Who’s afraid of Oliver Frljić?

Aljoscha Begrich

Translated by Bryce Lease and Martin Schnabl

In the summer of 2014, I start working as a dramaturg at the Maxim Gorki Theater in Berlin. In preparation, I receive long lists with names of plays to be read, productions to see, and directors to observe. Among the many names was one I didn’t know – Oliver Frljić. In the years that followed, this name comes up more and more often, and gradually I associate the following keywords with it: Croatia, nationalism, radical, provocative, a story about a beheaded chicken whose blood creates the image of a Croatian flag on stage.

In 2015 there is a guest performance of a production by Oliver Frljić at Hebbel am Ufer (HAU) in Berlin. I order a ticket, but something in the description puts me off. The same evening I go to dinner with Stefan Kaegi of Rimini Protokoll. The conversation somehow turns to Oliver Frljić and Stefan says: ‘He is great, you absolutely must see his show.’ But that was the last day of the performance in Berlin.

A few months later, sitting on the train, I pick up an old Süddeutsche Zeitung. In the newspaper, there is an interview with Frank Petzold, an actor from the Residenztheater in Munich. He talks about a production by Oliver Frljić Balkan macht frei. It sounds sensational, it sounds outstanding. But Munich is a nearly seven-hour train ride away and the performance dates are inconvenient. I think the play will definitely be invited to the Theatertreffen in Berlin, but when the ten best German-language productions are announced in January 2016 Balkan macht frei is not one of them. Annoying. Our assistant drives to Munich and comes back full of enthusiasm. I want to see it too, but when I leaf through the programme of the Wiener Festwochen, I think: better to go see the new production straight away: Our violence and your violence. But Vienna is still a long way away to wait for and in the meantime I send my brother to the guest performance of Our violence at the Kunstfestival in Weimar. The next day an outraged phone call: Not that the performance was bad, but it was way too extreme and, ultimately, the message wasn’t that clear. In addition, he could not find the supposed reference to Peter Weiß’ The Aesthetics of Resistance (Ästhetik des Widerstand)…

After all the toing and froing, in September 2016 I decide to invite Oliver Frljić to participate in a panel discussion about the situation in the theatre in Croatia. It is also a chance to get to know him personally. Oliver agrees right away and it is an incredible encounter: he talks without a full stop or a comma and for the first time in a long time I have the feeling that someone really has something to say: his claims are radical but reflective, informed but direct, prudent but consistent. He questions democracy because it cannot stop fascism without becoming fascinated with left-wing totalitarianism; he challenges capitalism, but without being naively enthusiastic about socialism. He describes and understands theatre as an important driver of social debate, but sees the limits of its position. But this space and its possibilities must be used combatively and vociferously.

Production photos from Our Violence and Your Violence, by Alexi Pelekanos, courtesy of Wiener Festwochen.

Production photo from Our Violence and Your Violence, by Alexi Pelekanos, courtesy of Wiener Festwochen.

A little apprehensive, I finally go to see Our violence and your violence in Cluj, Romania, in late 2016. First, the evening begins as Tanztheater: beautiful choreography, strong metaphors, elegiac music. It provokes pretty good associations of meaning, regardless of Peter Weiß. Then there is a scene Frljić might have borrowed from Dokumentartheater à la Rimini Protokoll: the protagonists introduce themselves with their bios – with the difference that the bios are fictitious. The effect is incredible. I believe them until I have to laugh at myself, at my suspension of disbelief and at the theatre’s narrative machinery – because these are completely absurd attributions. In the scenes that follow the audience is invited to participate in discussions: everyone only converses in pre-scripted answers making it clear that we have no real opinion. Or the protagonists provoke with explicit actions, such as an actress puling the national flag out of her vagina. In the end, things get a bit messy: a crucified Jesus rapes a Muslim woman, a pile of oil barrels tips over. My head is buzzing.

Production photos from Our Violence and Your Violence, by Alexi Pelekanos, courtesy of Wiener Festwochen.

Production photo from Our Violence and Your Violence, by Alexi Pelekanos, courtesy of Wiener Festwochen.

Content-wise, I find the performance is not rigorous enough and I can understand the criticisms against it, because the explosive nature of the staging – in which the audience is accused of not doing enough for refugees – is irritating in Germany, where in the theatre spectators are mainly made up of people supporting refugees. But in Romania, many of the viewers describe themselves (rightly) as victims of the EU. Due to the performance’s thematization, these viewers are implicated for their behaviour to Roma and refugees, and the staging develops its carefully planned explosive force. In the subsequent discussion with the audience, for which most spectators remain present, Oliver speaks for almost two hours without a break. Afterwards in the foyer there is a lively argument, and some of the festival participants are completely thrilled.

