Festival Nová dráma in Bratislava – About its 2018 issue and around it


by Dr. Kyriakos P. Loukakos, Hon. President of the Greek drama and Music Critics Union

SND-Nová-budova-New Building 2


For a concentrated period of its 4 central days we attended the Festival Nová drama (New Drama) 2018, hosted in Bratislava by the Slovakian Ministry of Culture Theatre Institute under the active director of both, Ms. Vladislava Fekete. We had already experienced first hand the strengths of certain Slovakian contemporary theatrical plays, as translated to Greek by theatrologist and theatre critic George Papagiannakis[1] and presented in Athens on a special day in 2017 at the Theatron Technis venue of Frynihou str., in walking distance of such theatre cradles as the ancient Dionysos and Herod Atticus Theatres. Having enjoyed greatly these dramas, imbued with social relevance and full of subtle irony, as well as their whole hearted interpretations, one wonders why on earth selections for festivals devoted to new tendencies result so often to be uninspired in comparison with a certain notion of Theatre that has proved worthy over centuries of its performing existence. While admitting a certain allure of such terms as youth, renewal or (r)evolution(ary) to an indefinite general public, we firmly believe that a certain discrimination should prevail, especially in the choice of  plays meant to signify ways out of performance routine, leading eventually to the exclusion of works not really worthy of indicating any direction to anybody.

To our distress, the recession of the spoken word’s supremacy in contemporary theatre has been too easily accepted and propagated in the name of a biased political correctness that does not distinguish among pinnacles of performing arts achievements and experimental  specimens of artistic retard or primitivism, too often disguised and acknowledged as high art, only to flatter indiscriminately young ages and/or moderately developed cultures. It is no coincidence that more and more people feel free to tackle on the great theatrical archetypes of the past, often in non (or barely) verbal ways, invoking some vague corporal theatre notion. What they too often manage is just to belittle or even falsify the formers’ message.

That alternative methods, if ingenuously used, can magnify a theatrical impact, at least of an original piece, was amply vindicated by the performance of the documentary drama      «Aleksandra Zec», as dramatized by Marin Blažević and directed by Oliver Frljic. The play had its premiere in Zagreb, in 2014, and challenged nationalistic perspectives regarding facts, personal stories and traumas soon after the bloody dissolution of former Yugoslavia. It was performed at a special presentation at the Slovak National Theatre’s new building and formed the culmination of the Croatian reference of this year’s Festival. The play is about the wartime murder of 12-year-old Serb girl Aleksandra Zec (1979-1991) and her family by Croatian soldiers in Zagreb in 1991. The Zec family house was stormed during the night, first killing Mihajlo Zec, then detaining his wife and 12-year-old daughter Aleksandra, taking them to the nearby Sljeme mountain, and murdering them too. The five perpetrators confessed, but they were never convicted because of procedural irregularities during the trial. “The authorities did not do what they were supposed to do, and that’s why this case was left in ‘official oblivion’,” had stated the play’s director, Oliver Frljic, at a press conference preceding the Zagreb premiere of 2014 and following a performance at a theatre in Rijeka the month before that was picketed by war veterans who were angry because they considered that the play had overlooked the Croatian children who were killed during the 1991-95 conflict.[2].

The Bratislava revival, graced by an illuminating analysis at the Slovak Theatre Institute, formed for many the most impressive theatrical experience of the Festival. Inventive use of verbal and corporal manifestations, combined with shrewd creation of sound

and time voids, enhanced greatly a vividly and minimally  recounted story. Drawing on a retrospective narrative -mainly by the deceased characters themselves!- of their own imminent tragic fate, but also on their family and  school milieu  survivors of the day after, the performance thrillingly introduced a welcome directness that magnified effectively and -yes- movingly a strong, clear and intellectually unpretentious message.

