Learning From Pristina

Kosovo Theatre Showcase 24-29 October, Part I

I worked in the former Yugoslavia as a journalist during the civil war in the 1990s.

Monument to war. City Theatre of Gjilan, Pristina.

I was there from Srebrenica through Dayton to the temporary, if somewhat shaky, peace of 1996. It was, in many ways, a life-changing experience for me.

As a result, I have always maintained an interest in and concern about the region.

It was almost impossible for me to get to Serbia when I was there, and there was no real reason to visit Kosovo.

Subsequently, I have been to Belgrade, which still feels like the capital city of a country that no longer exists – full of unexpected charm and energy.

When I was invited to attend the Kosovo Theatre Showcase 2023, I jumped at the chance to finally see this part of the Balkans and experience its cultural offerings.

I knew the legends about the place – that the whole war stemmed from a speech Milosevic gave on a 1389 battlefield known as Kosovo Polje in Serbian and Fusha e Kosoves in Albanian.

I often heard the firmly held belief that the Kosovars were the most efficient at warfare of all the Balkan peoples. That they were a mountain people with a practical and hardy nature. Fighters to the bitter end.

Of course, this is mere hearsay – like the belief that all Londoners talk like Dick Van Dyke in Mary Poppins or all French women have the inexhaustible charm of Leslie Caron. But I still wanted to see it for myself.

Arriving at Pristina Airport, we were assaulted by a well-stocked duty-free store full of Western goods, a mess of parked cars, and a crowd begging for money. The currency is the euro, yet the whole place feels profoundly American. It is a bit like the outskirts of Las Vegas in Francis Ford Coppola’s One From The Heart.

On the twenty-mile drive from the airport to Pristina, we passed through a hinterland that reminded me of the wasteland between East Egg and Manhattan described in The Great Gatsby.

I was half expecting to see the fading advertising hoarding with the bespectacled eyes of Doctor T.J. Eckleburg overlooking this sinister valley of ashes.

What we did see was a liminal Potemkin village of odd cafes, deserted hotels with names like Hotel de Paris or Hotel Majestic and bathroom fixtures or kitchen appliances showrooms.

All very brightly lit and exuding loneliness, but behind was indeed an extensive valley of ashes.

It was as strange an entry into a city as I have ever experienced, and it was almost impossible to work out when we had reached downtown Pristina.

Pristina is a typical southern European city – chaotic, busy, full of stress and many places to have coffee. A Polish colleague told me that you have only had a macchiato once you have had a Pristina one.

Considering the dishwater that is Polish coffee, I was sceptical that it was that good, but upon finally having one at the renowned Cafe Elida, I was pleasantly surprised. Their choux buns were not to be sniffed at either.

There are bookshops and restaurants, villagers selling knitted socks, and those qeleshe white felt skull caps that no one seems to wear anymore other than the odd German tourist.

The main thoroughfare in Pristina is called Mother Teresa Boulevard, after the Albanian nun whose father came from nearby Prizren. She has been adopted as a national figure.

Mother Teresa on Mother Teresa Boulevard.

Everything seems to run off it – theatres, hotels and the National Library, a modern Ottoman structure encased in a chain metal cage.

There is a modest statue of the Albanian nun at one end, and at the other end of her boulevard is the Mother Teresa cathedral – still being built and distinctly un-Balkan in architectural style.

Between the two are at least three or four statues or portraits of the former Kosovar president Ibrahim Rugova: all flowing locks, heavy-rimmed spectacles, long silk scarves and thick dark overcoats looking like the Parisian intellectual and literature professor he was for so many years before embracing the politics of his homeland.

Imagine a Kosovar Bernard Henri Levi without the dubious sexual charisma.

Two other things strike you about Kosovo, particularly its capital city.

First, everyone smokes –  inside, outside, probably in their sleep. Cafes, restaurants and even the lift in our lovely Hotel Parliament reeked of cigarettes.

It was like being a teenager again – my hair, clothes and skin were infused with the smell even if I had never smoked in my life. It was truly unbearable.

I got used to going to bed with the certain feeling of having strep throat and waking up with bloodshot eyes.