Back in Germany I ask some of my colleagues who had worked with Frljić before: ‘What did you actually do with Oliver back in Düsseldorf?’

‘Oh, it was really cool, we did a piece for young people and it was all about instructions for building a bomb and such.’

All right.

In February, I go to Warsaw with Shermin Langhoff, the director of the Gorki Theater, to the premiere of Klątwa (The Curse). Here I can say this much: the atmosphere in the auditorium is indescribable, the tension is unbearable, and the audience hoover up every word, every image with enthusiasm. I am reminded of the times and narratives of the theatre in the GDR, where every gesture, every sentence could be read as resistance and possibility. Every provocation lands on fertile ground here.

That same evening, Oliver announces that this will surely be just the beginning of a series of more provocative stagings by other directors, but one can already feel that this work will be a possible end to artistic freedom in this place. Langhoff spontaneously decides to invite the production to the Gorki as a gesture of support. A few months later Klątwa opens in Berlin. And again, it is a completely different event: where tense silence prevailed in Warsaw, in Berlin there is hearty laughter. The space of just a few kilometres across the Polish border completely changes the perception and readability of the performance. And yet, at the end of the show, loud applause breaks out, thanking the actors, the director and all the staff for this work, which in the meantime is being blocked in Poland by protesters.

In June 2017, I go to Mannheim to see Second Exile. It’s all about Oliver’s personal history, his escape to Germany after the war in Yugoslavia and the situation in Rijeka during his tenure as Artistic Director there, which was marked by violent protests and press controversies surrounding the theatre. Is this understandable and meaningful within the context of Mannheim? In the play, the actors stand helplessly on a bumpily designed stage. I am confused so I watch a video recording of Balkan macht frei to get a better understanding. Its aesthetic is clear, the themes well structured, and the style of acting has a sensationally high energy. The play, which develops from the director’s interviews concerning the question of social interaction with foreignness, even works when watched on screen in the morning, in the office. The repeated fracturing of the performance into the real, the alternation between representation and action, draws you so much into its spell that in the famous waterboarding scene – which is real, because it is taking place on stage, and at the same time not real, because these are actors and not prisoners – you want to intervene and shout, ‘Stop!’.

I watch a recording of an old work by Frljić in order to further understand this form of directing between aesthetisation and provocation through content: Damned be the traitor of his homeland. I then drive to Munich in October 2017 to see Mauser at the Residenztheater. I think by now I know what to expect. I take a friend with me and we agree it is provocative, explicit, often a bit flat, but at the same time subtle, radically political. But Frljić surprised me once more. This richly hermetic play by Heiner Müller – which is staged with fidelity to the text, and yet with a few scenic and linguistic embellishments – is transported intelligently, almost cautiously to today. The confrontation around Müller is integrated into both the content and the aesthetic form in the meeting between Müller and Frljić. The play ends with nude actors chopping wood while electronic minimalist music plays and a larger-than-life picture of the silently smoking Heiner Müller that had been stretched from the ceiling to the floor finally comes down. An image that one could look at forever. I enjoy every second.

Now, at the moment of writing, it is two days before rehearsals begin for Frljić’s new production at the Maxim Gorki Theatre: Gorki – Alternative für Deutschland (Gorki – Alternative for Germany) and I wonder what it will be. Who is this person? Who is this director? How does he work with and react to circumstances, influences, and political conditions? How does this smart and sensitive man arrive at these extreme images? And how does he move the actors to participate? Which topics receive which form and which characters work in which context? Rarely have I met an artist of such complex thinking and working practices who is so greatly reduced in reception. Only those who do not pay close attention or do not see his work more than once can claim that Oliver Frljić is solely concerned with provocation and self-promotion. It is precisely these questions that are openly stated: what is the right form to make adequate theatre in these politically twisted societies? Frljić’s great art is not contained in his answers or in his images and compositions, but rather in his questions and in his forms and ways of working. It’s about nothing more and nothing less than the search for the right artistic theatrical tool to stop the descent into nationalist hell.

 

Agnieszka Jakimiakis a dramaturg, playwright, film critic, essayist and theatre director. She worked with Oliver Frljić as a dramaturg on two productions in Poland: Un-Divine Comedy. Remains (National Stary Theatre in Cracow, 2013) and The Curse (Teatr Powszechny, 2017). Her stage adaptation of Fassbinder’s Strach zżerać duszę (Fear Eats the Soul) opened at Teatr Powszechny in 2018.

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