POLIS Teatro Festival: Bringing the Balkans to Italian audiences
Natasha Tripney, “Seestage”, May 20 2023

This year’s POLIS Teatro Festival, which takes place annually in Ravenna, had a Balkan focus. Natasha Tripney reports on a small festival with big ambitions.

Founded in 2018, the POLIS Teatro Festival, curated by theatre company ErosAntEros, takes place in the beautiful city of Ravenna, home to Dante’s tomb and numerous stunning byzantine mosaics. Committed to introducing Italian audiences to a wide range of work, both domestic and international, last year the festival focused on French theatre, this year on Balkan theatre. This immediately raised the  Raymond Carver-esque question: what do we talk about when we talk about the Balkans? How do we define the region, culturally, linguistically, historically? Slavoj Žižek’s famous description of the Balkans as starting east of wherever you happen to be comes to mind.

In practice this small but thoughtful festival included work from Slovenia, Bosnia and Kosovo as well as work with a thematic connection to the region. Oliver Frljić’s Death to the Traitor of His Homeland!, one of two productions presented by Slovenia’s Mladinsko Theater. The 13-year-old show from the prolific Frljić – made before shows like The Curse which so enraged the Polish Catholic Church – sees him interrogating Slovenia’s role in the Yugoslav wars and picking at the country’s clean image.

Like many of Frljic’s earlier productions, Death to the Traitor is composed of a series of scenes, some confrontational, some puerile – there are a lot of wanking gags – some reflective, each abruptly terminated when one of the actors takes a gun and fires at his fellow performers who drop to the floor as if dead.

It starts with the performers lying flat on the floor playing musical instruments – cello, tuba, accordion – before rising slowly from the ground like reanimated corpses. His actors discuss the death of Tito and interrogate each other over their respective backgrounds – how Slovenian are you really if your mother is from Croatia?

First performed in 2010, this production now feels at once like an archive and a live performance (over the year’s the reanimation scene has taken on an extra meta-theatrical layer). It is fascinating to watch Frljic’s stylistic devices and mode of artistic attack in an earlier stage of their development. However, the production is not just a time capsule. It also contains a segment tailored for the specific audience and the current moment, with a speech which can be tweaked to reflect the place in which it is performed. In this instance, one of the actors rips into the Italian crowd, accusing them of fascism and complacency regarding their neighbours, chastising them for voting in Giorgia Meloni, and it creates a sudden, unexpected frisson,

The other Slovenian show, Žiga Divjak’s The Game, is more recent, dating from 2020, but it is similarly critical of Slovenian hypocrisy. The Game uses testimony from the Border Violence Monitoring Network to explore the ugly phenomenon of border pushback of migrants trying to enter Slovenia. The audience is presented with a gruelling and repetitious string of stories in which the same brutal and dehumanising treatment – intimidation, beatings, destruction of property – is meted out again and again by the authorities determined to keep people fleeing war and persecution out of their country. The two productions share a willingness to scratch at national sore spots and sources of shame. […]