You go not till I set you up a glass
Where you may see the inmost part of you.
Unlike many representatives of European directors’ theatre, Oliver Frljić has made his name not so much through contemporary re-stagings of famous classics but through a specific fusion of performance, politics, and (auto)-biography. Even when he has taken plays as his points of departure, such as Heiner Müller’s Mauser at the Residenztheater in Munich and Stanisław Wyspianski’s Klątwa at Teatr Powszechny in Warsaw, these have often been seen as pretexts for inscribing the director and the actors’ own personal stories and struggles into the fabric of the live performance. His work, both at home and abroad, has primarily drawn attention to itself through its ability to raise controversy by supposedly ‘inciting audiences to murder’ (2017) or at least disturbing the public sphere (see Balme 2015), rather than merely adding to the aesthetic legacy of theatre as an art form.
There are several ways in which director Oliver Frljić brings to mind Shakespeare’s Hamlet, and it is not particularly because of his adaptation of the play originally made in 2014 for Zagreb Youth Theatre, later shown at the Shakespeare Festival in Gdańsk in 2017. In this production, which critic Bojan Munjin saw as the most significant one of only four attempted in the post-Yugoslav region since 2005, Frljić predictably makes crucial interventions into the original to show Hamlet’s agency dwindling in the hands of increasingly corrupt authorities (The Mousetrap scene is dismissed by this Hamlet as, an ineffectual method in the present historical moment, and the protagonist is slaughtered by his mother in the end rather than killing anyone himself).
Notwithstanding this particular reading, it would be possible to argue that Frljić’s entire oeuvre could be characterised by an intrinsic understanding of theatre akin to that of Shakespeare’s troubled protagonist in the original version:
1. Like Hamlet, Frljić is uncompromising, assured and yet self-reflexive in his work. His identity, being defined by the position of an outsider – whether he works in Croatia or Germany or Poland – always necessitates a level of self-definition and authenticity.
2. Like Hamlet, Frljić as a theatre-maker appears to be morally driven to use theatre for its potentially transformative effect. Whether or not he deems trapping ‘the conscience of the King’ possible, Frljić certainly updates the notion of theatre as ‘setting up a mirror’ to society by drawing attention to the ‘inmost’ part of it – the part the society does not necessarily wish to see. As such, his work is chameleon-like, inflected by the ‘here and now’ of the context within which it is made.
3. Like Hamlet, Frljić acts with a kind of conviction that can be mistaken for ‘madness’. For years I have longingly read from afar accounts of Frljić’s work (by critics in Croatia or the UK) without any hope that I would be able to meet him or see his work in Britain. Then I joined the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama and met an undergraduate student from Germany who told me excitedly he had worked on a youth theatre piece in Düsseldorf with a ‘completely insane’ Croatian theatre director called Oliver Frljić! He put us in touch, we made the Interview presented in this issue, and as it turns out – just like with Hamlet’s – there is method to Frljić’s ‘madness’ too…
Hamlet has often been seen as an Eastern European play, and not only because of Jan Kott’s famous 1961 reframing of it from the point of view of Polish communism. His ability to be seen simultaneously as Eastern European, British and global, gives Hamlet, or the figure that he represents, a license and a means to transcend the limits of a stereotype – which is ultimately a yearning towards which Frljić’s work signals.
In this issue of Interventions, Duška Radosavljević’s interview with Frljić is paired with short articles from three of his dramaturgs in Croatia, Germany, and Poland: Andrej Mirčev, Aljoscha Begrich, and Agnieszka Jakimiak. Bryce Lease then interprets the wider contexts of Frljić’s production in Warsaw in 2017 that sparked mass public demonstrations. These reflections on dynamic working conditions and transnational collaborations shed light on artistic strategies, political protests, and the (often) difficult reception of one of the most controversial directors working in Europe today.
One question remains:
The ship is set to sail, the wind is favourable, now who dares bring him to England too?
– Duška Radosavljević