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Drama Beyond Drama


Kosovo Theatre Showcase 24-29 October 2023, Part II

On the third day of the showcase, we left Pristina for the City Theatre of Gjilan. Finally, we would get to see Kosovo’s beautiful countryside by day.

Mother Kosovo, Ferdonije Qerkezi (L)

However, the coach had tightly drawn curtains, and despite my best attempts, we only got tantalising glimpses of the verdant glory and the sparkling rivers.

On the way, I caught brief glimpses of everyday Kosovar life – an old lady on a balcony enjoying the morning sun, two men having an espresso in a small cafe, and an old man staring across a valley, lost in his thoughts.

Neat haystacks in gold fields, dark marble tombstones everywhere with photo-engraved images of all the dead young men.

Half-finished houses with steps leading nowhere, Sculpture gardens with everything from Michaelangelo knockoffs to lascivious gnomes.

A miniature funfair with three dodgem cars and a rusty carousel. An overgrown toy railway line and the verdant gardens of the Villa Park opposite a bullet-spattered house.

All testaments to a life that was and could never be again.

On the coach, my most incredibly theatrical moment in Kosovo happened.

Roy Horovitz and I  had been asked to talk to a group of young Kosovar and Albanian journalists and performers about being a critic on the way to Gjilan.

These young people were the best thing about the showcase – they radiated hope and talent. They were Belkissa Zhelegu, Blerta Ibrahimi, Manushaqe Ibrahimi, Mani Fjolla, Agnesa Mehanolli and Delvis Bejleri.

In near-fluent English, they asked a variety of probing and challenging questions.

Belkissa said in hushed tones that she was translating Hamlet into Albanian as she wanted to perform it in Tirana. She then recited her favourite speech by Ophelia – it was a breathtaking moment.

My heart stopped at the sight of this beautiful young woman who had never been to Britain, let alone Stratford Upon Avon, reciting word for word Ophelia’s magnificent soliloquy:

O, what a noble mind is here o’erthrown!
The courtier’s, scholar’s, soldier’s, eye, tongue, sword,
Th’ expectancy and rose of the fair state,
The glass of fashion and the mould of form,
Th’ observ’d of all observers- quite, quite down!
And I, of ladies most deject and wretched,
That suck’d the honey of his music vows,
Now see that noble and most sovereign reason,
Like sweet bells jangled, out of tune and harsh;
That unmatch’d form and feature of blown youth
Blasted with ecstasy. O, woe is me
T’ have seen what I have seen, see what I see!

The magic and richness of Shakespeare was suddenly present in that curtained coach, and I remembered how theatre can move us to our very core. It was transcendent.

Belkissa told us with some embarrassment that she had never seen Hamlet. Ron and I vowed silently that we would make that happen for her – quite how we have yet to work out, but we will.

I cannot remember being so transported by a performance as I was on that journey to Gjilan. It was such a privilege to be with these beautiful young people. They were the future, and most of them did not smoke.

The City Theatre has a terrifying statue of a Kosovar warrior in front of it and a scary earlier version of the same figure across the street. However, inside, it was undoubtedly the most beautiful theatre we had seen. An ample space lit by the most elegant Moreish hanging lights.

On stage was a clutch of actors playing with party balloons. A few moments later, the lights went down, and The Shadow Garden began. This was the most accomplished and fresh ensemble playing I witnessed during the whole showcase.

The Shadow Garden

Again, set in Podujeva, it is the story of the surviving members of the Bogujevci family who witnessed the massacre of 15 family members in their garden in 1999.

The play combines the testimony of Saranda, Jehona and Fatos who survived the massacre. They were evacuated to Manchester with nothing but their fractured memories of a happy family life.

The innocent joy of family games and parties set against the brutal slaughter of mothers, grandmothers, and children was deftly woven together.

You could tell by their brisk energy that the actors knew they were performing at their very best. It was tight and disciplined and quite overwhelmingly good.

That is exactly what I had been hoping from the other plays we had seen and not found in any of them.

After the performance, I noticed that while we waited for our coach, the actors stood outside the theatre for the inevitable cigarette break.

I rushed up to them and said I enjoyed and appreciated their performance. Of course, they all spoke excellent English and were pleased to hear how much their play had hit home.

We lingered there for a while, and although the cigarettes were in full force, there were thankfully no canine friends wandering up to assault us.

