The Croatian director Oliver Frljić likes it when reality breaks into art. That happens too infrequently in the theatre for his taste.
Do you like rehearsals without performances?
Oh yes. We’re not at the mercy of people who think they can judge our work after two hours, when we’ve spent weeks and months on it. If there is any doubt, we know the failings and successes of what we’re doing better than most critics.
What do you think about Covid?
I just re-read Anti-Oedipus by Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari. The book was first published in 1972. When I read it for the first time, I was fascinated by it, but it was so abstract. That made me even more intrigued, of course. But now a term like »deterritorialisation«, for example, is very real. The conversation that we’re having now is deterritorialised. It’s taking place through Zoom somewhere between us. Of course, Deleuze and Guattari were already using telephones. But now in the pandemic, millions of offices are closed, employees are communicating solely through screens. Our life is being deterritorialised. You should read Anti-Oedipus. Fifty years later, the most abstract expressions from these two French philosophers are describing our reality.
At the moment you’re working with Rodin‘s The Gates of Hell for a production in Hamburg. What is the difference between hell and the state of emergency you grapple with at the Gorki in Alles unter Kontrolle (Everything Under Control)?
Hell doesn’t exist. States of emergency, on the other hand, are multiplying and occurring more frequently. But if we were to assume for a second that hell exists, then we’d realize that both hell and states of emergency take away your rights on behalf of an alleged greater good.
Isn’t it a part of your art, to compare the existing with the non-existing?
But of course. Plato, who was convinced that ideas, like things, really exist, nonetheless wanted to kick poets out of the city with the argument that they distract the people from reality with made-up stories. And kick out theatre people at the same time! Derrida, in contrast, points out the fact that metaphor is at the core of philosophy. I like language’s uncontrollability, that it always stretches beyond what we want to say with it. Language, which appears to have everything under control, actually evades control, especially that of the speaker.
What meaning does text have for you?
The logocentrism of our culture is a big problem for me. Texts still play a dominate role. Especially in the theatre. Despite all that, we know that we grasp everything more quickly visually. We take up words little by little, we must decode them, comprehend the intention, the idea behind it. That’s a long process. Why do we continue to insist on the text in the theatre? It’s like the times when philosophy was supposed to be the handmaid of theology. That’s exactly the way the theatre is supposed to serve the text in many places. It should be the other way around. The theatre should finally stop being the servant of the text. That is the curse of the so-called spoken theatre. If there is a text, the theatre isn’t necessary. Our minds provide the best performances in that case.
How did the philosopher Frljić end up in the theatre?
I am not a philosopher. Perhaps I could have been an adequate philosophy professor, after all I did study philosophy and could perhaps communicate the things that people who are cleverer than me have found out. Theatre can be, at least in my view, a very useful analytic tool. We can help develop new terms that make the world, society, ourselves, more understandable.
How did you come to work in the theatre?
I didn’t at all at first. I went the performance route. No recordings, no repeat performances, no rehearsal – that made an impression on me and, of course, the enormous meaning of the body as well. The assumption that it could avoid political discourses was naive of course. But very inspiring. I still don’t trust the theatre and the fictions it produces. Do you know the story by Jorge Luis Borges, in which Shakespeare despairs over who he is since everyone that he’s created is nothing more than a fiction? At the end, God’s voice on the wind explains to him: »Neither am I what I am. I dreamt the world the way you dreamt your plays, dear Shakespeare. You are one of the shapes of my dreams: like me, you are everything and nothing.«
Borges was also a philosopher.
And a great poet. We must stop putting labels on everything. I like it when reality breaks through into art. That happens too rarely in the theatre. That’s probably why I started studying theatre and directing at 25 years old. In Zagreb, perhaps the worst place to do it in Europe. That helped me understand what I didn’t want more precisely: characters, for example. The actor is not Hamlet. Hamlet doesn’t exist. A series of movements and sentences exists. They are not the expression of Hamlet’s personality and character. Instead, they produce the fiction called Hamlet. The performance doesn’t require the character. That is the truth of it. The whole idea of psychological realism, however, asserts that, under the surface, there is a core, the character. The theatre is mostly still very old fashioned. The theatre still believes that, in the midst of all the glittering surfaces surrounding us, there’s an ontological depth under the surface that must be uncovered.
You’re questioning characters on stage because you don’t believe that they exist outside in real life?
We tend to speak of characters instead of individual acts in specific situations: the foreigners, the criminals, etc. Whoever wants to have »everything under control« cannot deal with every individual thing, they need to have general categories. Social control has been expanded so much that we no longer really believe in the existence of a private sphere. Theatre doesn’t just represent reality. It is reality as well. Sometimes it’s a microcosm, in which we can read more easily that which takes place on the grand stage of life. I am a director. I’ve learnt how to get everything under control. That is something I know. And that is precisely the reason why I’m changing my role. I don’t dictate to the actors what they have to do. We work on the play together. That isn’t an aesthetic fad, instead it is part of the socio-political process of transformation that we also practise in the theatre.
In your work in the theatre, you’re constantly occupied with the search for alternatives. What’s occurred to you with regard to communism?
Someone once said communism is a great idea, but not for homo sapiens. But we don’t even have to refer to communism. Just the question of social justice, of the abolition of the inequality of the sexes, of ethnic groups, appears to overload us humans. We cannot live without addressing injustice, but we also know that we’ll never succeed in putting an end to it. In my work, I advocate for the oppressed and abused, but I’m not one of them. Perhaps I was at one point. But it was decades ago that I experienced hunger. My work has something paternalistic about it. I fight against that, but I won’t be able to get rid of it.
The theatres you work at …
Them as well! They are big, international stages. I’m no longer performing on the streets. I’m the clown of the ruling class. I’m supposed to be funny. When I’m not that, they can still decide to think I’m funny. Me, my theatre, my views. But what am I saying. In Germany you know that very well. That’s what happened with Brecht. I don’t want to compare myself to him, of course, but the same thing also happened, even to him. Or think about Christoph Schlingensief, the more radical his critique became, the more his works became part of the society of the spectacle. He received high-profile, high-budget commissions. Ausländer raus! Schlingensiefs Container (Foreigners out! Schlingensief's Container) was part of the Wiener Festwochen festival.
20 years ago.
That’s what I mean. Humanity hasn’t learnt anything from it. But the system has. It assimilates revolts and makes them into products. Sometimes I think, this dialectic of capitalism will always find a way to appropriate my resistance. Everything can be used to make money. They want the Green New Deal. They’ll get it, as soon as we’ve made a business out of it. Genocide? We’ll make money off it. Human rights? We’ll make money off them.
Interview: Arno Widmann