The second day of the festival aligned three incredible performances that tackled the burning issues of our daily lives. The story of being a woman, an artist in Lebanon, fighting against censorship; the story of evermore prevalent femicide; and a third story about taking courage to fight the demons of drugs, alcohol, abuse, and other hardships that broke the family apart. More than six hours of theatre play, one after another, kept the audience awake. On the second day, FemArt presented amazing artists from Lebanon, Slovenia, and Kosovo who brought performances of exceptional quality and artistic ingenuity.
“I WANT TO BE A FREE ARTIST”
“Who is Medea? Is she me? Is she you? Is she in Beirut? Is she in Kosovo?
Hanane Hajj Ali, a veiled woman from Lebanon, in a one-woman performance Jogging – Theater in Progress unveils her personality to the Kosovar audience in the Oda theater. Hanane jogs in the morning – she jogs for freedom, she jogs to burn her fears away.
Who is Hanane Hajj Ali? Is she one woman? Is she several women? Is she Hanane? Or Medea? Or Zahra? Or Yvonne? When asked how much of this performance is Hanane the woman and how much is Hanane the actress she says she likes to joggle between what is true and what is fiction: “Sometimes I even ask myself – have I lived this or have I invented it? Because I am a creator, but I took the stories of women from my family and I appropriated them, I took them for myself. But all these stories are true, especially the one with Zahra.” The play is mainly about defying the censorship in Lebanon, but it is also much more than that. It is a multi-layered play where a multitude of topics are skillfully intertwined. Because besides censorship in Lebanon, there is censorship for women all around the world, falling rights, the jeopardizing of women’s freedoms, hidden stories, silenced voices. Hanane Hajj Alli spoke tonight for all of them. She spoke in a tragic and a comic, an erotic, a personal, and a political way. In her opinion, this play corresponds perfectly to this year’s motto “burn your fear away” – that is it at its core, in fact.
She saw many similarities between Lebanon and Kosovo: “we lived the same troubles of war, and there was a lot of violence”, but as she stated in the play “I will suffer to be reborn.” Throughout her performance, she compares the two countries with many political references and many similarities in terms of political instability.
“If the era of tragedy is over, then why do I smell waste and dirt every time I run the streets of Beirut?”
“If the era of tragedy is over, then why do I smell waste and dirt every time I run the streets of Kosovo?”
There is something rotten in the state of Denmark.
There is something rotten in the state of Kosovo.
Hanane left a strong impact on her Kosovar audience. People were amazed by her physical presence, strength, movement, and agility, as if she was flying through space unveiling more with each step she took and every sentence she uttered.
FIVE KINDS OF SILENCE
– “I understand. No, you don’t. You have no idea.”
A masterpiece coming from Slovenia.
In the sterile ambience of a blue-tiled bathroom, we get a very bloody opening scene. A cold-blooded murder. But of whom? A story that is necessary to scream to the world. In times of horrendous femicide, rape and domestic violence against women, we cannot stay silent. We have never had more urgent times for such plays to teach and raise awareness and urge for change.
A daughter kills her father. Her sister and mother are accomplices. Or so they say to the police. There is an everlasting hearing. Questioning. Repeating. Very precise movements. Very precise answers. A lot of repetition. Almost like a mantra. – “I understand. No, you don’t. You have no idea.” What should we understand? In the beginning one might be confused. What is there to understand? But as the scenes go on, we start putting together the details. A violent father, Billy, mentally, physically, and sexually abuses his wife and two daughters, now in their twenties. We understand, but we cannot comprehend. In the words of the director, Maša Pelko, we easily comprehend stupid things like ‘why didn’t you just get out?’ and similar, but this is very complex. The problem of domestic violence is so complex. What happens in the play is the aftermath of an entire life of violence and abuse. However, in the end, we realize that we got it all wrong. This entire story was almost like an imagining. Only about 3% of women continue with their lives – according to the specialists the director talked to. In almost 100% of the cases they end up being killed – like our three protagonists.
This play is based on Shelagh Stephenson’s play, which the directing crew adapted, dissected, and deconstructed with the help of a dozen professionals from different fields – social workers, victims of domestic violence, police officers, psychologists, psychiatrists, etc. In Stevenson’s play, it is about Billy, the father, who is sorry for abusing his wife and daughters. Pelko was wondering why should she give space and the spotlight to a man who is sorry for abusing his dearest ones for their entire lives. Why are we so fascinated by serial killers? This is why she entirely deconstructed the text. They’ve worked on the research for three months, they asked police officers for instance “if we have a dead man and this happened, what would be the protocol?”
Stephenson’s text was more Hollywoodish, while the reality is different. The story corresponds perfectly with what is going on in the region. Domestic violence during the pandemic rose from four femicides per year, to eight per year in Slovenia alone. The situation is no better in Kosovo, Montenegro, Serbia, or Bosnia and Herzegovina, where women are killed and no one does anything to protect them. England, Nova Gorica, Prishtina. Is there any difference?