I met Sarah Hehir, the playwright, who spoke amazing English, mainly because she is actually English. She had come across the story of helping Kosovar refugees in Manchester. It turned out that her day job was as a scriptwriter and editor on the BBC radio soap The Archers.

It was somewhat disconcerting to think of Ambridge and the travails of Borsetshire in the third city of Kosovo. Never in my wildest dreams did I think I would be sharing cheap cracks about Joe Grundy, Brian Aldridge and Shula Archer in downtown Gjilan.

It was also a little embarrassing to admit that the best new play I had seen was by a fellow Brit, but actually, it was.

I wish we had been given more time to speak to the actors, writers and directors after every performance. I learnt so much about their lives and thoughts from my brief encounters with them.

The showcase was very organised and packed, but on reflection, I could have done with more time with the creative forces behind the works on offer.

My Kosovar colleagues were not so bowled over by The Shadow Garden as they felt the story was far too well-known and somewhat sensationalised.

It was new to me, however, and I thought it was incredibly well crafted.

The next day, we boarded the coach for the much smaller city of Gjakova. We were the guests of the Hadi  Shehu City Theatre – a vast, impressive Yugoslav edifice with a massive stage and auditorium.

The first performance was Shakespeare’s Measure For Measure and again, in the middle of the southern Balkans, the magic of the man made its presence felt.

Measure for Measure

There is a moment that happens in all good productions of his work when time stands still, and suddenly, you are alone with his words and his characters.

It certainly happened to me in Gjakova with the excellent young cast who got to the bare bones of one of my favourite of Shakespeare’s problem plays and, indeed, of his plays.

Isabella was played by a brave actress called Vlera Pylla. She was utterly fearless in this most difficult of parts. A genuinely original and heartfelt performance.

They changed the ending a bit, but it was a cast who knew what they were doing and set the stage alight.

The second play staged in the art gallery of the same theatre was Antigones, translated by Jeton Neziraj from the play by the French playwright Jean Anouilh, who was inspired by the Sophocles original.

I cannot judge the Albanian, but it was by far the best of Neziraj’s three plays in the showcase. It was acted by the same cast, who were so magnificent in Measure for Measure.

I knew the play reasonably well as I had studied his later play L’Alouette about Jeanne d’Arc for A level. Written in 1944 at the end of the occupation, Antigones was a critique of the Petain Vichy government.

In many ways, Anouilh is a forgotten playwright whose work is rarely performed, which is a mistake. This performance was terrific, and the actors were extraordinary.

In particular, the beautiful Vlora Dervishi, who played Antigone, and my third elderly magical Kosovar actress, Myrvete Kurtishi, who was resplendent in deep violet as her nurse.

The scenes between the two of them were electrifying and so strong. I have rarely been so excited by a performance in a language I do not understand. Again, I caught the cast outside the theatre while waiting for the coach.

Antigones

It was wet, and the dogs of Gjakova either were replete or didn’t like the rain. Of course, the cast was smoking and looking rather bushed after an exhausting day of performances. I ran to congratulate them and the director of the theatre.

The two women – again in excellent English – Vlora and Vlera said that they felt they were playing the same part – that Antigone must have inspired Isabella. Both, in many ways, are unlikeable and difficult, but in the right about the injustices they saw.

We talked about the problems of playing a character whom no one warms to but were sadly cut short as it was a long journey back to Pristina, where I managed to get the driver to drop me off nowhere near Mother Teresa and its roaming dogs.

These were the two most remarkable performances I saw at the Kosovo Theatre Showcase – truly inspired acting and direction.

Between the two plays, we went on an excursion to the museum of Ferdonije Qerkezi. Walking through the rainy streets of the old town was a tantalising glimpse into what Kosovo might once have looked like.

We turned into a suburban street called the street of the Qerkezi martyrs. There was a cafe, a corner shop, a pizzeria, a gynaecologist and a dentist.

In the middle of the street was an ordinary two-storey house where the most painful event of the trip awaited us. It brought the reality of the Kosovo war home in a way that was impossible to forget.

On 27 March 1999, Serb paramilitary forces broke into Ferdonije Qerkezi’s home and took her husband and her four sons.

She has recovered the bodies of two of her sons but still has no idea where the other two and her husband are buried.

The house is a monument to her lost family and her lost life.

On the first floor, there are three rooms. Two are the bedrooms of the older sons, and the back room is a kind of sitting room with divans on three walls. Every inch is covered in pictures of happier days with a smiling family living an ordinary life in a small town.

