... this intellectually playful text.

— REVIEW of ‘JATO’ | guerrilla semiotics

J.A.T.O. | Review

Until mid-July, I was in Zagreb, a place with a big beautiful central square, a predisposition to extraordinary negativity and bitterness (on which in another post), and an excellent theatre scene (but try telling that to a Zagrepčan, and they do look at you like you have just deeply embarrassed yourself by disclosing the lowness of your standards and the narrowness of your horizon).

But, while there, I had the opportunity to acquire one of the more recent issues of Frakcija, a very good theatre magazine, dedicated to the last decade of Croatian theatre writing, which included a generous fragment of Vedrana Klepica’s J.A.T.O., a play I would later have the opportunity to see staged in Melbourne, at the MKA. The world is at times a manageably-sized place.

First, on the context: J.A.T.O. (lit. F.L.O.C.K. – and there was no need not to translate this bit of information) has so far been only performed as a staged reading, in 2009, at playwrighting festivals in Australia and Signapore; but also, significantly, in a program of staged readings in Zagreb, called Mala noćna čitanja (‘Eine Kleine Night Read’). MNĆ was started by Croatian dramaturgy graduates (people, thus, looking to work as dramaturgs, playwrights, screenwriters, etc), in what was almost open revolt at the absence of connections and abilities to progress from the writing workshop of the Academy onto the stage. Interestingly, the MKA in Melbourne, while a theatre company, is conceived with much the same mission – to give some stage space to new writing, ranging from readings to fully staged performances. There is, simply speaking, no other way for a playwright to learn, but there is also no other way to test the text: to sit on it those two thousand times until it starts breaking at weak points. Klepica is a very young author, whose bulk of theatrical work so far has been as dramaturg – her plays have so far been performed only on radio and as staged readings. This is precisely alright: she is the kind of playwright that MKA is, seemingly, there for. These are not texts to be revered; they are texts to be explored.

For one more reason other than youth – their openness. J.A.T.O., like most recent dramatic writing in Croatia, is a very open text, one which clearly revels in its own ability to allowtheatre to happen. Petar Sarjanović writes in Frakcija:

But as much as I have tried to repress the cruel repercussions of the term „generation” in these pages, as much as I have tried not to isolate the playwrights of the 2000s from their predecessors, and although I am not really a big fan of the playwrighting of the 2000s as such, I must admit that these works of „anonymous youth”, if I may use this term, are more to my liking than those of their predecessors, and that I recall reading them with more pleasure than the moments I spent with the plays of the „old school”. Perhaps that slight difference deciding in favour of these eight authors resides in the fact that they leave more space in their texts for the development of the potential performance, both the one that we imagine while reading and the one that has taken shape on an actual stage. Although these young playwrights have presented us with a carefully tuned universe of their plays, built according to meticulously observed laws, the reader is nonetheless allowed to roam freely through the rest of their parks, woods and roads, imagining how he or she might want to arrange things in order to feel more comfortable. These dramatists do not have a precisely outlined plan for staging their texts and they do not envision themselves preposterously in the audience during the rehearsal of their plays in order to teach the clueless actors „what the author actually tried to say”, since their texts do not reveal a petrified and once-for-all defined vision of a possible staging. And maybe I feel these young authors closer to me because these few published plays do not contain a perfectly assembled and oiled theatrical mechanism, but rather a germ of a future theatre, which allows us, the readers, to set our imagination free while reading them. And to interpret them without fear.

So, here is a potentially very productive situation: a text that sets the theatre workers free, and theatre workers that – I hope – feel no sense of responsibility towards a distant playwright, young and very foreign. Here is a space created for something exciting to happen. And does it happen? To a large extent.

F.L.O.C.K. are an indie band, arriving to Zagreb on the same day as an important person. A politician, head of state, a dictator, the pope? Very loudly left unsaid, but all insinuated. There is a guard, employed by (and metonymically named after) the company Grey Eagle who doesn’t like his job. Julia is a woman hoping to pick up at the gig. Two band members are married, unhappily; the woman, Helenna, tells us about her two, both recent, abortions. The text is divided into numbered sections, but otherwise flows freely, with only some lines attributed to characters, and jumps between disparate scenes until it comes together in a large knot when the band is revealed to be a terrorist group, and Helenna and Grey Eagle have a violent encounter, while Bjorn (the band husband) tries to pick up Julia.

