With the Circus in Serbia,
Cultural and geographical snap shots, July 2004
Thunder storm over Novi Sad. We watch the lightening traverse the night sky, following the river Danube. I teach Will the trick of counting between thunder claps and lightening bolts to determine how many miles away the storm is. "One...two... three.....four....one ....two.....one ....two.... three.... one......" he counts as the pulsing clouds rise white edged out of the darkness.
The night of our first show, after a hot and hurried set up everything is in readiness. An old school bus brings an audience out to the patch of wasteland where we will play, a big rectangle of dirt between the river and an old empty factory. Part of the factory is now a bar, the Novi Sad Time club run by an expansive gent named Dragan. Make shift palate wood decking flanks the building, left over from the massive month long party that happened here on Milosovitch's fall. It's full moon but the sky is over cast. We crowd into the hot caravan, slapping on make up, while our audience gets drinks at the bar before gathering by our rig, ready for the show. Drops of rain threaten but we begin none the less. Enthusiasm, energy greets us while we dance the first number. Then the summer cloud break over us all, drenching audience, performers and equipment, putting a stop to the show. Everyone runs for the bar and a night of full moon madness follows, drinking slivovitsa, engaging in raw intense conversations about the war and it's impact on individual lives. Many friends are made. A Soviet mig fighter with clipped wings dominates the room and beneath we do silly dancing to 80's trash music and the silliest dancer of them all is the minister of culture.
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The fortress at Novi Sad is an ancient symbol of invulnerable strength, crowning the hill above town and river. We manage to invade during Exit festival, a massive music event. We say we are guests of the minister of culture and the security guys let us through the turnstiles, leaving behind the excluded bands of camp followers who line the approach to the castle, gypsies selling sweet corn from steaming pots, pedlars of glow sticks and beer. Inside the fortress we join dense processions of eager young ravers, moving from stage to stage along the medieval battlements and underpasses. The festival is big and bland, more Reading than Glastonbury, it came into existence as a cultural expression of Western looking freedom at the end of Milosovitch's reign, an Exit out of dictatorship into.... what? Big name American bands and brands. We follow the human flow to the main arena, where on stage, in the middle distance, Iggy Pop is singing.
We presented ourselves timidly at the offices of Infant festival of Alternative and New Theatre, Novi Sad, where we where due to take part in a round table conversation with critics on the subject of our show. Because the audiences less than wild response the night following the big rain, we where afraid that the language and /or cultural barrier was to great and that no-one had liked or understood our piece. The conversation began with uncomfortable formality, the organisers under the misapprehension that we where all French having engaged a french translator, we attempted to communicate in Serbo-Croat, French and English at the same time.
The critics turn out to be all male, middle aged, bearded and bespectacled. Each expounds his thoughts about the show at length before posing a question. I liked what they had to say. They really seamed to have grasped the essence of the show, expressing interest in our travel life, independent production methods, devising process and music. The director of the festival commented that most of the shows this year shared a theme of anxiety about the future. I said i thought this was a positive thing because it showed that theatre makers from all over the world where open to world events and ready to engage with problems. He seemed to have sympathy with the basic idea of a cabaret at the end of the world, and thought it was appropriate that we where the last performance of the festival; he felt that the entire radical festival was a kind of cabaret at the end of the world, flying in the face of capitalising pressures, a fragile place on the brink of an abyss.
Arriving in the small town of Panchova, late at night after a harrowing drive along thin roads where huge lorries thunder. We park our little convoy along a road in the sleeping town. Only street sweepers stir, teenagers with orange vests and brooms who subtly pass us by, hardly glancing at us, like night ghosts.
In Panchova, a small town close to Belgrade, we find ourselves to be the subject of intense media scrutiny. As we arrange our set in the grounds of a youth centre, cameras follow our every move. Wielded by local young people, they want to know all about us, questioning us in good english and focusing their lenses on our caravans and our children at play. How often does an English theatre company turn up in Panchova? We are as much curiosity as we are curious. A journalist for the local paper arrives and interviews me at length, wanting to know my life story. I tell him about our previous theatre missions to Bosnia, something i have been wary about mentioning much for fear of touching raw nerves. He's an interesting man to talk to.