In a glass-fronted vitrine are the clothes that she last saw her sons and family in. They are blood-stained with bullet holes and folded neatly in plastic covers.

Missing family memorial, Qerkezi Museum.
Missing family memorial, Qerkezi Museum.

The wedding suits of the two older sons and their brides’ frilly white dresses, in plastic covers, are in the bedroom. These are the last presents they gave their mother, alongside two cribs they received as wedding presents for the grandkids that never came.

It is a chilling, lonely and lost place.

In the middle of all these memories sits Ferdonije Qerkezi herself. A large woman in her late seventies whose face is frozen with grief and pain.

One of the young journalists translates her words into English for us. You can tell that this young woman for whom the

war is not even a memory was deeply shaken by meeting the woman known locally as Kosovo’s mother.

Qerkezi represents all that they have suffered and continue to suffer. Every 27 March, she sets the table in her house for six people to remember the day her menfolk were kidnapped. She is the only living person around the table. The others are ghosts.

Sadly, several people in our group clamoured for selfies or asked Qerkezi rather insensitive questions. Still, even they could not take away from the sheer dignity and loss of the ‘Mother’ of Kosovo.

It was a hard moment to think that for almost twenty-five years, this woman had been living like this in the shell of her former home.

The final day of the showcase started later, but we still had three performances to go. The first was at the Oda Theatre, where we braved the hounds of Pristina and the omnipresent smell of rank jockstrap.

The first performance was inspired by the film The Father by Florian Zeller. I have never been a huge fan of the play or the film, but this was as good a performance as possible.

The notes told us that the father represented the Albanian nation, and his dementia was the national amnesia of all their former suffering.

I am not sure I got that precisely, but it was a robust and workmanlike production with solid performances from the cast – most of whom we had seen in other productions in Pristina.

Then, after a few macchiatos and cream buns, we went over to the Dodona Puppet Theatre to see A Short History of Burgers And Other Stories by the Serbian playwright Dorde Kosic, loosely based on his own life story.

We were greeted at the entrance to the little theatre by a tall elderly man offering us pieces of chocolate. He then climbed onto the stage and began the one-man show in English, which was deeply troubling from the very first scene.

It is the story of a man whose mother might or might not have been a prostitute and who took her small son on trips to shops where she often got caught stealing things. His absent father largely ignored him and he was then abused by a male friend of his parents.

Simon Versnel is a well-known Dutch actor who performs mainly in Belgium. He dressed up as a small boy in shorts, who then became his mother in a silver lame dress with red lipstick and high-heeled shoes.

Versnel ends up in his underwear in bed, eating the burgers of the title.

A Short History is a loosely strung-together series of stories and anecdotes that leave one with a sense of misery and helplessness. It has stuck with me, and I rather wish it had not. As a result, none of us were really in the mood for the closing night party nor indeed to traipse up to the City Park in the dark to be surrounded once more by our canine friends and a son et lumiere production called The Lament of the Earth, by Donika Rudi.

It was visually arresting and well sung by the soprano Kaltrina Miltari and danced by the hearing-impaired performer Agnes Nokshiqi. However, after the grim reality of Simon and his burgers, none of us could quite manage another lament.

On my final day in Pristina, I remember standing still on Mother Teresa for about twenty minutes. I looked up towards the cathedral and down at the deserted National Theatre.

I felt a mixture of emotions – worried that the dogs would make one more attempt to sink their teeth into my calves, concerned that my eyes would be permanently bloodshot and exhausted by the stress of the place.

I thought about all the things I would treasure from my time there.

The three elderly actresses whose exceptional performances had illuminated all the plays they were in.

The exciting young actors in Gjakova, which any theatre company would be proud to have as members.

The strange intensity of Simon Versnel and the tightly knit ensemble playing in The Shadow Garden in Gjilan.

But the three moments that will forever stay with me, in a way, have nothing to do with theatre or the showcase:

Roy Horovitz’s impassioned cry of pain about the descent into violence and madness in the Middle East, the almost blank face of the Mother of Kosovo, and the luminous memory of Belkissa on a bumpy bus journey through the distant hills of Kosovo.

It was a privilege to have been there for these honest and magnificent life lessons – performances, in a way, but so much more than that. A rare one at that.

Read the first part of this story. Images courtesy of Henrietta Foster and Qendra Multimedia. All rights reserved.