Europe in pieces

“Yes, I am mad,” declares Haris Pasovic, “like the Marquis de Sade was mad, like Giordano Bruno was mad, like Antonin Artaud was mad.” The Bosnian theatre director has just told me about a recent dinner-party spat with an MEP: he told her he could never endorse all the values the EU expects its members to subscribe to; she dismissed him to the assembled company as demented. The poster image for his latest piece, Europe Today, is similarly challenging: it depicts an SA-style trooper, but instead of the swastika, his armband and the flag he carries show the 12 stars of the EU.

The image is partly playful, a homage to the Neue Slowenische Kunst art movement whose most prominent exponents, the band Laibach, are collaborators in this Serbian-Bosnian-Croatian-Slovenian-Romanian-created work, which I saw in Maribor, Slovenia, in February and which plays next week in Pasovic’s home city of Sarajevo. But it is not flippant.

Pasovic has long been a passionate advocate of cultures engaging with themselves and with each other. At the height of the Bosnian war he invited Susan Sontag to Sarajevo to direct a production of Waiting For Godot, and he takes delight in the fact that Europe Today, like his East West company’s previous production Football! Football!, features 10 or so different languages. “We’ve never had a problem with language,” he says. “It’s always recognised as something beautiful and rich, we enjoy it. It’s music to me.” But he feels that Europe in general, and the EU in particular, is settling into a lazy and dangerous monoculturalism.

“I find it very disturbing that Brussels keeps repeating to Bosnia, for example, that there is no alternative for it but to join the EU. Baroness Ashton [EU foreign affairs representative] told the Bosnian press that they didn’t want so much of an American-led international presence in Bosnia but wanted Europe to take the lead. Yet in that period they haven’t named an ambassador to Bosnia: that’s how they take their leading role.”

He stresses that the “Europe” spoken of in the show is not simply the EU, but the continent as a whole. The spoken text is taken from the work of Croatian poet and critic Miroslav Krleza. “He was a very tough writer. In this part of Europe I don’t think we had a more intelligent writer: he was kind of Bertrand Russell, but with anger. His poetic soul was anarchistic. And the very fact that his essay was written in 1935 and we recognise it as if it were written this morning is disturbing. How does it come that that analysis applies so impeccably? We didn’t change a single word – I cut out a few things which are even more radical than what’s left in the show.”

Europe Today is a 75-minute collage of words and images: Serbian actor Miki Manojlovic recites Krleza’s words, Romanian-born dancer and choreographer Edward Clug represents its arguments in movement and Laibach perform a number of radically reimagined European national anthems. The cumulative portrait is of a Europe that Pasovic compares to “a once-beautiful 20-year-old secretary who’s now 55 but still thinks she’s 20 and dresses as if she’s still beautiful.”

But although it has a serious point, it is not an earnest, hectoring show. “To come to the theatre people have to make arrangements, change their clothes, find a babysitter, find a parking space, and they don’t come after hard work to hear a lecture,” says Pasovic. “We have different forms of communicating, and the more experience I have, the more I understand why theatre should be fun.” Even Krleza’s essay is written in “Dionysian language. You can see that he is a poet. He overdoes it, and that becomes his style.”

A conversation with Pasovic is as wide-ranging as his approach to culture might suggest. In the course of an hour or so, we rove from his time at the Tyrone Guthrie Centre for artists in County Monaghan in Ireland, through what he considers the emblematic hyper-modernity of the city of Shanghai (“this precarious balance between big-money capitalism and the strong control of communism ... it’s an incredibly sexy city; but to me ‘modern’ is not necessarily progressive, it’s just a reflection of how the most urgent ideas come together”), to Sun Microsystems co-founder Bill Joy’s seminal 2000 essay “Why The Future Doesn’t Need Us”.

But a big concern is the cultural segregation of his homeland, a subject that, incidentally, occasioned my first contact with him. In 2008, East West brought to the Edinburgh International Festival a production of Nigel Williams’s Class Enemy adapted to a Sarajevo setting; I wrote in review that some of the alterations struck me as implausible, and an e-mail correspondence ensued that drew on Pasovic’s Bosnian experiences and my own Northern Irish ones. He blames the EU and the US for entrenching fragmentation to the point where “in our schools you have two entrances for separate ethnicities. And that’s how we started to exchange letters, you and I, because you thought it was such an exaggeration; unfortunately, it’s not. Fifteen years after the war, people don’t know anything about others. There’s a bit of it in Sarajevo, but just a few kilometres outside the city you never meet a Serb any more, and vice versa in the Serbian areas.”

This is the background – internal fragmentation, external monoculturalism – against which Europe Today resonates, and not just for inhabitants of the Balkan region. “We don’t say this show is a wake-up call ... this is theatre, come on! ... but it’s an invitation to reflect together, to enlarge the intimate space, to remind ourselves that this Europe is founded on the French revolution principles of liberty, equality, fraternity, but that our culture is also rooted in Jean Genet, Virginia Woolf, Marina Tsvetaeva ... these are not exotic species, these are the individuals that embody the true European individual spirit that moved Europe from bloodshed and crudity to the relatively civilised place it is now.”

‘Europe Today’ plays on April 28 in the Olympic Hall Zetra in Sarajevo,

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