop singer mistress of the Serbian war lord Arkan. She is then accused of having an affair with the Milosevich apologist, the great director Ljubisa Ristic, who became a hard line Socialist.
These last two accusations are true. The actress is in tears, in pieces, destroyed, but defiant and magnificent. She makes anyone playing Edith Piaf look like a phoney.
The point here, finally, is that none of us is untainted by association, whatever we do. No-one is innocent. The world, and its works, are truly appalling. You are shot.
There was such a rush on tickets for the afternoon performance yesterday of the new piece from the Serbian choreographer Josef Nadj that I had no choice but to go to the river and enjoy the sunshine and a roast pork lunch instead.
Good idea, probably, as Nadj's piece is also intensely personal, by all accounts, documenting in dance his latest heterosexual love affair, and "the relationship between intimacy and spectacle."
So, on a houseboat by the Sava, I drank a beer and dived in for a swim. The water was clean, clear, warm and irresistible. I think David Walliams should recover from his Thames heroics by swimming in the great confluence of the Sava and the Danube.
And then we could all watch and cheer him on from the Kalemagdan fortress on the edge of the city in the spirit of the international cooperation and renewal we toasted at the previous night's open air party on the ramparts. These occasions, too, are all part of BITEF, Belgrade's great international theatre festival.
This was the 45th BITEF. I ask the co-founder and artistic director, the ageless Jovan Cirilov, if he plans to be around for the 50th. "No," he said, "I plan to be here for the one hundredth."