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Boiling in Belgrade

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With temperatures set at constant in the mid-30s, this is the hottest Belgrade September in living memory, according to the Bitef festival's co-founder and artistic director, Jovan Cirilov.

How neat, then, that his thematic title this year, the 45th annual festival, is "...on a hot tin roof" not just in relation to Tennessee Williams' play, which was presented last night in a thrilling hillbilly punk rock deconstruction by a Slovenian company from Ljubljana, but also to the first sustained Bitef programme reflecting the wars in the 1990s.

It's taken this long for the former Yugoslavia to take a good look at itself in the theatrical mirror. And the artists in the various regions are getting along a whole lot better than the politicians; Serbs, Bosnians and Croats are all collaborating on new plays and healing old wounds, examining and exposing themselves.

Just this weekend, it's confirmed that Croatia will enter the European Union next year. But Serbia, with Belgrade at its heart, will stay outside for at least four more years; this  is because of the Kosovo independence problem, an ironic hiccup after the delayed handing over of the military war criminals to the Hague.

As usual, the Belgrade theatres are packed with the most engaged and impassioned audiences I know and, coming from London, it's salutary, and refreshing, to hear the history of Europe discussed on the stage from a totally different perspective.

There was a speech in Igor Sticks's Elijah's Chair at the Yugoslav Drama Theatre in which an old Jew in Sarajevo asked, pointedly and movingly, what had happened to all the great cities -- Odessa, Trieste, Warsaw, Vilnius -- where did they go? So much of old mittel-Europe has been lost in the new, since the last World War, let alone the Balkan wars. Bitef, as usual, makes connections across the years and across the borders.

I've not been to Bitef for a few years. All performances now have sur-titles in English. There are panel discussions after each show, a well-appointed press club in the bowels of the Balkan Hotel, itself right across the boulevard from the festival offices.

And I always feel at home here, as an inquisitive outsider, glad to meet up with old friends and make new ones. There's no rush to "catch another show" as in Edinburgh, as the programme is tight and specific (no fringe) and there are no performances before late afternoon. This leaves plenty of time to enjoy the discussions, formal and informal, the meals and the parties... and the sunshine. 

Over the weekend, there was a memorial for Dragan Klaic, the remarkable academic and theorist who had been a friend of Bitef since the start. He was in many ways the spirit of the festival, in much the same way as Jim Haynes is, for me at least, in Edinburgh.

Cirilov told me that Dragan had died of leukaemia, but had told no-one about it, not even his wife, until the illness became apparent. His mother of 92 years attended the ceremeony with a quiet and inexpressive dignity.

Even in straitened economic times, Bitef manages to prosper, less expansively than before, but still with an impressive international programme book-ending the "Region in Focus" this year: Jan Fabre opened the proceedings and there are performances this week from Frank Kastorf in Berlin, Heiner Goebbels in Switzerland, Andrei Serban in Romania and Alain Platel in Belgium.

No British representation this year, but we have flown the flag in the past with Peter Gill's great DH Lawrence trilogy, the Glasgow Citizens in The Duchess of Malfi, Complicite and Simon McBurney, Cheek by Jowl, Wayne McGregor and Nigel Charnock.

New work in new contexts is what makes Bitef so unique among theatre festivals. Even in Belgrade, it's regarded as a little more than special. Jovan Cirilov shows me the text messages he received from the Mayor of the city when he sought a last minute extra 16m dinar (£150,000) in addition to the original subvention:

"Jovan, don't worry, everything will be OK... I can guarantee these ten million by start of Bitef; we can guarantee remaining six million by end of year..."

I wonder if Boris Johnson is as informally reassuring towards Ruth McKenzie and her curiously old-hat elitist performance programme for next year's Olympics?


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