Framing the innovative element in contemporary theatre between a clear and direct message and a genuinely original and aesthetically sustainable practice does not narrow in any way valuable perspectives of its beneficial influence to crucial sectors of today’s largely global issues. This was in our opinion the main outcome of a searingly pragmatic, down to earth conference, held on May 17 at the Slovakian Theatre Institute. Under the collective title «Theatre in Conflict Zones», it presented first hand experiences by a wide arrow of personalities and their efforts to forge a theatrical instrumentarium prone to facilitate both mutual, respectful understanding and trauma healing in such enflamed areas as South Sudan, Iran, Syria, Uganda and ex-Yugoslavia.

Sudanese actor, director and lecturer Ali Mahdi Nouri offered his experiences from bringing together rival fractions in the S.O.S. international village of Darfour. Mehrdad Rayani-Makhsous, an Iranian critic, playwright, director and member of Islamic Azad University of Central Teheran brought to the fore, in a perhaps understandably formalistic way,  theatrical techniques in order to alleviate the burden of the 8-year war between Iran and Iraq or in camps of earthquake disasters. Fabio Tolledi,  Italian director, playwright, poet and artistic director of Astràgali Teatro, propagated the exploitation of even the most circumstantial space in order to create a theatrical event. In his firm belief, any such realization leads to a pragmatic overcoming of obstacles and suppression, thus facilitating a demeanor of civilizations clash. His remark, during the video projection of his work in Syria, that he had no notion whatsoever whether his actors were still alive, created a moment of palpable shared grief among the participants.


Music and Opera in Bratislava


As always during similar events, we try to extend our cultural experience, especially in cities offering as interesting a cultural spectrum as the one of the Slovak capital. It was a happy coincidence that, during our brief stay, we not only did have an opportunity,  for the first time, to witness a concert of the Slovak Philharmonic Orchestra, but also to attend a special performance of one of the most emblematic operas of central Europe, that is «Prodaná nevěsta» («Die verkaufte Braut», The Bartered Bride) by Czech born Austro-Hungarian composer Friedrich ( Bedřich) Smetana (1824-1884).

It came as a pleasant surprise that the Slovak Philharmonic Orchestra, a prestigious body to seasoned record collectors, came up with such an adventurous program on the late afternoon of May 17th. A program that would be unimaginable to enjoy in Athens under the unconfessed pretense of the public’s inclination for more popular programming. No such nonsense in Bratislava though! One has only to ascend the main staircase of  the art nouveau Imperial building  at the Eugen Suchoň avenue to face the bronze bust of legendary conductor Václav  Talich (1883-1961), better known for his long years at the pit of the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra, who nevertheless enjoyed a brief tenure in Bratislava before moving to Prague. Talich was a versatile musician of the widest interests as his extensive record legacy signifies and it seems that the seed of this versatility has found fertile soil in Slovak metropolis.

The moderately sized main room of the Philharmonic Hall boasts a wonderfully crisp yet airily transparent and almost ideally resonant acoustic, tested successfully by the first work of this evening’s concert, 3 dances from ballet «Estancia» (1941), opus 8 by renowned Argentinean composer Alberto Ginastera (1916-1983). It is one of his most popular compositions, much propagated lately by Venezuelan star conductor Gustavo Dudamel, whose rendering we had the opportunity to enjoy, some years ago at the Herod Atticus Odeon in Athens. The dances are a showpiece for any aspiring orchestra and it was performed with splendid panache under the baton of Czech conductor Leoš Svárovský (*1961), an alumnus of the late Václav Neumann and a former assistant to Zdenìk Košler. He led this big band, colourful and exotic music with sure hand and admirable internal clarity, even at the most congested passages of the 3rd dance.

