Damned be the traitor of his homeland!

4, 6, 8/05 – 20:30
5/05 – 22:00
1h 15min

This is the first time that the young Croatian director Oliver Frljić has been invited to Belgium. In his homeland he has a reputation as something of a “theatre terrorist”. Premiered in Slovenia, Damned be the traitor of his homeland! is based on personal stories from his eclectic ensemble of actors. The play has the break-up of Yugoslavia as its backdrop to evoke the rise (again) of patriotism and nationalism in Europe. With reference to stereotypes and other general viewpoints of recent history, Frljić’s “theatre-reality” targets the notion of identity and the sense of belonging, as well as the clichés these invoke. He lays bare the ambiguities nestling at the heart of collective memory, between reality and fiction. With this forceful show about the trauma of the Yugoslav tragedy, a political farce in which music and the cheerful conversations hide a darkly humorous malaise, Frljić holds up an unsettling mirror to his actors, audience and theatre itself.

“The play Damned be the traitor of his homeland! is a dark political cabaret, full of deafening shooting from firearms and dead people – simply because a handful of stage heroes lost their temper on the subject of nationality, killing everyone around them.”
Bojan Munjin, Novosti

Directed by
Oliver Frljić

Primož Bezjak, Olga Grad, Uroš Kaurin, Boris Kos, Uroš Maček, Draga Potočnjak, Matej Recer, Romana Šalehar, Dario Varga, Matija Vastl

Borut Šeparović, Tomaž Toporišič

Music, stage & costume design
Oliver Frljić

Assistant to the director & movement consultant
Matjaž Farič

Sound design
Silvo Zupančič

Light design
Oliver Frljić, Tomaž Štrucl

Stage manager
Urša Červ

Kunstenfestivaldesarts, Beursschouwburg

Mladinsko Theatre (Ljubljana)

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Every time we betray our own theatre(land)…

Damned be the traitor of his homeland! radically approaches love and hatred towards theatre, surrendering both the actors and the audience to the intertwinement of madness and pain. The actors produce a scathing, disturbing, sometimes even shocking performance. They use wartime and political traumas to ask universal questions: about the boundaries of artistic and social freedom, individual and collective responsibility, tolerance and stereotypes.

The theatrical framework of this laboratory is provided by stories from the break-up of the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s followed by a severe war in Croatia and Bosnia leading to genocide in Srebrenica. The title comes from the last verse of the national anthem of this now defunct country. Frljić explores the nationalism and xenophobia of the Yugoslav region, starting, of course, in Slovenia where the play was created.

Damned be the traitor of his homeland! mostly fights against all forms of aggressive patriotism which seamlessly transforms into nationalism. It demonstrates a series of instruments, used by the so-called defenders of the homeland: from insults and harassment through to questions about origin and citizenship (“If a war between Slovenia and Croatia broke out, which side would you take?”), to the catwalk show with the flags of the former Yugoslav republics during which the actors hold knives in their hands. All this, enacted with incredible energy and some sort of unpredictable general hatred, gives an impression of pseudo-patriotic discourse and thrills the spectator. Intertwining folk and popular songs from the eighties achieves the effect of blind infatuation with one’s own tradition without any kind of confirmation.

The show starts with a scene as if taken out of the Golden Palm-winning film Underground: the stage floor is strewn with dead bodies holding brass-band musical instruments in their hands. Shortly afterwards, the air in the instruments starts moving and we soon understand that it is not the wind that is blowing through them. The sounds get stronger and stronger and intertwine in a melody, while the dead rise up with the soaring music. Throughout the show these same people will be repeatedly killed before rising up again and again.

Oliver Frljić explains: “In the end, we’re always counting corpses. And these corpses become the stakes in new political projects. Certain bodies can be remembered and buried with all the honours. Other corpses turn us into Antigones. We have to speak about the value of each human life, because if we don’t, our thousand would be nothing compared to their ten thousand. But this is a score we consider unfavourable. After all, we’ve died a little less and slaughtered a little more. Whose side are you on: that of Eteocles or Polyneices?”

With its compulsive attempts to stage collective death, this performance challenges the theatrical representation of death as well as the idea of theatre representation itself. The repetitions of death that appear on stage at almost regular intervals with the protagonists “coming back to life” expose the standstill of theatre mechanisms of representation. It is these very mechanisms for the production of fiction – which often have to remain concealed – that push out any thematic-content frame and thus remain the only visible thing.

