The gadulka. What is a gadulka? I’m still not sure even as I leave The Drayton Arms Theatre after having watching an hour long monologue that intends to explore the traditional Bulgarian folk instrument and the musician’s relationship with it. All I’ve learnt from this new play directed by Milena Aneva, is that the gadulka is ugly, it screeches like a cat… it’s ugly… it’s ruined the protagonist’s life… did I also mention that it’s ugly?
The Burning Gadulka, a play for one written by Rayko Baychev, is an hour long rant of self-pity and indulgence. The lone actor Miro Kokenov delivers a monologue of constant complaint and criticism for an instrument that is barely seen throughout the piece. As an audience member, I can hardly help but despair at the fact a negative opinion of this instrument is being forced upon me, whilst I am denied the ability to view its aesthetic appearance or hear it being played for a period of time long enough to form my own opinion. Even when we hear the sound of the gadulka, it is by way of a recording of Beethoven’s Fur Elise, not quite the uplifting, live Balkan music I was hoping for to add some dynamic variety to the performance. However, despite not being the audio input I craved, the sound of the gadulka was in fact distinctive and culturally nostalgic, leaving the audience questioning why the protagonist was giving it such a hard time.
Whilst the play in its totality is merely a consistent destruction of the gadulka’s worth, this melodramatic condemnation of the instrument is at times comic. A stand out moment is when Kokenov lies down on the floor next to an imaginary lover, and attempts to break it to his companion that he is a gadulka player – which didn’t you know, is the worst thing a human can be? I surmise that many of the jokes play with Bulgarian cultural references, as much of the humour is lost upon the non-Bulgarian contingent in the audience. In this respect The Burning Gadulka exhibits how it explores themes and ideas that engage those already familiar with the gadulka and the world of Bulgarian folk music, yet it is not translatable to a wider audience. The fact that the entire play is performed in Bulgarian also alienates a large section of the audience.
One wonders why the choice to present the play in Bulgarian with English subtitles (which often paused, or jumped forward at a rapid pace) was made when a primary aim of the performance was to enlighten those who were unfamiliar with the traditional Balkan instrument. But then again, why would be want to know more about it? We’ve just spent an evening being informed of its worthlessness… maybe next time I’ll stick to a nice, safe guitar… or a drumkit. You can’t go wrong with a drumkit.
The Burning Gadulka is playing the Drayton Arms Theatre until 18 June 2016. For more information see Gadulka.net.