There are weaknesses to this text: chiefly, I found the combination of band and terrorist group to be a huge implausibility, sitting with great awkwardness amidst the social and psychological realism of the rest of the work. It draws back very obviously to Ivana Sajko’s Woman Bomb (here is another Croatian play, of the 1990s, which also had one of its early performances in Australia, by Jenny Kemp and Pamela Rabe at the Malthouse in 2005). But it could make part of the flock of European plays since the early 1990s to have dramatised terrorism with greater or lesser success, usually through an ironic lens (remember The Work of Wonder?). But Woman Bomb works because the radicalness of the concept (the bomb-carrying woman) is matched with the intensity of her emotional world – she is an exaggerated dramatic figure. J.A.T.O. attempts to locate the same tragic heightedness in a cynical lethargy, a grim disillusionment of the modern European youth (a parallel also noted by Andrew Fuhrmann – and I would have liked to have seen him elaborate further). Furthermore, the level of geographical and temporal detail works against the fantastic central component. But.

The production, by Tanya Dickson, makes one crucial dramaturgical decision which shoots the text in the foot: it eliminates the chorus. One of the very few directions that Klepica gives is that the F.L.O.C.K. is a chorus, comprimising 5 to 9 performers excluding Helenna and Bjorn. Budgetary difficulties… perhaps. But the choral formation is important because, first, it would dispel the illusion that the band is very small (and how, one wonders, is it possible for a trio to operate while constantly losing members to terrorist activities? – even indie audiences know their band members), and second, it would heighten the sense that we are not just watching someone else be deviant on stage. Instead, Dickson chooses to have Stefan Bramble play a character called ‘Jato’, with an English accent. The decision is inexplicable and, frankly, indifensible. There are almost no other stage directions in the text; one would consider this one to be somehow meaningful. I do wonder to what extent the major plot weakness (it has to be a called a ‘plot’ weakness, because it chiefly concerns the plausibility of the chain of events, and our ability to believe in the fiction) would simply drown in the theatre of a larger number of people on stage – being a band, being armed, travelling around Europe. I wonder whether it would command a greater gravitas of popular will, whether it would mirror the audience, and what an interested director could do with an extra 4 to 8 performers on stage.

However, let’s return to what we have, not what we desire. Klepica’s is a very well wraught text, structurally (as is to be expected from someone with three years of a degree in dramaturgy under her belt – that is what they are for) and in detail. Declan Greene is credited as ‘dramaturg’, which I take to mean that he is responsible for the ironing out the weak moments of translation and the occasional unwieldy phrase, an intervention small, but noticeable. The result is a text both slick and very witty, which is a real joy to follow as it moves across Zagreb, from scene to scene – there is no boredom as we jump around. Tanya Dickson’s direction is very simple, probably simpler than needed (the text was there to be taken in every which way), but works well to keep the small stage uncluttered, to punctuate scenes, and occasionally adds some movement to clarify or reiterate the important information. (On one occasion, Helenna’s beating, of which we have heard, is played out in physical movement only, while ‘Jato’ and Bjorn play a guessing game. While this takes away from the humour of the dialogue, it does make sure that we remember the harshness of an incident that Helenna had narrated in fairly flippant terms. A Croatian director would probably focus less on the emotional reality of the work, but it added weight to it, and revealed its heart, however postmodern.) While much movement was both undeveloped and unnecessary, and I do think young plays of this sort require young directors ready to play – I also understood this production to be an exploration, not to be judged by the standards of the STC. And finally, the decision to make all characters speak in heavy accent (some Croatian, some unfortunately Russian, some German and some French) probably adds to more than it detracts from the show. I have a personal grievance against all fake accents on stage, but in this case I suspect the play simply wouldn’t have been as funny in plain Australian, and I am not sure that the deeply cynical voices of all characters would have had an Australian emotional reality to lean against. In particular, Cate Wolswinkel’s Helenna has great comedy to her. (I suspect, again, that an acerbic and funny woman might be slightly greater news to an Australian than to a Croatian audience. As many, many New Yorker articles have told me, from Tad Friend’s on Anna Faris to all Tina Fey’s on anything, in America at least, “women just aren’t funny”. Well, whatever.) She also bears the emotional centre of gravity: I was not emotionally engaged with most of the text, but Wolswinkel’s plough through an abortion, a miscarriage due to beating, and a break-up, was all subtly unearthed emotion, in just the right amount for this intellectually playful text.

I have no idea how this text fits into MKA’s artistic policy – I honestly thought Australia too parochial to stage such young authors from such a peripheral country. But, having just read a fair pile of unproduced young Australian plays, I do think there is huge value in letting young directors play with, and young audiences get inspired by, very promising texts such as Klepica’s J.A.T.O.. Texts that are certainly as good as the average unproduced Melburnian play, but that offer something exotic and new, without carrying the heavy weight of international success. We can only benefit from this sort of exploration.

J.A.T.O.. by Vedrana Klepica. Dramaturg: Declan Greene. Director: Tanya Dickson. With: Stefan Bramble, Janine Watson, Cate Wolswinkel, Rory Kelly, Tristan Watson, Tom Dent. MKA @ a pop-up theatre in Prahran. 12 July 2011 to 30 July 2011.