Written by Milan Đurišić //
Once Upon a Time There Was a Country (Bila jednom jedna zemlja) by Dušan Kovačević and The Feather Gatherers (Skupljači perja) by Aleksandar Petrović, Serbian National Theatre – Srpsko narodno pozorište, Novi Sad
Dark as a Natural Habitat
Our passage to the chamber theatre stage of the Serbian National Theatre, with two stopovers before entering the room, seemed to be a purposefully choreographed introduction to the performance. The sojourn in the theatre’s narrow, low-ceilinged corridors instigated the feeling of claustrophobia, which also permeated the action to follow. While this may not have been devised by the director, Kokan Mladenović, the transfer of the show to the smallest stage of the theatre from the initially planned stage Pera Dobrinović probably was.
The opening scene starts in the dark with characters lighting their way and each other’s faces with hand torches, transporting us immediately into the subterranean world. The realm is controlled by Petar Popara Crni (Milovan Filipović) from the inside and Marko Dren (Marko Marković) from the outside. The latter uses faked news bulletins to manipulate the characters into oblivion, aided by an insider – Grampa (Radoje Čupić) and occasionally joined by his lover Natalija Zovko (Béres Márta). At the same time, the background of the story – the history evolving above the ground, known by the audience – is extended to the present day via the events of 1999, which are also easily incorporated into the plot. The weakness of this production lies in the absence of any significant events moving the action forward apart from the periodic entrances of the people from the outside world. Therefore, there are no developments in the characters of Crni, his son Jovan (Peđa Marjanović), Marko’s brother Ivan (Jugoslav Krajnov), let alone the others. The only dramatic moments come in the scenes in which ‘the outsiders’ descend into the netherworld. Marko Marković as Marko runs the show commandingly, while Milovan Filipović as Crni does not take his opportunities to shine. The glamour of the outside world is juxtaposed to the dreariness of the underground toil and is very successfully conveyed by Béres Márta as Natalija, while its shallowness and frailty are well depicted by Mia Simonović as the Singer. The former undergoes a significant and poignant transformation, while the latter is used and discarded as part of the grand scheme. Jugoslav Krajnov also provides a credible touch of humanity in the role of Ivan, who distances himself from the humans of both worlds and finds comfort in the company of animals and the knowledge that the corruption he sees in fellow-humans cannot touch them. Other characters could have benefitted from this kind of characterisation. Instead, the authors of the stageplay opt for an easy solution – populating the underworld with the characters from other works by Dušan Kovačević. It appears that some of them are introduced with the sole purpose of providing comic turns, as is the case with Bojana Milanović as Georgina, whose pregnancy is extended to a number of decades, Nenad Pećinar as Miško, who is now driving his dad’s bus down the underground tunnels, and Jelena Antonijević, Tijana Maksimović and Ivana Pančić Dobrodolac as members of the Topalović family, digging up the graves from below. All the bit parts do fit into the grotesqueness of life under ground, but do not bring any real drama and even slow the action, as does the scene with Krstić (Dušan Jakišić). This makes the whole process of character dropping rather dubious, although it needs to be repeated that the reception of the production may benefit from the comic elements of this intervention, which, admittedly, feel as an integral part of the plot.
The play within the play, the Mousetrap from Shakespeare’s Hamlet, or rather from Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead is the most successful among the borrowings although some of the actions have obviously been copied from Stoppard’s screen version. It has long ago been established that stealing from great masters is a better way to go than borrowing from them, so this is easily forgiven. Especially because the scene is cleverly integrated into the plot allowing us to see the characters in action, not just in a state. This insight into them makes it one of the crucial scenes of the play. Márta Béres runs and then steals the show in it, while her character Natalija does not succeed in her well-intended ploy.
The text is pregnant with symbols, and the production uses them successfully in order to accentuate the paradoxical nature of the underground existence. They range from the introduction of a single light bulb as the source of light which stresses the darkness, to the use of spoons for digging, to the bus which goes forward and then reverses back along the same route, etc. The unassuming costumes, make-up and music are drowned in the paleness, which brings about the (post)apocalyptic-like feel of the world devoid of light. The ending, however, does not bring any kind of a catharsis either for us or for the characters. The people trapped underground do not come out to the surface as part of the plot although they do see the light at the very end of the performance. Our two worlds meet when the lights in the theatre come on with the characters not comprehending what has befallen them. The ‘Big Brother’s’ voice duly informs them that nothing is changed and that they should not believe people telling them they are actually in the theatre. The audience also oblige and do not try to dispel the magic.
I Even Met Happy Gypsies
Watching The Feather Gatherers in the theatre is fraught with constant recollections of the original movie version, which took Cannes and the rest of the world by storm in 1967. Luckily, the present-day production is significantly different. On the surface of it, all the original elements are there: the plot, the characters, the setting, and the band, too. And yet, the result is significantly different as the director, Dejan Projkovski, plays the tunes in an altogether different key. His take on the archetypal story drifts away from the original in its use of music and its treatment of comic and tragic features. Projkovski presents us with a lighter, but not necessarily watered-down version.
The stageplay is mostly true to the original screenplay, while Sašo Dimoski’s adaptation makes the verbal humour more contemporary and suited to the modern audience. Credits should go to both him and the director for not overdoing this. If there is an over-the-top element in the show, it is certainly the opening scene, with one half of the ensemble strutting and fretting (as well as copulating) their hour upon the stage, and the other half moving among the audience, begging, etc. The scene sets the tone of the show and also announces that political correctness will not be a concern during the evening. A live band is there to welcome the characters, win the audience and see the action through. They do this by playing some classic numbers and Oliver Josifovski’s music, bringing the production very close to a musical. Music does play a big part in the story of the feather gatherers, but the impression is that this production leans too much on it. This is felt when the music subsides in the final part of the performance and the audience is left with a feeling that something is missing. Luckily, the music returns to see off the show.
The scene is another element contributing to the smooth flow of the performance. It is well-thought through by Valentin Svetozarev, so the coming and going of the houses, vans and cars is not only eye-catching, but highly functional, too. Along with the costumes of Ivana Ristić and Andreja Kulešević’s choreography the efforts of the technical department contribute to the impression that the audiovisual side of the production takes precedence over the drama. Putting the light-hearted, jovial side of life side by side with its harsh realities also seems to be playing it safe, but fortunately, the character acting is there too. The ensemble make a concentrated effort to depict both sides of life. Comedy and tragedy come consecutively and simultaneously.
Marko Savić as the protagonist (Beli Bora) and Milan Kovačević as his adversary (Mirta) lead the cast and are successful in conveying their antagonism without making it a black-and-white affair. Márta Béres excells as Lenče and once again succeeds in making a female character central to the story and to everybody’s attention – characters’ and the audience’s. The list of supporting characters is quite long and it is always good for the show when the actors’ performances are even. Most of them are given a chance to show what they can do in an episode, which they take without exception, but they contribute to the overall perception of the performance with their efforts in the chorus line. Some of the best scenes come from these, as is the case in the scene in which pieces of furniture are used for the musical instruments. The one who occasionally stands out is Marko Savković as Milicioner (perhaps because of the nature of his role as a relative outsider in the group).
The ending comes in the form of a deus ex machina – a bear, which, or rather who, is a relic of the past for younger and something to connect with for older members of the audience. The story can now be seen as complete while still feeling open-ended, coming across as both real and ethereal. The undisputed fact, or rather, feeling that remains after seeing the performance is summarized in the title cinematic version: We even met happy gypsies.