Posts tagged ‘Will You Ever Be Happy Again?’
Synopsis: a performance about childhood and how “the good” becomes “the bad” as the history turns around. An ironic history:Will You Ever Be Happy Again? had its world premiere in Belgrade, at the BITEF Festival. While working at this performance (in 2008), Sanja Mitrovic became a Dutch citizen, and she had to give up her Serbian nationality.
Once upon a time there was a happy country called Yugoslavia. Really, it was happy, not because even the trees joyfully spelled the name of the leader Tito but because people were happy, even those pictured on the 100 dinars bill. Then the country stopped being happy – until its citizens (fewer now, since the country had become smaller) gathered again on the bridges of the capital, to save it from bombing. Rewind: the Serbian-born dancer/choreographer/director Sanja Mitrovic and the German Jochen Stechmann star a 75 minutes performance (in both Serbian and German) about how the international perception of national identity marks the personal construction of the self, putting in a mirror their own experiences. The Nazi Ahnenpass (certificate of ancestry) of the Stechmann family and little Sanja’s schoolbook from the ‘80s have an equal weight in the subjective spectacle of memory. The result has nothing to do with another semi-digested story about the tragedies of the war in former Yugoslavia, the “German guilt” or the so much commented “Östalgie”. It’s ironic without being bluntly critical; it’s touching without being sentimental – equilibrium very difficult to reach when talking about the innocent bystanders of recent past.
Staging it as a loose children’s game (on the repeating model of “partisans against Germans” – the local form of an otherwise universal patriotic re-enactment of a more or less imaginary glorious history), Sanja Mitrovic rediscovers in Will you ever…the immense theatricality of objects (from photographs and Tito’s statuette, to passports), of ideologically framed movement (as in the performative reconsideration of the choreography of communist mass gatherings), of music as cultural icon (Serbian pop hits). Jochen Stechmann’s merry appearance and Sanja Mitrovic’s self-contained performance make them remember together, in a sort ofcadavre esquis, what they cannot let go of their past as members of a certain community.
Fast-forward: And, of course, famous football matches always become the ideal background for going back to the roots, in a hectic choir of national pride and sense of belonging to a community.
Serbian choreographer Sanja Mitrovic describes duet Will You Ever Be Happy Again? as “a docu-tale for one Serbian, one German performer and two cartoon boxes”. This playful description, indicating both the idea of (problematic) national identity and the materials of theatrical construction neatly sums up Mitrovic’s concept – the exploration of what it means to be Serbian, or German, through the medium of the cardboard box.
The absorbing and provocative performance has performers Mitrovic and Jochen Stechmann narrating – in Serbian and German – their national stories through childhood games and reminiscences. The layered presentation has the two pretending to be children pretending to be “Partisans and Germans”, in a game of cultural stereotypes that reveals early political conditioning: the Serbian word “cockroach”, we are told, translates as “German bug”. Stechmann scuttles bug-like around the floor in illustration; the game, he tells us, does not make him happy.
The layering of playful-unplayfulness continues in the game of “Equal Exchange”, in which Mitrovic and Stechmann comment flatly on the unequalness of exchange after the fall of communism. “I give you something bitter,” says Mitrovic, “and you give me something sweet”. “I’ll give you visas,” counters Stechmann, “and you give me war criminals.” Mitrovic doesn’t want to play any more.
Both performers use artefacts from their upbringing (contained in the cardboard boxes) to narrate both their personal and national stories. Mitrovic shows us the illustrations of war in her Grade 1 schoolbook, describing the scenes matter-of-factly as “the first fire”, “the first bombs”. Stechmann brings out his grandfather’s Ahnenpass, the document which confirms his all-Aryan, non-Jewish identity. Stechmann explains he keeps the document still, because “you never know”.
With simple images, narrated memories and readings from letters, Mitrovic sketches out a complex mesh of hopes, dreams and frustrations. The simplicity is key to the work’s sensitivity – small, personal details allow the audience to grasp the horror of the past and fears for the future far more effectively than a dry exposition of history would. At the heart of this work is a self-determined gesture towards the truth – always inadequate, but always vital.