I was awakened to the sound of the adhan or call to prayer from the five or more minarets that circled my hotel, followed by a cacophony of smokers coughing their lungs up. From the sacred to the indisputably profane.

And second, the endless packs of feral dogs that roam around the place. I remember in Sarajevo during the war, there were strange packs of dogs that spent their entire day searching for food and their probably dead owners.

It was common to see a chihuahua, a poodle, a Labrador, an Alsatian, and about twenty other dogs rush around in the halls of deserted buildings.

They did not attack you because they were too scared of the war around them, but one was always aware that it would not take much for them to see you as dinner or a quick snack on the way to their lair.

The dogs in Pristina are pretty big and so inbred it is impossible to tell what they are anymore. Suddenly, one will appear at your side and follow you for a while. A few foolish tourists tried to stroke them and got nipped.

I am scared of dogs after a traumatic encounter in 1994 with an ex-Berlin Wall dog, so this made me feel very uncomfortable despite being assured that they would never bite.

One day, one of them went crazy and started barking uncontrollably. He gathered a bunch of his mates along, and we found ourselves surrounded by them.

This was no starlight barking from One Hundred And One Dalmatians but my absolute worst nightmare ever. Even the dog owners amongst us were noticeably nervous.

It seems that well-meaning animal lovers from abroad give money to look after these dogs and get them chipped and fed. Of course, the money goes straight into the pockets of corrupt officials, and the dogs are continually on the prowl.

Being told that 90% of them are fine and rabies-free did not make me feel any better.

I bribed people with ice cream and macchiatos to walk along Mother Teresa with me as I knew that the canine tribe could smell my fear, and being a tad overweight, I was surely their ideal version of a Big Mac on legs with free delivery.

Our first event at the Theatre Showcase was a walk through 1990s underground Pristina with the director of the Oda Theatre and former head of the National Theatre, Florent Mehmeti.

We met by the statue of Bill Clinton on Bill Clinton – or Klinton in Albanian – Boulevard. In homage to their roles in the Kosovo war, most towns have a Bill Clinton Avenue or Boulevard and probably running off it is a smaller street called Tony Bleir (Blair) Road.

Bubba to Americans.

Ah, how geopolitical realities are reflected in the street maps of former war zones. Nearby the statue of the smiling 42nd US president was a rather grim matronly dress shop called Hillary full of pastel-coloured trouser suits.

We congregated around the statue, gazing at its rather too-prominent trouser bulge and even larger infectious gormless grin.

Apparently, this is a regular opening to the showcase and takes the participants on a very personal tour through the backstreets of Pristina.

Sadly, it relied on earbud reception and hand signs that found most of us wallowing in total confusion.

Also, since Mehmeti recorded it, certain markers have been removed. There is no armchair on the seventh-floor balcony of his parents’ former apartment nor a blue plaque at the entry of his own apartment building.

At one point, we were all asking ourselves whether his friend Adriana was really dead or about to be killed, and who was she exactly anyway?

Was she perhaps lost like the rest of us in the maze of little alleys, cigarette smoke and overflowing rubbish bins?

Suddenly, the prospect of another macchiato and a cream bun seemed attractive, and some of us abandoned smoky underground 1990s Pristina in search of earthly delights.

The next appointment was a performance of 1984 at the National Theatre.

The main National Theatre is on Mother Teresa – where else – but it has been closed for renovation and is now next to the Newborn Monument, a truly depressing place. It spells out in English NEWBORN to commemorate the newly born state of Kosovo and looks like the much hated Amsterdam tourist sign.

The temporary theatre is in the basement of the old Palace of Youth and Sports. It is almost as strange as the Oda Theatre, which seems to be housed in the old changing rooms of the same place and opposite the new FC Pristina football stadium.

Going down the steep concrete stairs one is overwhelmed by the smell of tobacco, the deeply suspect residue of sweaty jockstraps and muddy football boots. Not your average theatrical experience or venue.

1984 seemed like an odd choice in 2023, though, of course, when we were there, we learnt that the artist David Shrigley had recycled 6000 copies of The Da Vinci Code from Swansea charity shops into a single copy of 1984.

