Impressions from Epic Trip

The unique theatre marathon of 51st Bitef, presented seven performances with the overall duration of 40 hours. The Prologue Day brought the legendary performance Quizoola! by the British troupe Forced Entertainment, which lasted six hours and introduced this Bitef’s main art theme: durational performances. The principle of leaving and re-entering, typical of this type of performance, was thus established right from the start and it worked out without any problems. Since Quizoola! is played for only seventy people at a time, this principle made it possible for it to be seen by many more than that, thus making the festival more “democratic”.

The performance which attracted most attention was Jan Fabre’s Mount Olympus: to Glorify the Cult of Tragedy - 24-hour performance, which had already been named the corner stone in the history of contemporary theatre. The viewers of the Third programme of the National Television of Serbia had an opportunity to watch a continuous live broadcast of the performance which sparked off a debate among the professionals and general population, not only in the country but also abroad. According to some estimates, there were more than 2000 people who watched the performance in Sava Centre, although the initial plan envisioned only 1300. The TV broadcast was followed by 220,000 viewers, which was a record for the Third programme, which resulted in an amazing rise in its rating. The performances has been widely discussed - the “critiques” on social networks were mostly focused on nudity, and were, interestingly, opposed by a Serbian Orthodox Church representative, deacon Nenad Ilić, who wrote: “… The recording of this remarkable performance should be shown at the Faculty of Theology…” Artistic and social importance of the fact that this performance visited Bitef and Belgrade, and its live streaming, was recognized by the critics: the weekly magazine published the article “Theatre is Very Important Again” which states: “If we are to judge by the first half of the festival, Belgrade seems to be experiencing an amazing and uncompromising cultural influence which introduces a significant change”.

The respectable British critic, Michael Coveney has written an extensive review of Mount Olympus in “The Guardian”: “The ritual had turned into a party: not one of those spurious knees-ups at the end of a West End compilation musical, but something genuinely communal and atavistic.” Even the tabloid “Daily Mail” in the text “And They Say the Theatre Is Dull!” wrote about the Belgrade performance of Mount Olympus and the TV live streaming, highlighting Bitef’s fame in “experimental performances”. Jan Fabre himself expressed his gratitude to Bitef but also to the National Television, emphasizing the high professional level of the Public Service of Serbia.

Although Mount Olympus attracted most interest, for obvious reasons, the rest of the main programme at 51st Bitef was also followed with undivided attention. All the performances were sold out and the weekly magazine NIN wrote, under a suggestive title, “Moved to Elation”: “The festival has offered us an opportunity to see six performances which were more than interesting and which should not remain overshadowed by the famed Mount Olympus”. Two of those six were The Bible, the First Attempt and Kingdom of Heaven by Jernej Lorenci, a renowned Slovenian director, who will accept the prestigious theatre award, “Il Premio Europa: New Theatrical Realities” in December. Kingdom of Heaven, based on Serbian medieval epic poetry and made as a coproduction between Bitef Theatre and the National Theatre in Belgrade, will remain a part of the repertory of the two theatres after the festival. That way, Bitef carries out one of its aims - to remain present in Serbian theatres throughout the season.

Ersan Mondtag, a young and thriving German director, was represented at the festival by two performances: Snow, a production by Thalia Theatre from Hamburg, and The Extermination by Konzert Theater from Bern. The brave decision to present the work of the young artist who is known in German-speaking region (two of his performances have already been invited to the leading national theatre festival in Berlin), but not outside of it, Bitef has once again assumed the position of a festival which promotes new names - not only from the region but from the leading theatre cultures, such as Germany. In his interviews, Mondtag has expressed his satisfaction at being in Belgrade, at Bitef, and emphasized that he is “deeply honoured of being invited to the festival which confirms that the language of body and the language of theatre are universal languages”. (Blic)

Another performance which has contributed to the intercultural dialogue was Hearing, directed by the Iranian director Amir Reza Koohestani. Like Mount Olympus, it has received undivided support, confirmed by the fact that it was second according to the audience votes, and that it won the special prize “Jovan Ćirilov”.

Grand Prix “Mira Trailović”, the audience award, as well as Politika award for the best directing, all went to Mount Olympus, i.e. to Jan Fabre.

Bitef audience had an opportunity to follow not only the main programme, but also many interesting and relevant side programmes: Bitef Polyphony, Bitef Library, International panel on durational performances, and the Showcase which presented a selection of performances in Hungarian language from theatres in Subotica. Bitef thus contributed to the processes of cultural decentralization and establishing multicultural dialogues.

During the festival, Belgrade was visited by several hundred foreign performers, journalists, critics and theatre lovers, confirming thus Bitef as one of the most significant theatre festivals. In the local context, Bitef has drawn more attention than previous years. The national media is almost unanimous in the opinion that this year’s Bitef is the best festival of the decade: “After quite some time, Bitef has sparkled on the theatre map, reminding us of the almost forgotten truth - Belgrade is the world” (Večernje novosti), “Possibly the best Bitef of the past decade” (Blic), “This year’s epic journey has confirmed the importance Bitef has in promoting Belgrade as an important centre of theatre art” (the National Television of Serbia).