After premiered at the Dubrovnik Summer Festival two months ago, the play “Overture for a Requiem” by theatre “Maska i Pokret” was shown in the Studio of Sarajevo Television Centre. It was seen by about twenty spectators, mostly professionally connected to theatre. It was a kind of expert advisory body, which, already during its duration, analysed, classified and compared the play with the previous achievements of their authors. It is pity that the play was not performed in front of a larger and more heterogeneous audience because the small number of spectators in the Studio failed to realise themselves as an audience – a collective that responds to the play with a unique spontaneous reaction. And as it always happens in theatre that the response of the audience and the intensity of the response affects the performers, so it was this time: the impression was gained that Iva Kostović and Petar Mandić were not sufficiently carried away by the play but by the effort to show this complex play successfully and without major difficulties to the end. Yet the “Overture for a Requiem” is sufficiently based on elements more enduring than the factors of performance that it can be judged critically with confidence.
The first thing to notice is that the research of Iva Kostović and Petar Mandić, given what they were doing in their first play “Somebody has Killed the Play”, went in a rather unexpected direction.
At the beginning of their work, the masks carried more or less clearly defined allegorical features. They appeared as representatives of Evil, Fertility, Aggression, Curiosity, Voraciousness, and alike. The origin of these allegorical figures was in a kind of private mythology that was compiled as much from their own dreams and dream-visions as from various well-known mythologies.
And so from an attempt to find the roots of mythical thinking of the world in one’s own subconscious, the reality of the play came about: the story, its meaning and the artistic expression of the mask. The dance-movement served to determine the relationships between the characters, and they were based on primary urges: hatred, aggression, attraction… There could be no psychologically nuanced relationship between “mythical” personalities. And otherwise, nothing that would belong to modern, individualised experience should have been in play “Somebody has Killed the Play”. Everything belonged to the subconsciousness, and she proved her antiquity by merging with her legitimately manifested counterpart – the mythical dimension of old worlds.
But although the play aspired to deal exclusively with archetypal situations and acted a bit like reconstruction venture on lost remains of theatrical beginnings, it was not naive. One line of critical distance towards the story of Agave (paradigm of Poetry or, perhaps, Nature) conspicuously existed and manifested itself in the author’s protective emotion towards this mask.
Agava is the constant object of aggression, but whenever destroyed she reborn herself again, and that ability to resist the destructive nature of the world enjoyed the favour of the author and the sympathy of the audience. In that respect, control of consciousness over the plot appeared, and the end of the play brought author’s commentary, the character of The One Who Flies, the man with glasses and an attache-case, who observes the ruins of the old world with superficial interest, unable to see the tragedy of events preceding his arrival.
The principle of imitation in creating a mask has been consistently avoided. The masks did not have any individualised features, they did not show the psychological structure of the character, because the characters and the psyche meant nothing to the depicted characters. The faces of the masks are shaped by rough strokes. Agave’s predestination to be a victim is realised by gently sculpted white facial features and by the red colour of her cloak. Colours fiercely opposed to each other were used to express aggression and evil; the whole mask green with a huge slit of a red mouth, or other means: halving the face in two halves, reducing the whole figure of the mask only to the head, etc. Even the figure of the man in black suit with a bow tie, glasses and attache-case follows the principle of avoiding imitation: his appearance does not express anything individual or special, he is not a character, not even a type, he is rather an allegorical figure symbolising the Modern Age, its spirit of a touristic, petty, destructive curiosity.
A significant change in the work of theatre “Maska i Pokret” occurred in their second play, “Mme Leopoldine’s Memoires”. First of all, this change manifested itself in terms of the meaning of the play.
The authors no longer have the basic intention to show a mythical, universal, impersonal picture of the world, as was the case in the first play. In “Leopoldine” they deal with one possible individual destiny. To such extent is the story of Leopoldine an individual case that without the artificial means of the mask and stylised movement it would not be poetically relevant – neither as a theme nor as content; it would not function at the level of general, it would be spilt into the formlessness of reality.
The authors, however, knew that she (Leopoldine’s mask) could not represent an individualised character when treated exclusively artistically. In theatre, when she is set in motion, brought into relationship with other masks and becomes the subject of the action, the mask can appear either as a typified character or as a symbolic figure. (In the play “Somebody has Killed the Play”, we have seen, and as a bearer of allegorical meaning.)