This must mean something – surely.

This production turned out to be more based on the 1984 film by Michael Radford than the novel by George Orwell. A leading actor played the role of O’Brien, played by a desiccated Richard Burton in the film.  He seemed incredibly ill at ease, and it felt seriously miscast.

The actor was aided by a woman who smoked all the time and was playing the role of George Orwell in a three-piece suit and Morticia Addams’ hair.

Not really sure why she was there other than to let the audience inhale her cigarette smoke, as smoking was not allowed in the bunker-like theatre.

Ampleforth, the poetic dreamer of the novel, was played by a man in an unexplained giant pink bunny suit, so it was not that easy to judge his performance. One wondered if he had strayed from Animal Farm or a battery advert.

The love story between Winston Smith and Julia felt real. It had a particular urgency and desperation, creating a fetid, uneasy mood.

We were told that the actor playing Winston was a leading comic actor and was cast against type because he looked like John Hurt. He looked more like George Orwell, making the smoking Frida Kahlo George Orwell unnecessary.

Julia had the requisite childproof underwear and jolly hockey stick gait of Suzanna Hamilton. There was an odd Skype exchange between Mrs Perkins and her children that felt shoehorned in.

In the film, Mr Charrington, the antique dealer played by Cyril Cusack, becomes a woman known as Mrs Sherringham.

Her performance was incredibly moving. A truly remarkable, touching actor who was the first in my pantheon of great elderly Kosovar actresses.

Melihate Qena in Negotiating Peace.

I was unsure what relevance 1984 has in 2023, but it was a perfectly okay production. Rather good by comparison as to what followed.

There was an opening party on the roof of the sports palace  – beer, meat, more meat and plentiful cigarettes with marauding dogs hoping for a bit of thigh – porcine or human. They were not fussy.

The Kosovo Theatre Showcase was started to display the fruits of the local theatrical scene and hold discussions about the future of the theatre and workshops for young people who want to work as actors, directors, writers and critics.

It is run by the playwright Jeton Neziraj, who seems to be the only Kosovar who does not smoke, and his associate Aurela Kadriu of Qendra Multimedia, who does.

Ten plays were on the programme; however, one was cancelled due to illness. Three of the nine plays we did see were by him – one was admittedly a translation.

The play I was most excited about seeing there was also directed by his wife, Blerta Neziraj. Negotiating Peace was performed in English and was about peace discussions after a civil war.

It was inspired by To End A War by Richard Holbrooke, who was almost the first person I met when I arrived in Zagreb many years ago.

Sadly, it did not live up to my expectations, and not wanting to be rude to my hosts, I will say that it did not speak to me. However, my second great elderly Kosovar actress appeared in it.

Melihate Qena directs plays for children and acts in plays for adults. She played a tragic mother figure and was, for the most part, silent.

At one point, in a nod to Ivo van Hove, she looked into a camera on stage, and her beautiful, luminous face was projected in black and white on the wall behind her.

Playwright Jeton Neziraj (R).

It was held still for what felt like an eternity. All the tragedy and misery of recent Balkan history was there for all to see – writ large. It was a heart-stopping moment with a great actor at the top of her game. She didn’t need to say or do anything. Her face said it all.

I would have liked to see her in another play and maybe one she directed. An unforgettable coup de theatre.

The second was Gadjo, a play in Albanian about a Roma woman who had been deported back to Kosovo from Antwerp. She was persecuted and badly beaten up by the locals in Podujeva.

It was based on a 2018 newspaper story. Again, I found it difficult to engage with. I guess some playwrights speak to you, and some don’t. Other members of our group enjoyed both of them.

The late afternoon and nights were for the stage, but during the day, we got down to business and dealt with the past, the future and all things in between.

I had travelled from the airport with the wonderful, talented Israeli theatre director and actor Roy Horovitz. He had been trying to get back home to Tel Aviv since the events of 7th October.

Stuck in Europe since then, Horovitz was desperately worried about what was happening back home in the Middle East. He had been asked to participate in a panel discussion on theatre in times of social crisis.

