The in-betweenness in Second Exile
If the “outside” was violence and the “inside” was pain and the urge to end it, then what would in the language of theatre the ‘inbetween’ look like? In this piece, I draw on both my experience as a viewer of the theatre director Oliver Frljić’s play Second Exile (2017) and my experiences with Frljić in a workshop, to offer some thoughts on the dramatic expression in Second Exile. I got a chance to watch this play at the festival of Schiller National Theatre, Mannheim, Germany called ‘Schillertage’ in June 2017. The theme of the festival was ‘After Freedom’ and it invited all such plays which presented different perspectives on freedom by adapting in contemporary times the plays of Friedrich Schiller, the German poet, playwright and philosopher of the Weimar Classicism over the turn of the 18th century. Although Frljić’s play was not based on Schiller’s dramas, it dealt with the question of the kind of freedom that migrants and refugees world over get on reaching their destination.
Oliver Frljić migrated to Croatia from Bosnia in 1992 during the Yugoslav war, studied at the Academy of Dramatic Arts in Zagreb and went on to become the artistic director of the Croatian National Theatre in Rijeka in 2014. In this particular play Frljić presents the interaction of the outside and his inside world. The “outside” here is the misery which gets packed in the suitcases of the refugees while they leave their homes and which gets unpacked as they settle in a new place hoping for a better life. This misery is nothing but the conservative perspective of the local inhabitants and the resulting violence, i.e. the emotional and physical abuse with which they are welcomed in the country of their dreams and which is mainly orchestrated by the state machinery. In this context Frljić says in an interview to the National Theatre, Mannheim “Violence is omnipresent in our society. Most of the times violence is not visible. It is so called structural violence and my latest work is concerned with this kind of violence and this kind of violence can be even more damaging than the violence we see on the surface of our society.” The “inside” on the other hand is Oliver Frljić’s reflection on the violence and threat to the voice and existence of the migrants, which he himself faced as he says ‘for not being patriotic enough’ in his duties as the artistic director of the National Theatre in Rijeka, the post from which he resigned in 2016. I chose to write on this particular play, because of the powerful theatre language with which Frljić effectively puts forth that outside world in which people continue to get displaced and their freedom of speech gets curbed by oppressive state forces. The play is bilingual with German and English as the language in which the dialogues are delivered.
Frljić chooses the documentary form of theatre to put forth the conditions of the refugees. The play therefore is mainly a narrative presentation of seven different stories. The stories presented on the stage belonged to each of the actors and to the director himself, since each one of them has in some or the other way been affected by migration. The strength of the performance in Second Exile lies however not only in the painful content presented on stage, but also in the skilled interplay between the particular actor who narrates his or her story and the other actors who help by illustrating the story. The play begins with the actors entering the stage from behind the curtain carrying two big trunks and a look of bewilderment on their faces. They all then stand in a row and each introduces himself with real names, autobiographical details on sexual orientation, political and religious views, so also the phone number, so that the audience are left thinking if this short introduction of each actor was real or fictional. This introduction is followed by small scenes from the lives of the actors. To begin with is the story of Frljić himself as he entered Croatia in 1992. What we are presented with is not relief and freedom, but the humiliation that met him in his country of hopes. The most important requisite in this part of the story is the suitcase, which when hurled in a corner by the figure of the officer, opens up to display the photograph of Frljić’s mother in it. The young Oliver is thus welcomed with abuses not only towards himself but also towards his mother. Just when the scene is getting too violent, a female actor reminds us that we are in theatre, as if to pull us out from getting lost into the ruthless treatment with which the figure of Oliver is welcomed in Croatia. Although we experience Oliver’s story, the actor tells us right in the beginning that he is not Oliver but his Muslim friend from Bosnia and that it is his being a friend and a Muslim which lead to his casting in this play. He thereby makes a satirical comment on how at least here in theatre being Muslim helped him unlike otherwise.