When it comes to artistic expression, under the masterful direction of Maša Pelko, there was no place to leave anything to chance. Stephenson’s stage play was adapted from a radio production and the director skillfully and yet unobtrusively incorporated it in her play – the radio was one of the main tools of the performance. The actresses use a recorder that records, stops and plays, which creates a robotic rhythm to keep us awake until the very end. She played with screaming, repetitions, pauses, and silences. Marjuta Slamič, who played the mother, thinks that these shades of silences are the silences of the abused, the silence of not telling, the silence of society – knowing, but not telling, about the silence of the abuser, the silence of the children. It is a very powerful portrayal of all of us. Abuse is not somebody else’s problem. It is a societal problem. It is our problem.
In the end, the director, Pelko, shared very honest and intimate details of having been in a violent relationship herself and how, for her, the entire preparation process and the play itself was personal and political. She wanted it to matter, and even though the process was hard emotionally, they all relied on each other. Marjuta also said that after each play she needed at least an hour to get it out of her system. It is hard, physically and emotionally. But for Pelko, this play was maybe the toughest but the most beautiful one she’s directed so far. In her words, that is the beauty of it, what theater should be – a safe place to discuss a variety of topics. Tonight, the theater was our safe place and this is how the FemArt festival serves its purpose!
SOBER – OR HOW THEATER SAVED HIS LIFE
The actors welcomed us in the front yard of the medical clinic, at 10 pm. Inside, psychedelic shades of neon blue, pink and green. The thought of entering gives you chills. The doctors in their plastic green suits and forced smiles look like they came out of a horror movie. At last, we all enter and the story starts developing in the hallway. This is the story of Nina, or Emma, or Sara, or Lucy – her real name – a drug addict, who came to a rehabilitation center that is more a home led by other former patients, leading the clinic and taking care of new patients. Will Nina, or Emma, or Sara, or Lucy be able to make it out rehabilitated?
In the opinion of the leading actress, the subject is very taboo, but it shouldn’t be because it’s very real. People are losing each other to drugs and abuse and nobody is dealing with that from a higher perspective, or providing a safe space where they can at least talk. Nobody talks about it. This theater play came from the urge to tell a story about addiction, talk about humanity and taking care of each other and doing something about this pressing issue. Butrint Pasha created this performance for his friends, the majority of whom are drug abusers and one of whom he lost a couple years ago. Two of his friends, however, got sober after the show. Drugs had a huge impact on his life because he was watching his friends destroy their lives, their family relationships, and even the lives of their loved ones. Almost all of these people would be abandoned in the end and would have no place to go to because the families got tired of their behavior, of being stolen from and worse. This is why this theater play People, Places and Things by Duncan Macmillan was perfect to Pasha, because it is an unconventional center, it is a house, or a home, it is a portrayal of a family, as the main unit of society.
Pasha’s style is rather raw, he likes working only with actors and having very minimalist interventions from other theater professionals, such as lighting designers and similar. In this play, he collaborated with choreographer Robert Nuha, who worked on movement and so perfectly implemented Pasha’s directorial demands. The rhythm that Pasha so ingeniously created was euphoric and yet so smooth, so that the audience was smoothly led from one place to the next. Even the guest actors from other plays in FemArt complemented the quality of the play and the relations that the actors had between each other. Both artists say it was a team job where Nuha provided euphoric movements, while Pasha gave directions for the mellow parts. Robert also neatly incorporated ‘mathematical choreography’, as he likes to call it, into the play, because Pasha’s directing style demanded choreography to stay ‘inside’, to have a more classical style and approach. It meant everything was exact: steps, strikes, movements. Pasha wanted almost a TV-like perspective to construct the scenes and to see only frames – only frames of people moving in 2D. He wanted to somehow trap people inside, to forget about the outside world, because people who take drugs are blocked into their own world and they start looking for their own community – that of dealers and consumers.
When it comes to the actors and actresses, it was apparent from their first interaction that there is trust between them. I met Zhaneta Xhemajli at the last FemArt and I remember vividly her telling me how she was waiting for her big leading role. I got very emotional when I saw her tonight on this unconventional stage of the medical center. This was the role she had been waiting for and this was the role she was ready for. “This was something I really manifested for seven years, to be quite honest. And it came to me at a point where I think I was ready. Yes, this is what I want to do. I was ready. I had evolved as an actress. And it found me at a time where I was privately more content and calmer and more collected. So, I had clear focus for research and for everything that I had in my hands to make it as great as I could.” She grew a lot, she became a more experienced actress, and the audience felt it. She played in front of their faces; they could feel each other’s presence and that is something Xhemajli likes. She loves playing with the audience near her because she can sense their energy and their reactions and how she makes them feel. But this was also Pasha’s main directing line as well – he wanted to move through the space, to be raw and natural. He wanted the actors to scream in the face of the audience, to make people feel the real pain of rehabilitation, of not taking drugs.
Butrint Pasha and his team worked a lot on research and visited clinics to understand the behaviors, to understand why people who take drugs refuse to leave this kind of lifestyle. The process was very hard, he says, very emotional and spiritual and they cried a lot. But by the end of the play, in Xhemajli’s opinion, Lucy gets out of addiction by being honest with herself and by making amends with all the people who she hurt, and she accepted that even if people don’t forgive you completely, she forgave herself and she was ready to move forward and to do what she loved.
For them, it was very important to make the roles relatable, to make them think about them and to reflect and to take that message with them, to challenge them, make them think outside of the box that they are in. For the director of the play, the night in FemArt was like a premiere: “I was really happy, more than at the premiere in December last year. Because we had forgotten that feeling. Theater saved my life too.”
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