Feature: Borstnik Theatre Festival, Maribor, Slovenia

Behind the in-your-face attitude of Slovenian theatre:

Mark Brown travels to the festival in Maribor:

Travelling through the tranquil, verdant valleys of Slovenia from the capital, Ljubljana, to the second city, Maribor (which is set to be European Capital of Culture in 2012), one could be forgiven for expecting the Borstnik Theatre Festival – an annual event, which has just celebrated its 45th edition – to be a sedate affair. Indeed, Maribor itself – a beautiful, remarkably quiet little city, full of picture-postcard Habsburg architecture – lulls one into what turns out to be a viciously false sense of security. Although Slovenia – population two million, member of the EU since 2004 – seems like the very image of central European gentility, its theatre has a tendency to aggression.

Typical of the self-consciously “experimental” strand in the country’s theatre is Ivica Buljan’s Ma & Al, a devised work in which two actors, representing a dysfunctional heterosexual couple, crash three monologues (including work by JD Salinger) into an insufferable 75 minutes of pseudo-punk drama. Apparently drinking real booze (they offer some to various audience members), they soon descend into fake domestic violence and rape. Actor Marko Mandi then proceeds, seemingly drunk, to scream texts into a microphone, before climbing, on the backs of chairs, over the heads of the audience.

The writer-director claims to have created a “new fictive world” in which many and varied subjects – from the death of a child, to the Vietnam War, to “the relationship between classic and modern theatre” – are explored. What it is, however, is hollow, pretentious and outdated (like Dadaism turned sour). Consequently, I’m not sorry that I missed Being Ignacij Borstnik, the other show starring Mandi, in which the actor masturbates, defecates and drinks his own sweat to, by all accounts, no significant purpose whatsoever.

Which is not to say that the Slovenian theatre in Maribor was made up entirely of puerile posturing. The company of the National Theatre of Maribor itself offered a polished, professional and, initially, creatively humorous take on one of Brecht’s duller plays, the satire A Respectable Wedding (the Marxist equivalent of shooting fish in a barrel). The comedy continued with When I Was Dead, by the National Theatre of Ljubljana, a partly cross-dressed, slightly modernised staging of a silent movie by the prolific, early-20th-century German filmmaker Ernst Lubitsch. A reasonably accomplished piece of vaudevillian slapstick, it was a modest offering as part of the festival’s competition programme.

The nearest I found to genuinely innovative theatre in Maribor was Manifest K by Sebastjan Horvat’s EPI Centre. Taking The Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engelsas its inspiration, the piece begins with a group of glamorous young women guiding the audience through the process of signing individual contracts (we are to give our labour to the theatre company for the duration of the show, for which we will be paid the princely sum of €5).

What follows combines the personal (we have small, intimate encounters with strangers) and the political (we form a production line making sandwiches). In the end the property clause of our contract kicks in, with Horvat in the role of a malevolent anti-materialist (part-Marx, part-Satan). Objects of personal value are procured from the audience, which the tooled-up Horvat reserves the right to sell back to us or to destroy.

Manifest K drives its point home a little too polemically, but it has sparks of originality. Besides, I can now boast that I am one of very few people in Scotland who owns a copy of the Communist Manifesto in Slovene.

This article was originally published in the Sunday Herald on 15 November 2010

 © Mark Brown


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