Iva Kostović and Petar Mandić did not deal with stock characters in any of their plays. It is characteristic of stock characters that they are marked by several basic features of the social group they represent (a boastful soldier, a stingy rich man, a whole series of Comedy del Arte characters), and no mask in their performances had a meaning that would in any way connote on the social levels of reality. So, it remains that their masks are symbolic figures.
In this way, Leopoldine is a symbol, a symbol of human separation from the outside world, a synonymous of loneliness. And what is new in “Leopoldine” in approach to the mask and the use of movement is the impression that the mask has an inner life. She already gained the expression of a dominant mental state in visual design. Since that expression is fixed and does not change as in the case of a live actor, the movement also got a new function. In the first play, he served to show the relationship between the characters, and those relationships were roughly expressed (as aggression, struggle, triumph). In “Leopoldine”, the psychological value of the “life” of the mask was nuanced and varied with dance-movement.
Leopoldine, whose basic expression is sadness, manages to suggest a feeling of joy in the choreographed scene of the meeting with her double, sister Emilia.
Of course, there is no inner life of the mask. It is about skillfully directing the spectator’s attention to the sensory value of the play (to the presence of the mask, the movement) and eliminating the impression that the mask means something else, something abstract, so that – in the way how the allegory works – it partly becomes abstract itself. The mask in “Leopoldine” is opaque, it is “the providence of general in the individual” – a symbol. The choice of the basic “mood” of the mask is the author’s decision by which they suggest the spectator’s emotional attitude towards the character and events. In other words, by doing so, they suggest to the viewer one possible sense of the world, one view on the world.
That experience in the spectator is evoked by the symbolic dimension of the play; the masks are so artificial in relation to the context of reality – to the real theatrical space and the present spectators, that the play does not act as a part of that world, its commentary or “mirror”, but as one possible (or: the only possible) image of that world.
What do man and human life come down to in “Leopoldine”? Leopoldine persistently and in vain clean the stain on the floor, lays the birthday table, is disturbed by her Nephew (representative of the intrusive outside world), she is expecting one desired guest who later appears in her own form. Eventually, that guest disappears (Leopoldine packs her or Emilia packs Leopoldine in the suitcase and leaves the stage space, where? Maybe to death, where Emilia probably came from).
In the spectator’s perception something similar is happening, the psychiatric phenomenon of narrowing of the consciousness – the whole reality is reduced to repeating the action (erasing the stain), to a monotonous mise-en-scène movement that seems to reduce the whole life’s space to a few square meters, and the reality of life – becomes relative because Leopoldine (or Emilia), in front of the viewer’s eyes, becomes an inanimate object that can be packed in a suitcase, just like any other thing.
The play “Overture for a Requiem” is a step further in the elaboration of the procedure revealed in “Mme Leopoldine Memoires”. This is the largest project of Iva Kostović and Petar Mandić so far. Many more characters appear in the play than was the case before, for the first time the scenography gained in importance, the music was composed according to imaginary scenes, and, what is most interesting, the plot became an important factor in the action.
At first glance, it seems that the main mask, Sebastian, is a character from contemporary times and that the whole plot serves to illuminate the intimate plan of his life. It is even possible to conclude from the superficial plan of events that this is a homosexual relationship whose psychoanalytic causes are analysed during the play.
It is true that the whole plot boils down to several intermediate scenes of Sebastian’s encounters with Gustav In A Striped Suit. Yet Sebastian’s and Gustav’s relationship is not exhausted in the homosexual attachment. As in the example of “Mme Leopoldine’s Memoires”, with the presence of symbolic elements, the realistic and psychologically motivated story was transformed and acquired a more complex meaning.
According to the principle of the solution from “Leopoldine”, the stage space is organised in such a way as to suggest a microcosm. In “Requiem”, several spatial points suggest the space of the whole (for these personalities) possible world. To the left of the stage is the privileged place of Gustav’s eternal abode. It is a small space separated by a curtain, in which Gustav receives the one he wants and where he retreats when he is not participating in the play.
Sebastian has no access to that part of the scene and all his dramatic effort is exhausted in desire and attempts to penetrate that space. Far from Gustav’s “house”, on the right side of the proscenium, is the space where the scenes between Sebastian and his mother’s enlarged mask take place (with this difference in the size of the masks, retrospection is achieved in the simplest possible way).