The story of a young woman whose parents found their way to Germany from Poland after their marriage at a young age was equally intensely presented, since it showed how the young girl is sexually abused by her own father on one of those several nights when he has fought with her mother. That day however the mother asks the father to sleep in the children’s room. The father, who asks his daughter for a hug, deceitfully brings her close to him and sexually harasses her. This episode traumatises not only the young daughter but also the mother who drives away the father from her room. Her anger and the burning desire to revolt against the circumstance and the structure within which she faces this violence, is shown by her banging her head into and breaking a standing white structure representing the wall. This scene is followed by the desperate efforts of the daughter to break inside the bathroom to help her mother who has locked herself in it. The story closes with an intimate scene where the mother and daughter, both seated in the bath tub are taken once around the stage by the other actors on the backdrop of music which arouses pain and sympathy for the two in the audience. This entire scene which begins with the young girl’s narration of her parents’ affair resulting in their marriage and their fleeing to East Germany from Poland to the figure showing how she was raped by her own father to how she confronted her dying mother in the bathroom ending in the intimate scene between the two female characters seemed to me to outrightly critique not only the brutality of the father, but also show the emotional and physical comfort felt in the warmth of a beloved one, who could very well be of the same sex. With this scene Frljić also displays his resistance towards the public view which disapproves of LGBT rights.
That the play was mostly an account of true stories from the lives of the actors becomes clearer when one of the actors introduces herself as the partner of the director of the play. She explains that people see her presence in the play to be a result of the fact that she slept with the director commenting thus satirically on the questions often raised on the credibility of women actors. In one of the most effective scenes in the play, she narrates her fears arousing from the fact that her husband is one of the most hated persons in Croatia. As a result of this her house was twice burgled and she dreamt that she would be helplessly watching one day as Oliver’s young son gets raped before her and Oliver, by the brutal state authorities in their attempt to scare Oliver from opposing them in any way. While she narrates about all the protests against Oliver’s works that took place in Croatia and Poland, demanding in horrifying slogans the blood of the Bosnian, she lays down on the floor as though she were sleeping while the other actors gather around her. As they shout the protest slogans, they press soft toys on her face symbolising how the so called sweet dreams are slowly being replaced by nightmares for her. This scene in which the actors display a very high level of energy to show the fierceness of the protestors ends with the song ‘All I have to do is dream’ by Everly Brothers. The song invoking soothing, romantic memories has lost its meaning for the figure of Oliver’s partner, as she puts a pill in her mouth and explains her disturbed sleep patterns due to the threat to her and her partner. The story of another figure shows how identity becomes a burden in a foreign land. The actor, originally from Africa, is shown on stage carrying on his back the map of Africa, weighing 30 kgs, symbolising how his identity was never accepted, right from the 16th century in which his forefathers were killed as Huguenots in France to a few years back, where he was forced to convert to Islam when he visited Iran with his wife.
These and other stories on the atrocities on migrants and refugees world over are presented by Frljić with such powerful and impactful theatre techniques that even if the question remained at the end, about how much of the play was real and how much of it was fictional, it had the power to pull the audience into the individual stories, to make them sense the violence which hundreds of people are facing on a daily basis in contemporary times and to connect with these people.
For having brought together stories of migration on stage and showing the contemporary European society from the migrant’s perspective with unique theatre techniques, Frljić’s play can also be seen as falling squarely within the framework of “post-migrant theatre”. In a 2015 interview at the Free University Berlin, independent researcher, writer and activist Asadeh Sharifi states that artists who have migrated to different countries have changed or are changing the perspectives of looking at European society. At the same time theatre language and in corollary the aesthetic of the contemporary theatre is also undergoing changes. This form of political theatre is called “post-migrant theatre”, which discusses a lot of issues existing in the Western European societies which have changed because of migration. It addresses these issues in a very direct and political way which isn’t possible in other audio-visual media or in the political debates, though somewhat in the academic discourses. Art however, Sharifi says, is much closer to the people than academia and can therefore more powerfully give a voice to the people. As someone who has remarkably contributed to the contemporary European theatre aesthetics with migration as the central theme in this play, Frljić’s theatre language makes an important contribution to the form of “post-migrant theatre”.
Frjlic says in the interview to the National Theatre, Mannheim, “What we do in Theatre is we are trying to make the things visible which are usually not visible or which are hidden behind different perceptions of reality.” It certainly needs, as the editors of this magazine say, the unfathomably deep mind of an artist to see, as in the case of this play the inner death of the numerous victims of the structural violence. It however also needs as Oliver Frljić says and as has been done in this play, the artist’s capability to push the boundaries of art to make this otherwise hidden pain effectively visible.