Interview with Oliver Frljić

This year, Gorki - Alternative for Germany? a performance about German radical right wing, and Six Characters in Search of an Author - a performance about Croatian right wing - continue the long succession of unique artistic and political performances. However, before the festival and the audience face the German neo-Nazi partying and “elite” Ustashi weddings, this year has given us the first opportunity to get a glimpse into theoretical side of Frljić’s work and his approach to theatre and politics, and that through a dialogue with the audience. This year, Philosophical Theatre, moderated by Srećko Horvat, has, according to the organizers, received generous funding by the state and it was expectable to have Oliver Frljić invited as the interlocutor, so that the state can see that the provocation lives on even when the state tries to suffocate it with money. Be as it may, we witnessed Philosophical Theatre while sitting on the stage of the National Theatre in Belgrade. However, after the conversation with Horvat and with the audience, Frljić explains in this interview for Bitef blog why we, respectable civic audience, pretend to be sitting in the National Theatre although we know that it actually is not that.


Today you talked about the challenges of democracy and its inability to conquer fascism. We have also talked about certain democratic institutions such as theatres, especially the national ones. Your performances also question democracy and theatre, and their function in the struggle against contemporary fascism. Do you think that theatre, the way you do it today, can manage to stop fascism?


Oliver Frljić: No, I don’t think that any art can stop fascism. I think that artistic representation is to weak, and that we are speaking of two completely different phenomena. Art cannot stop fascism, that is for sure. On the other hand, I think that what it can do is ask questions which can help us start thinking about some other political questions. Democracy has proved more than once that it neither has mechanisms to prevent fascism, nor can it not give it democratic legitimization. That already happened with national socialism, and we are witnessing the same thing both in Europe and in the world. What I find interesting, in terms of theatre and democracy, is that those are two different forms of representation. My performance Gorki - Alternative for Germany? speaks of the weaknesses of these two types of representation at the beginning of the 21st century. On the one hand, democracy cannot stop fascism while on the other, theatre mechanisms cannot truly represent the new reality. The notion of liberal democracy, which is often used to describe the new social reality - I do not know how precise it is or not, but anyway - we can see how democratic institutions legitimize anti-democratic practices.


Can it, then, be linked to the fact that the representatives of the liberal democracy are interested mostly in themselves, i.e. in a certain elite, neglecting the ones economically weaker than themselves? Or, for example, theatres like Maxim Gorki that, no matter how liberal they are, still attract civic audience.


Oliver Frljić: But, theatre is, generally speaking, always meant for civic audience. I have never seen a theatre not meant for civic audience. We just pretend that this is the National Theatre, this venue where we now are. But it is meant for a certain social group which has economic capital to afford coming here. On the other hand, that capital is only symbolic, in the sense of understanding complex codes we are creating. That is, actually, a big lie. Rarely ever has theatre in its history spoken to the lowest social levels, especially in the 19th and 20th century. That is art which has always spoken to a certain social level. And whenever exceptions occurred, whenever efforts were made to create some theatre which would speak to other social levels, that was always disqualified from the point of view of civic aesthetics.


Regarding the questions theatre should pose, do you think that the fact that your performances provoked reaction, i.e. protests, led to their success in terms of their social engagement? Are those questions more clearly heard if three thousand people protest in front of the theater?

Oliver Frljić: Yes. That certainly has happened. I have strategically used other media in order to spread what I do. I think that we should perceive ourselves within a new media horizon, without ignoring the other media. The problem is that one theatre performance can communicate with the audience of three to four hundred people. When the media broadcast a theatre performance, it reaches more people, so in my opinion, it is legitimate to build it into the dramaturgy of a performance - this opportunity to have it broadcast by other media and thus have it spread.


Regarding the language of a theatre performance… You have mentioned that, when you speak, those political topics “devour” everything else, that politics becomes the only topic, and that you have free rein in terms of theatre language. However, I think - and as far as I have understood, so do you - that the choice of theatre language is very important and that, if we explore certain political topic and treat it in a realistic or some other classical way - we will not produce the same effect that we do if we opt for contemporary theatre language and when the rule of the “forth wall” is not respected.


Oliver Frljić: Yes, that is for sure. Still, it has often happened that the very topic led to disqualification of my work, even on the artistic level. Theatre language is inseparable from the reality we wish to signify and I think that this insisting of theatre to persist on some forms of realism which are dominant is what kills subversive potential. Never do I have a ready-made language that I can simply apply to a certain topic. It is always the topic that determines the way I speak about it. The audience knows mostly about those of my performances that are in the media spotlight, but I work a lot, I do many things and it would be interesting for the ones who keep trying to disqualify me to see the other part of my world. Although, I don’t think it would change anything in their attempts to disqualify me.


You usually tackle some narrowly local topic. For example, if the performance is in Belgrade, it is about Zoran Đinđić, if it is in Poland, it is about clerical fascism which is getting stronger there. However, at festivals like Bitef, the audience might not be very familiar with the topics of the visiting performances, people might not have the foreknowledge. In your opinion, what kind of effect do your performances have in those circumstances and what is the role of festivals?


Oliver Frljić: I think that the audience usually can find equivalents in their social surrounding. Gorki - Alternative for Germany? can easily translate to some social reality here in Serbia… or, Six Characters in Search of an Author. There are politicians in Serbia and Croatia who are very similar, they spent their youth prosecuting “traitors”. And then they changed their political attire.  And then their true nature came out and it just keeps seeping out. Under that democratic façade, there are autocratic modes of thinking, political thinking too, of course. I was surprised, for example, when we played Turbo-Folk abroad - since it is a phenomenon typical of this area - how easily people would come up with keys to interpret that. Moreover, I think that each performance assumes a new meaning in a new context. I am curious what the people here will see in Six Characters in Search of an Author, whether that performance will induce some critical thinking or they will just say, “oh, that’s how it is in Croatia, here it’s more or less great”.


Interviewed by Borisav Matić