Just like the soil of the former Yugoslavia, where it is impossible to tread the ground without wading into bones, this performance is also overflowing with corpses. And just as those non-theatre corpses have a certain value on the political market, the corpses we hyper-produce and resurrect have a certain value as well. In fact, they strive to reduce the value of a certain model of representation. If such devaluation has occurred in the theatrical representation of death, what is the value of real death? To figure that out, just watch the news about Haiti or ask what Srebrenica means to us today. Little, less or nothing?

As Kalina Stefanova pointed out in the Korean Theatre Journal: “These multiple resurrections are primarily a statement: concrete and very topical about today’s particular ease with killing people en masse, about the disposability of human beings, about hatred towards others. The essence of this statement is brought forward not only indirectly through this hyperbolic grotesque, but also in a very direct way several times during the show. Because it’s also a straightforward political theatre, reminiscent of Árpád Schilling’s Black Land and his determination to shake us out of our complacency – or mind-blindness! – be it at the expense of shocking us via improper language, frontal nudity or simply by saying the inconveniently naked truth... In this regard, there’s something in its mood and depth that’s reminiscent of another great film, the Oscar-winning No Man’s Land. The same type of heartrending authentic Balkan folk music resounds and manages to transport the show into another genre – that of real human drama – giving it a special third dimension. And this third dimension is reaffirmed and deepened by the personal touch of the words spoken by the actors, when they don’t swear. Especially moving is the final scene, which starts with a song (‘I won’t go against my brother’) sung by a tearful actress – by the end of the song the audience are riveted to their seats. Yet it turns out that the actress may have cried because she was reluctant to sing the song due to a Serbian connection in its history, and actually wanted to leave the show. What follows is a passionate discussion, again in our presence, on responsibility – artistic and human, on a small and large scale.”

As Polish critic Jaroslaw Klebaniuk states: “The staging presents not only an important voice in the discussion on nationalism (which is surely even more important in the Balkans, where not long ago ethnic cleansing led to the deaths of tens of thousands of people), but also a means of surpassing certain artistic boundaries. Insulting the audience, stirring up their patriotism or hyperpatriotism which is nationalism, group insults to people of other nationalities (mostly Croatians) – these are extreme means, normally unused. Repetitive murders of all the characters, killed by one of their fellow actors, are powerful, yet one scene was even more powerful. It was the extremely unusual scene in which the actors snapped their fingers and recited: ‘Croatian cunts, sucking Serbian cock‘ or chanted: ’Kill, kill the Ustashe, Istria is ours!’ not forgetting to add the exclamation ‘fucking audience’. So much poison and hatred in a seemingly touching, rhythmic, musically speaking simply beautiful work – that is a true transgression. Ridiculing nationalism with the help of an overt parody seems much easier than escalation into disquiet and pathos; and if it makes us laugh, we laugh with a heavy heart. The elements of grotesque in the play are close to perfection. This kind of artistic effect is rare.”

Let us conclude with the thoughts of Svetlana Slapšak, a very bold Slovene intellectual who specialises in Ancient Studies and Gender Studies: “In Frljić's play, the actors improvise a fashion show, dressed only in Yugoslav state and party flags as a sarcastic example of declarative identities. It is not the historical event of the Yugoslav war that is at the heart of this powerful and brilliant play, in which the Yugoslav political theatre and its heroes are cynically mentioned, but the presence of the political problem today: the willingness for atrocities remains, you just have to press the right button… No one is safe from anything. In the historical cases that we know, the accusation of perversity has always served as an introduction to a purge of the enemies, then as a safe screen for a free implementation of the authority’s perversity. Do we really want to go down the same road again? So hurry to the theatre, which is once again political, exciting and educational. At the end of the play, you then exchange allied looks once again, refined by tears and laughter.”

Tomaž Toporišič

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Oliver Frljić, a leading figure in the younger generation of Croatian directors increasingly gaining international renown, is also a writer, theorist, performer, actor and winner of several prestigious awards. He initially studied philosophy and theology before graduating from the Academy for Dramatic Art in Zagreb. He directs performances produced independently and in repertory theatres, and he enthuses and shocks with self-conceived projects and radical interpretations of classical plays, while also triggering a heated public debate on censorship in Croatian theatres. He also works as a dance dramaturge and co-creates performances, working closely with the BadCo. group, Borut Šeparović and the Montažstroj group. His cooperation with the Mladinsko Theatre and the performance of Damned be the traitor of his homeland! has given his work wider European recognition.

The path trodden by the Mladinsko Theatre over the past five decades – on stage as well as in society – began after the Second World War, in the pioneering 1950s, when the theatre struggled for three years before finally moving into its current home in 1959 and commencing its regular, ongoing work. One of the highlights in the Mladinsko Theatre’s history came with it being made European Ambassador of Culture for 2008 by the European Commission, the first theatre and cultural institution in Slovenia to carry this title.

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