I would imagine that if someone were to ask you what your thoughts are on Slovenian theatre, the answer would be along the lines of ‘I have literally none’, probably due to the fact that you indeed would have literally none. Until three months ago, I would have answered the same, but a chance encounter with a German writer, lead to an introduction with a Slovenian director which in turn lead me to becoming a guest at a theatre festival in northern Slovenia. This was a rather unexpected turn of events as you might well imagine, but I like to pride myself on taking opportunities as they come so, on a wing and a prayer, I left London for Maribor by myself, hoping to see what the arts look like on the other side of Europe. As I found out it looked similar, yet very, very resoundingly different.
Borštnikovo Festival is a fifty year old performance festival split into three main sections:
- The competition programme: The best plays in Slovenia vying for the top award in Slovenian theatre. For the most part these were serious dramas, highlighting key issues and/or re-imagining classic plays.
- The accompanying programme: A series of plays selected by an aptly named ‘selector’. These were smaller and more experimental performances on the whole.
- The bridges programme: The festivals international selection, mainly focusing on one other nation’s productions (in this case Polish) with supporting plays from other countries.
The festival engulfed the city of Maribor, taking over its varied and diverse performance spaces as well as various exhibition and lecture spaces for the less theatrical elements of the festival. By London terms, you could describe Maribor as sleepy, but as the second biggest city in Slovenia, there is a lot more happening under the surface. There is a lot to say about the friendliness of the Slovene people, and there was never a point that I felt anything but welcome there.
But onto the theatre; right from the first performance, an accompanying piece by Slovenia’s leading dance theatre group EN-KNAP titled 20th Century Fog, I saw something that would be a reoccurring aspect of the festival, a level of discipline that was difficult to comprehend. All of the competition performances and most of the accompanying ones had a distinctive rhythm and yet individually the performers and the direction were intensely connected. 20th Century Fog was a dance and spoken word piece about the effects of the turn of the last century, with a young cast of physically powerful performers from all over Europe (most surprisingly was a young dancer called Luke Thomas Dunne, a Laban graduate from England) and comprised of a lot of movement repetition. The only thing that could come close to comparison in the UK, as far as I have seen, would be the work of Punchdrunk, but the intimacy of the cast and their synergy was something that set it as a force unto its own. As the piece ended, the second reoccurring aspect of the festival suddenly took me by surprise: Slovenian theatre-makers love getting naked.
And herein lies the difference between our two nation’s artistic directions that really stood out to me. Because even though the human form, in its raw, unapologetic state is nothing new to the British stage, I have never seen it used as anything other than a show of eroticism or exploitation. Here, in Slovenia, time and time again, performers shed their costumes to show you what they really were, and it was actually profoundly moving.
After interviewing the hosts of the festival on the theatre in Slovenia, I realized that a lot of these differences (apart from the cultural of course) stem from something quite simple; the government supports REP companies all over the country and finances eighty per cent of the theatre that is created there. The work produced was technically and visually stunning, so there is a strong case for the creation of brilliant and relevant art with the help of government finance.
All in all, if you ever want to see theatre in its most raw, political and relevant sense, I couldn’t recommend ten days at the Borštnikovo enough!
Oh and don’t worry about being devastatingly British, the performances are subtitled.