What on paper could look as a perhaps too sophisticated concert went on with a very accessible contemporary composition, a 1980s fascinating concerto for cello and wind instruments,, including (electric) guitar, by the late Austrian classical and jazz pianist and composer Friedrich Gulda (1930-2000). The music proved to be rhythmically buoyant, full of ambivalent nostalgia and wit. Surely this was not intended to some cerebral cognoscenti of the 20th century’s dissonances! On the contrary, the five movement piece is graced, after its Overture, by an Idylle of evergreen ambitions, boasting a waltz of Schubertian grace, thematically and instrumentally (horns!) even alluding vaguely to the «Freischütz» overture. An extensive Cadenza, the 3rd movement, leads to a cinematically evocative Menuet, full of character and expressive charm. A circus-like Finale alla marcia brings the work to an exhilarating conclusion, its zest being occasionally tamed by nostalgic turns without ever abandoning its frenetic exuberance. In this idiomatic performance, as served by French cellist Sébastien Hurtaud  (*1979), who has steadily pioneered this score, it came not as a surprise that this final section of the concerto had to be repeated as an encore by popular demand…

After the interval we were in for a further treat in form of Francis Poulenc’s (-) 1924 ballet «Les Biches», in its rare original version, including the 3 choral numbers, sung evocatively by the Slovak Philharmonic Gentlemen Chorus. All in all a splendid concert proving the high standard of Slovakian musical life.

A comparably high standard was maintained also at the special performance of Smetana’s  delightful «The Bartered Bride», for which we moved to the New complex Building of Slovak National Theatre. And indeed special it was!  Reserved to a select public, many of whom had arrived from nearby Vienna in coaches bearing the prestigious names of Chopin and others, the performance boasted, as the central couple of the opera, Marenka and Jenik, two internationally prominent Slovakian singers of the younger generation, soprano Adriana Kučerová and tenor Pavol Breslik, the latter  a 2005 “Most Promising Singer of the Year” in the critics’ survey of Opernwelt magazine.

The production, by Prague born (1942) former actor, director and choreographer Pavel Mikuláštík, induced a believable  transposition, of  time and place. The scenery, by Frank Chamier,  showed the main room of a large pub, a sure meeting point in a little town of central Europe or, for that purpose, of a central State in USA. It included scandalously and humorously also the men’s restroom, with much of some subsidiary action taking place there. This same pub was transformed to the circus of the last act, which implied that there was no need for scenery changes. It was a creditable frame for characters referring more believably to the mid – 50s rock-and-roll time, complete with motorbikes and costumes, by Jana Hurdigova, reflecting this petit bourgeois milieu where this marital qui pro quo takes place and where unconditional and, more important, unconventional love leads to a happy ending for the lovers.

Under the unexaggerated, finely groomed baton of Czech conductor Robert Jindra (*1977), the opera was served as well as anywhere by a homogeneous and experienced cast of singing actors who interacted their roles with naturalness and leisure. Among other fine singers, bass Jozef Benci, a 2001 winner of the Georges Enescu International Singing Competition, presented a somewhat unsmiling but ultimately more contemporary version of the marriage broker Kecal, while tenor Aleš Voráček impersonated Jenik’s retarded brother Vašek  with some well meant restraint that not only made the latter’s effort for erotic emancipation sympathetic, but also reminded us of the sensibility more modern societies reserve for disabled people, not anymore the laughing stock for others as in the opera. As for the stars of the evening, both Kucerova and Breslik offered dashing good looks as well as singing of international distinction, secure, euphonious, finely projected to the room and smilingly fearless to the considerable vocal demands of this delectable score. Particularly Breslik left indelible memories to us in his warm toned utterance of Jenik’s s big aria, a modern reference in the most welcome and sustainable Fritz Wunderlich tradition. Thank You, Bratislava, till soon again!

[1] Viliam KlimáčekZuzana Uličianska Dodo Gombár, Contemporary Slovakian Dramaturgy, editions Αιγόκερως / Θέατρο / Παραστάσεις 2017.
[2] So Josip Ivanovic in http://www.balkaninsight.com/en/article/zagreb-premieres-play-on-serb-girl-s-wartime-killing