While the audience enters the hall it listens to audio recording in Serbian of the legendary football match on the Belgrade stadium “Marakana” between home team Red Star and Bayern from Munich in the semi-finals of the Championship League in 1991 when the “red-whites” (Red Star), in the 90th minute evened the score to 2:2 and reserved their place in the finale. After the audience is seated the young performer and author explains in Serbian language (with subtitles) about the game she used to play when she was a little girl. The game is called “partisans and Germans” (a Balkan variant of “cowboys and Indians”) in which the Germans were always represented as negatives. She then invites her playmate – German performer Jochen Stechmann – to come to the stage.
This is the introduction to the theatre performance “Will you ever be happy again” by the Serbian theatre author, director and performer Sanja Mitrovic who lives and works in the Netherlands. This powerful “tale for one Serbian and one German performer” is a documentary and personal piece performed in Serbian and German language of two young people, members of different nations, which in different historical periods take on the same path – that of nationalism, violence and war. Intertwining details from personal documents and national iconography the author creates a complex structure of signs, which in some moments are complementary and in others oppose each other, in order to present us the process of transformation of personal identities. The scene at the end where both of the performers simultaneously sing nationalistic songs, each of them in his/hers own language, rhythm, melody and energy is a very precisely found opposition to the beginning of the performance pointing that every evil starts as innocent as a game. The performance is filled with local and national references, which, when it comes to Serbian (that are dominant) are not always readable for wider audience. That’s why there are moments where one gets the impression that the author is using nationalistic German iconography to “universalize” elements of her local context. Accusing the whole world for their faith and pointing out the irony of it has been the trade-mark of the Balkan post-war theatre and this performance is no exception of that model (like the scene where she asks the German soldier to bomb the bridge while she is standing on it and in the other second the situation turns into a typical Balkan “bacchanalia” under the sounds of Serbian pop-folk music). But the author makes a very wise use of those clichés and stereotypes and goes beyond them. For she doesn’t stop at the questions like who is right or wrong or who fired the first bullet because it is no longer relevant. The question that she emphasizes so strongly and not without a sense of doubt is the question whether we can be happy again – the villains, the victims, the bystanders… ?
By Dean Damjanovski
A young Serbian woman carrying a young German from the battle field, mutual singing of soccer-songs, mixed with patriot songs. Tito in children´s drawings and a certificate of ancestry. What do Serbs and Germans have in common after fighting against each other in several wars? In her performance „Will you ever be happy again?“, Sanja Mitrovic brings light to this question in various ways. Together with the German performer Jochen Stechmann, she has put together a piece with a very thought-out dramaturgy, many historical documents and a strong impact. She has already won the prestigeous Dutch BNG Young Theater maker Prize 2010 for it.
If it is through children´s games, their drawings (Mitrovic shows her 1st-grade-exercise-book with drawings like the first partisans, the first bombs, the first snow and a drawing of trees forming the name of Tito in the sky) or their songs – the audience can experience intensly how the fighting for the own country, patriotism and hate of the so called enemy infiltrated even the smallest. This is very strong, but the performers, who speak both their mother tongue, do not contend themselves to that interesting part. They switch from giving the pioneer-oath to bombing one another with paper bullets, Mitrovic presenting her body provocatively. Also she is bringing up a very delicate topic, when she asks if the audience loves her more with the Dutch passport than with the Serbian one.
Mitrovic and Stechmann need very little to present such a strong work. They present their documents of the past, which they draw from cardboard boxes, in front of a camera, the image is then projected to the back wall of the stage.
They present the horrors of the Nazi Regime in Germany through a certificate of ancestry, the inflation of money in Serbia with banknotes of 5 billion Dinar. The fall of the wall is brought in through live quotations from this time, the difficult life of Serbs trying to come out of their country through a photo and letters by a friend who managed to escape. By this, the performance is both very personal and generally valid. The individual case speaks for a whole people.
Mutually sang soccer songs finally unite the former enemies, but still, the peace seems limited. When Mitrovic and Stechmann at the end recieved lots of applause, the light went out. Planned to show again a war situation after the final reconcilation? Actually electricity went down in the whole district of the garajistanbul, where the performance took place. But still, the impression of only limited freedom and peace remains.