In the past, Sebastian was obsessed with the allure of Gustav’s diminutive doll, and Mother persistently prevented his affection. Because of jealousy, presumably.
The central space is empty. The only point that stands out is the one protruding forward and two pillows are laid there. Scenes of Sebastian’s and Gustav’s intimate encounters take place in this place. The stage is free of unnecessary scenographic details, so to speak, empty. The only details that stand out in this free space are the scattered remains of some former personalities – plastic halves of skulls scattered on the floor, and narrow, high, white curtains – intimate details exhibited in public space.
From the depths of the central part of the scene towards the proscenium, in always the same starting mise-en-scène, the characters Women in Black appear, representing a kind of Chorus, Parcae, representatives of the banal and ritual aspect of life, characters of midwives and undertakers.
A wedding table appears in the centre of the stage during the play, which becomes a catafalque in the next scene. At the same time, that table is both, and is also a place of sensual enjoyment.
Already in the organisation of space, human life has been demystified: from the entire past, only the memory of his mother’s ban on playing with a puppet of a diminutive Gustav figure remains in Sebastian’s memory. At present, there is a futile effort to make contact with Gustav and to overcome it with another contact, with a woman. In the play, this last attempt of life solution is presented through the identification of a funeral and a wedding. At the moment when by untangling Mother’s hair her symbolic death ensues, the Women in Black are dressing Sebastian in the funeral suit, where, immediately after putting on the suit, comes the wedding scene in which it serves as the ceremonial attire. What else can happen in human life / Sebastian will be defeated by unsuccessful attempts to persuade Gustav on love. At one point of resignation and dream, the character of Harlequin with a marionette, a symbol of art and a kind of counterpart to Gustav, will appear to him. It will be a moment of joy, however, a joy that is beyond Sebastian’s basic existential interest. Art is obviously a form of “purposeless pleasure”, it has no practical use and no real existential experience.
Human contact is achieved on the basis of reciprocity, the exchange of spontaneous response. The moment Sebastian manages to enter Gustavo’s space, the illusion (or truth) about the importance of trying to make that contact disappears: Gustav is just a lifeless puppet, and Sebastian dies – in a symbolic sense, precisely because of that fact. Immediately after Sebastian’s sexual intercourse with Gustav-doll, Women in Black find him as a corpse and prepare for a posthumous bath that the performance ends with.
The meaning of the play can be understood in two ways: either it is a story about unrealised contact between two people, or the conclusion that contact can never be realised because of the make-up of human nature, that is, the make-up of the world. In order to enable contact, initiative, action, is needed. At the same time, the initiative prevents the basic condition for contact in existential fullness – the spontaneity with which it is realised.
The impoverished picture of human life is achieved not only by reducing all living spaces on a few important, all events on a few remembered and all attempts on its most indispensable number, but also by summarising numerous human characters on a few of their representatives. Apart from Sebastian and Gustav in a striped suit; Sebastian’s Bride with naked breasts, Gustav’s Lady in a green dress, Sebastian’s Mother with 4 m long hair, Harlequin with a marionette and Four Women in black, appear in the play. The world is made up of several isolated, incompatible, lonely destinies. Even this condensed human world is divided: on one side are Gustav and the Lady in a green dress and the Mother, as persons who belong to reality to a greater extent than Sebastian, the Bride with naked breasts and the Harlequin who, in various ways, fail to fit. But there is a different division between them – into subjects of life and objects of manipulation. The first aspect is represented by Gustav and Sebastian, the second by the Bride and Woman. Yet in that world, no one realises himself as the complete bearer of life.
In this, as in previous performances, music had an important function. This time it was composed music by Vladimir Kostović, made according to imaginary scenes in agreement with the author of the play. Most of the music was performed electronically, with the exception of one in which the voice and classical guitar appeared. In addition to its functionality, Vladimir Kostović’s music had another feature: it complemented the content of the scene, and in some places even commented on it. Vladimir Kostović managed to ironise the classic form of fugue or paraphrase of requiem by introducing comparative ironic tonalities – high female vocals of folklore (real)colour or drums that disturb the solemn tone of the basic theme. To that extent, the music was not only a formal but essential part of the play.