He tells me that what was hard about the years of the Balkan war and after is that the Serbians where denied freedom of movement that they had previously had whilst still part of Yugoslavia. Before the could travel to Greece, have lots of interaction with the rest of Europe, afterwards they where isolated. This was different than the situation with Soviet countries who had always been segregated, and in his opinion it was a harder situation to bear, he said "It's harder to have something and then have it taken away than it is to not have it at all."
A man turned to one of our company in a shop, he said "so your from England... i hate Tony Blair." my friend replied "So do I mate, i know what you mean." The man answered him "you don't know what i mean, he didn't bomb your country."
We went out for dinner in Belgrade. For a fee, gypsies wound serenade you as you walked down the cobbled street. After wards we waited for a taxi back out to Panchova. There where 8 of us and no one would take us all at once, but we didn't have enough money to hire another car. Then a battered old skoda pulled up. The driver welcomed us in with a cry of " where do you want to go in the universe?1" He was unfazed by the numbers, shouting "Hey, bring more friends!" The transedental taxi, as we quickly called it, sped away, bottoming out slightly on corners and sway gracefully as the driver talked vigourously. He mainly addressed his conversation to me, who was seated on everyone's laps in the back seat, so that he had to turn his head right round in order to look me in the eyes, sincere and passionate in the points he was making. Meanwhile the car snaked on down the freeway. He told us about the struggle that is life in Belgrade, trying to make a living, looking out for his family, spun a long and complicated tale of dodgy dealing involving himself and his son and some dubious paper work. "We are like the Trotters!" he declared, at first we thought we where miss hearing but no, he was comparing his life to "Only Fools and Horses". Miraculously the transcendental taxi got us to Panchova safely, we extracted our cramped limbs and paid the lovely driver a bit more than the modest sum on his metre.
Late one night we follow discordant music round the corner from our Panchova camp to little bar in the market place. A small brightly lit room with plastic tables and chairs, full mainly with men. live gypsy music is playing, a keyboard accompanies and man singing. Our arrival, two men and three girls, is met by impassive stares.
Tentatively we sit down at an empty table, the waitress carefully ignores us. Across the room a man gazes intently at me. My friends grow uncomfortable and decide to leave, Oli says he wants to stay, i hesitate, but when i step outside to follow the others home they have already vanished from sight. Suddenly i am uncharacteristically fearful. Our camp is only yards a way but i am afraid to cross the dark precinct to get to it. I can vividly imagine myself being pounced on and grabbed. I go back inside to wait for Oli, feeling very ill at ease. The man with the intense stare comes to our table, offering cigarettes and beers. People start to acknowledge us, the brass blonde waitress, the old men nodding in the corner, the nimble little man crooning into the microphone. The music is over powering, brash and heavy on mid range frequencies, loud and distorted. At first i find it too much but gradual, further down the bottle of beer are start to like it for it's almost punk rock rawness.
The singer comes to our table and directs his passionate crooning at me. I'm embarrassed but i like it. It goes on along time. We tip him as we have seen the other people in the bar do. The man who has joined us attempts a sign language conversation with Oli all the while staring unsmiling at me. Oli tells him he plays guitar and that i sing. The man keeps on trying to get me to have a go on the mic, but i refuse, this definitely isn't the moment. A twinkly eyed crinkle faced man at the next table strikes up a sign conversation. He is astonishingly animated and i think that i can understand him. He is warning us about the man at our table, he is not a good man. We drink more beer, every now and then crinkly faced man catches our eyes and makes more signs, sometimes raising his fingers up to his head like devil horns. The music stops and we leave, retreating swiftly to the safety of our camp.
Getting into Serbia with a theatre company and three trucks was a complicated and expensive business, but leaving again turned out to be even worse. Simple by being there we seemed to have become tainted in the eyes of the European community, infected with eastern otherness which could only be purged by the application of money and through the mediating and complicated intercession of a shipping company. Strange what a difference a few miles in one direction or the other makes On the way in, the two year old in our company made his statement on border control by doing shit on the pavement in no-man's land. On the way out he was asleep since it was some unearthly hour before we finally got processed and spat back out into fortress Europa.