Sanja Mitrović’s semi-documentary work based on the post WWII trauma and identity production of German and Serbian population is an energetic, non-linear, highly personal but not apologetic/accusatory dramatic performance accompanied by German artist Jochen Stechmann. Mitrović carefully avoids being didactic while presenting her criticism of her own national history, yet she subtly asks the question whether a better future is possible.
The performance is constructed as children’s play; Mitrović plays the partisan, Stechmann the Nazi. With this identification both confronts with the shames of their national history while at the same time revealing their personal wounds as the survivors in quite indirect, playful ways. Yet admittedly most of the time this inferential and funny references lean simply on props and objects; they convey a plethora of images and autobiographical marks, but it sometimes feels too exhibition-like and distracting, stealing the stage from the artists themselves whose performing capacity is quite dynamic and powerful itself. Overall, the performance does not make a clear-cut politic statement, which actually reflects the current (im)possibilities of speaking out with a solid position and demanding such and such lives, thus it becomes political thoroughly.
Watching Will You Ever Be Happy Again? In Istanbul also creates different layers of historical awareness on the local audience’s part, which probably could not have been calculated by Mitrović. The authoritarian rule of Tito, the discipline over the minds and bodies of Serbian and German population (remember “The healthy spirit is found in healthy body” versus “The healthy mind is found in healthy body”), the genocide, the aggressive nationalism, the illusion of welfare and solidarity are all too familiar to us Turkey residents. The laughter comes not from an ironic alienation or distance but rather an intense identification that puts the spectator in an unexpected ease, relief and dialogue with his/her own past. The children’s play structure and disseminated presentation allows a space for us to unconsciously enter the scene as another member. The same absurdity is going on here, we feel, and that makes the play all the more enjoyable and readable in spite of afore mentioned weaknesses.
Nóra Bükki Gálla
In films it is always Germans playing the bad guys and they always lose in the end – that is the stereotype director and stage performer Sanja Mitrovic starts her documentary piece with. Following her narrative we enter a world of personal and collective memory to re-think roles, cliches and sympathies.
Mitrovic finished her philology studies in Serbia to move to the Netherlands where she continues to make theatre performances with a strong social and emotional awareness. Her stage is a micro-world of pressing cultural and political issues that can be regarded in a broader international context.
Will You Ever Be Happy Again is presented as a collection of childhood games revived; the two players on stage (Jochen Stechmann is there to show us the German side of the coin) finish playing Partisans versus Nazis to indulge in a series of role games. We get to see Mitrovic’s childhood drawings of bombs, fires and victorious Yugoslavian heroes, followed by what seems to be a Zen teaching but turns out to be a fake story glorifying the people’s Great Leader, Tito. (He is living ‘in the heart of the trees’, so how could he not live in the hearts of his people?) The episodes of a Serbian girl’s life are completed by a German personal history of communist-killer grandfather and a family document of Arian origin. (‘You never know.’) The absurdity of it all doesn’t stop the two players from following their individual patterns of blame, anger and remorse – with occasional flickers of happiness, when bad memories seem like a joke, something to be dismissed with a wave.
A variety of objects are used to assist us on this guided tour of recent history: the small statue-head of Tito, devaluated bank notes from Yugoslavia and Serbia, photos from the time of the war(s),a German soldier’s helmet, pages of newspapers – anything and everything from the Bad Days That Are Over but Still With Us in Many Ways. These objects are taken from two cardboard boxes on the side of the stage and are used freely, just as the single table and chair set in the left center: the game knows no limits, wounded freedom-fighters turn into careless children or lovers imitating mechanic sex by the rhythm of nostalgic folk-pop as the lyrics appear as subtitles on the back screen.
Movement, images words and sounds are inseparable, everything serves the function of drawing the portrait of these two people and their time – which is our time, we are left with no illusions about that. Mitrovic manages to convey her vision on stage (she is ‘there’ in every sense), while Stechmann plays the quiet counterpart (perhaps too quiet, in comparison). The piece duly ends with the two performers chanting, crying and screaming football anthems (one in Serbian, the other is German), ending in a dissonant note of sarcasm.
Serbia-Germany 2:2, we hear from a radio commentator. And isn’t he right?