Upon arrival, Horovitz was told that a fellow Greek panel member, Aktina Stathaki, was not prepared to participate in the discussion because the Palestinian theatre producer who was supposed to participate, Marina Barham, could not leave her country. Furthermore, a Zoom link was not possible.

Stathaki had circulated an email saying that she could not take part in a debate while “Gazans are being slaughtered if no Palestinian voice can join the debate.”

The organisers were in a very difficult position but decided to continue with the event because they believed in dialogue. Last year and indeed this year, the showcase featured a play by the Serbian author Dorde Kosic in a brave attempt to reconcile their two cultures.

Israeli actor/director Roy Horovitz.

Rather than a panel discussion, we sat on stage in a circle and discussed the situation.

Horovitz said that he had been made to feel like a war criminal by some of his fellow panel members despite the fact that every moment of the day, he was hearing about friends who had been kidnapped, raped and killed by Hamas.

He mentioned the 85-year-old grandmother of a friend who had been kidnapped from her kibbutz without her insulin and the 20-year-old granddaughter of another who had been murdered after being gang raped.

Horovitz does not support Netanyahu, but he had expected sympathy from his fellow theatre people. He was visibly shaking and distraught.

Many members of the audience were moved to silence. Sadly, others were entrenched in their limited worldview.  It was an extremely ugly scene and, for me, deeply upsetting.

Eventually, rationality asserted itself, and a reasonable, if hesitant, discussion was held.

The Ukrainian actress Kateryna Kisten spoke movingly of her exile in Sweden. Kisten is a theatre actress known outside of Ukraine for playing Volodomyr Zelenskyy’s sister in the TV series Servant of the People.

Before the Ukraine war started, she was rehearsing a production of Hamlet in Kyiv, but after a month, Kisten left for Stockholm. She went on tour throughout Europe with other Ukranian actors in Halt – a production of Hamlet spelt without the letters M and E.

It was about what had happened to their lives as actors since the war. Hamlet without Hamlet. I would have loved to have seen that production.

Jeffery Lin Chi Ho from London via Hong Kong spoke of his fear that Cantonese theatre will get cancelled by mainland China. He felt it might carry on underground or in private homes, but it would soon be unavailable in Hong Kong theatres.

Obviously, writing for a journal called The Battleground, I was not backwards in coming forward.

I talked about the importance of culture during times of war.

Of filming the last puppeteer in Sarajevo during the siege – a man who refused to leave because he felt that the children of his city deserved at least an hour of theatre and magic a week when they were being fired upon and scared for their very lives. Of not having the courage to speak up and keep on talking.

Sadly, time constraints meant that we could not continue this vitally important conversation that seemed to reflect the terrible state of our world.

It was an extraordinary state of affairs and coloured my view of the rest of the showcase.

There were other panel discussions and a kind of ad-hoc theatre market in a space called the Barabar Centre, which was housed in the Grand Hotel off Zahir Pajaziti Square.

This was pure Yugoslav architecture  – huge expanses of dark marble foyer, too many lifts that did not work, endless olive green sofas and corridors that went on forever.

At the end of one of them was the Barabar Centre that looked like the Kitchen in New York circa 1984 – white bathroom tiles and blasted concrete with a tremendous view of Mother Teresa, the new stadium and the hills surrounding Pristina.

Admittedly, part of its charm was that it was not a dark basement, and the dogs could not climb up that high, but still, it was a great space.

The plays featured were from all over the region. There was a particularly interesting one presented by the Macedonian producer Ivanka Apostolova Baskar called Big Deal by Mia Efremova. Baskar is as passionate a theatre person as I have ever met.

We had breakfast together most mornings at 8 AM at our splendid hotel, where she would ask me questions like “What is happening to situationist theatre in the UK?”

I would reply feebly, “Honestly, Ivanka, I’m more concerned about getting my coca pops, coffee and toast at this time of the morning.”

I suppose the one thing in Kosovo I learnt was that I am not a theatre person. I consume and enjoy it, but I do not live it in any real way. Rations before passions every time.

Photographs courtesy of Henrietta Foster and Kosovo Theatre Showcase. All rights reserved.