Behind the sparkling stage of the smiling world, 2023

The International Festival of Small Stages, the 28th in a row, brings us seven selected plays from Croatia, Poland, Serbia and Bosnia and Herzegovina, in performances selected according to the criteria of excellence and innovation. The common thread that runs through, at times dominates even, all performances this year, is the issue of fundamental human rights of those among us who (even) in our modern society are unfairly given a minority status and therefore marginalized. Unfortunately, the rights of women come first, because, lest we forget, we live in a society that still treats women of the 21st century with a medieval approach. A woman is but a mere offshoot of a man, an insignificant fragment of a rib and there are men kneeling in Croatian squares who want to be spiritual authorities for women and, among other things, demand of them to dress chastely! After all – as a priest put it – women are secondary to men. Still, the festival focuses on other marginalized groups too, who look for, and sometimes manage to find, that sparkle of hope in an emotion, in having faith in their dreams or their illusions even. And as a rule, that always happens outside the society that rejects them.

Maja Pelević’s play The Last Little Girls, a pop-opera directed by Kokan Mladenović and performed by the multicultural and multinational Kosztolányi Deszö Theatre from Subotica, Serbia, illustrates, in the most radical way, just how exactly the conservative society wishes to see a woman. This play confronts us with our divided world, where women from poor countries carry children for rich Westerners on the assembly line, where doctors speak of children as commodities, and the façade is the fake glow of smiling capitalism. Women in that world hold no power over their own bodies or their destiny.

Consent by the contemporary English director and writer Nina Raina, directed by Nebojša Bradić and performed by Atelje 212, is a story about a raped woman, but told from the perspective of callous lawyers, where the victim herself becomes completely irrelevant.

The position of a woman in a macho world, especially when she is no longer young, is the theme of Williams’ classic A Streetcar Named Desire, a co-production of the Ulysses Theatre and the Belgrade Drama Theatre directed by Lenka Udovički. Blanche Dubois, the protagonist of the play, is a woman who, fights not only for the right to love in the material world of lost illusions, but also for her own illusion, without which life is sometimes made unbearable.

My Brilliant Friend, Elena Ferrante’s hit novel adapted by Nina Pavlović and Filip Jurčević, directed by Marina Pejnović and produced by Zagreb’s CNT, is a story of two girls growing up in the harsh world of impoverished Naples in the 1950s. Being doubly marginalized as female children in a society riddled with conflict and poverty, torn between exhausting manual labour and the influence of the mafia, is a situation that leaves them with no other choice, but to build a sincere friendship.

The remaining three plays in the festival competition deal with fundamental human rights from a different perspective, in which women are not the (only) centre of attention.

My Son Only Walks a Little Slower by Ivor Martinić, performed by SARTR, the Sarajevo War Theatre and directed by Ivan Plazibat, is a play about a mother and her disabled son, who in this part of the world have difficulties finding their place in society. This family, however, instead of aiming for equality in society, finds their escape in mutual love and respect, making this deeply emotional story move towards to its light at the end of the tunnel.

And 55 Square Metres by Ivana Vuković, produced by CNT Split and directed, once again here at the festival, by Ivana Plazibat, focuses on an endangered group, which is becoming prevalent in touristic parts of the world. The craze for apartment building and the attempt to squeeze that extra penny from tourists in the summer season forces young families out of their rented flats back into their parents’ nests. But there, in that distressing housing situation in Croatia, we find a demented grandmother and a younger brother too already living with the parents. The drama, which documents a family ever so large living in a flat ever so small, is a tragicomic image of the country and the entire Mediterranean region, which is losing its right to intimacy under the threat of profit.

In the end, there’s Lear. The abandoned king, whose royal title is even taken from the title of his play, was turned into a wanderer – once in a position of power, now disenfranchised and marginal. An acting essay performed by one of the world’s most famous Polish actors, Andrzej Seweryn, tells the story of an old, forsaken man. In the void of the post-apocalyptic world, Lear no longer has the right to be a father either. The dark remnants that surround him allow the voices of his loved ones, his daughters, only to emerge from the waste bins. The play directed by Janusz Opryński, whom Rijeka audience remembers from the Gombrowicz’s award-winning play Ferdydurka in 2000, in a way suggests the end of the world of normalcy that we once knew.

The exhibition Faces, Masks, Props – Shakespeare’s World in Polish Theatre Posters presents three generations of artists: the pioneers starting after the Second World War and making Polish theatre posters a world-famous symbol of resistance to totalitarianism; their students and successors; and the young generation of the 21st century. Making this fine exhibition an addition to this year’s festival selection, I firmly believe that we are in for an exquisite theatrical treat.

Jasen Boko