Nebojsa Romcevic, The Government and Its Opposition, directed by Egon Savin, National Theater Nis
It was in the early 1990s, at the height of Milosevic’s rule, when theaters here facing the reality went silent for a moment. One of the many consequences of such condition, at least at the theater level, were the very frequent adaptations of Nusic’s comedies, in which the directors more or less openly alluded to the current socio-political situation. Truth be told, it was not necessary to carry out some radical dramaturgical-directorial interventions in order to have Ben Akiba’s pieces”breathe” with the breath of Serbian reality of the time, as the famous comedian successfully and accurately literarily fixated some of the most striking features of the local mentality, whose flaws always see the light of the day at every confrontation of these people with the authorities. No matter what the rulers are like, it is evident that our man always applies the same mechanisms to advance at work, position himself better in the community, come to justice, repair his financial situation or, simply, to survive. Thus, in the dark days in which Serbia was then, Nusic laughed at Zivka, members of her family, real or false, thrilled by sudden social rise of the newly minted minister, but also at the fake-mourned families, ministers receiving portfolios as part of the party trophy, at the ignorant captains he recognized as the owners of the feudatory who were entrusted to their command, at their even more primitive scribes who with an imaginary scale serve justice to the people, at the happy spies who happily denounce their fellow citizens, at the unscrupulous MPs, at the corrupt news reporters who invent the fake news, at the false Ph. D’s with purchased diplomas, at speculators that allow the authorities to cut down state forests, tear down and build what they like and where they like …
Nusic laughed as he wrote his comedies, the audience of his time laughed as well, but viewers of plays produced based on adaptations of those works in the 1990s did not laugh. And how could they when there was nothing cheerful in the reality then, and therefore neither could the way in which the theater showed life at that moment be funny.
Today, a century after Nusic wrote his famous comedies, it is precisely in the works of this comedian that Nebojša Romcevic tries, but also manages to find inspiration for depicting the freakish face of our time. Practically, from the motives and, to some extent, the characters from the rich Nusic concourse, the contemporary playwright forms a fine weave of the web into which he captures the very essence of the social opportunities to which we are doomed. Summary of his dramatic story is extremely simple: into the life of the Capital family’s intellectual who studies the history of Christianity, hense he is a typical example of a loser because science does not generate income for him, and the professional books he publishes are not helpful to him either, suddenly one of the ruling partie’s representative appears with an unusual proposal. The government will pay a hefty sum of money to an unhappy intellectual who, in return, should become a critic of the ruling party. On one hand, in this way the authorities will gain opposition that they can easily control, while on the other hand, the historian will finally provide somewhat a decent life for his family.
Of course, the family of our intellectual, the future oppositionist, is greatly exhausted by life in perpetual poverty, neither his wife, nor his daughter, are hoping for anything else, and the wreckage in the metropolis, and especially in the conditions of the definitive breakdown of all values in a system, sharpened the sense of no perspective and hopelessness for the family. These are all reasons why not for a second will neither the protagonist nor his wife have second thoughts whether to accept this indecent offer. The regular monthly income, which in other circumstances they would not have imagined, would solve all their problems, and life on the margin, normally reserved for intellectuals here, had already greatly reduced all their moral standards and ethical criteria. Herewith, the representative of the government is arrogant and primitive, and as extremely pragmatic he does not hide that he is absolutely certain that he will receive a positive response from the intellectual, nor that the thorough criteria on which he based the choice of a future oppositionist was founded on the historian’s misery – both financial and moral.
Romcevic, on the other hand, will not for a single moment conceal that his inspiration was Nušic. On the contrary, through a series of details in the character characterization process, in the selection and formation of situations and relationships, even through quotations and paraphrases, the writer will write a kind of homage to his famous predecessor. At the same time, exactly these references to Nusic’s comedies will become a dramaturgical code that in a way shortens the path to the viewer of the play, will amplify the effect of Romcevic’s humor by establishing an arc between past and present, which provides Nusic’s humor with a specific dimension, while pointing not only to invariability of the local mentality, but also to the same social relations that characterize Serbia’s fate.
Thus, the audience of the Nis’s play will easily recognize the situation in which Luka, today’s version of Sima Popovic, becomes a significant social factor, while his wife Kata is transformed into a contemporary version of Zivka. True, Kata did not become Madam Minister, but the same mechanisms of the local mentality worked in her. Although not a minister, her Luka, for the neighborhood and his colleagues in the industry, outright, becomes a significant figure in social and political life. Such a position, of course, comes with the appropriate privileges.
For Romcevic, however, the members of Zivka’s, that is, Kata’s family, will not appear as a collective hero whose individual elements / characters Nušić refined, this function will be taken over by the agile neighbor Bora. In him, his action and the replicas he utters, we recognize traces of both uncle Vasa and Pera Kalinic from the Madam Minister, and Agaton and Sarka from the Bereaved Family, but also Jeroti and Pera the scribe from the Suspicious Person. Luka’s and Kata’s daughter Maca was primarily based on the model of Raka, the famous ministerial pig, and by the example of this character and the way Romcevic built it, it is most clear to see how the contemporary writer used Nušić as his inspiration. Namely, Kata is not, like Raka, a dissolved capital brat, but a representative of a young generation here who has nothing else to hold on to, who rots in idealesness, and whose lack of willlessness is the result of the absence of any perspective. The model on which Maca was created is undoubtedly Nusic’s Raka, but everything else, including the humor of this character, and especially the vocabulary and attitude, belong to our time and circumstances here.
The director of the play, the experienced Egon Savin, as well as the writer of the comedy, does not hide the Nusic nature of the play that he set on the stage, and in that sense emphasizes the appropriate character of the dramatic characters in a series of directorial actions and carefully combines it with the atmosphere characteristic of the time we live in, which is exactly in line of what was the writer’s idea too. The stage design also provides him with wholehearted support.
Marija Kalabic solves the set design in a double effective manner and places the plot of the play in a space surrounded by drawn scenery. On the one hand, it creates simple and mobile décor, while on the other, it emphasizes the misery of the main characters’ homes, but also, through discreet means, points to their reality as a tentative, thus emphasizing awareness of transience, but not the metaphysical dimension of transience, but the acceptance of transience as destiny.
Particularly evident is the involvement of the director in working with the actors. The recognisability of the applied Nusic model, as well as the attractiveness of allusions to the current state of our society, undisclosed references to specific events, persons, situations and even phenomena, are elements that can easily lead actors towards over-acting and various forms of simplification, which is not the case in the performance of Nis National Theater. Careful character-building, thoughtful choice of acting and scenic elements, moderation and discipline characterized the play of Aleksandar Marinković as Leka, Jasminka Hodžić who played his wife Kata, Nađa Nenadović Tekinder as the daughter of Maca, and Aleksandar Mihailović as the neighbor Bora.
There is no doubt that the Niš theater has received a performance that will fill the venue and whose popularity is sure to grow. On the other hand, the recent announcement by one of the opposition leaders here that a government official offered him a large sum of money and the status of a future coalition partner throws quite a specific light on the latest Nis premiere. If anything, these news testifiy to the eternal actuallity of Branislav Nusic’s oeuvre, whose comedies are based on precise and accurate diagnoses of the mentality of local people, but the long-established truth that theater in our country proves life.