Notes from a first day at MESS

Perhaps the most striking first impression of my first day at MESS is that this festival of ‘small and experimental’ theatre has as one of its own home venues Sarajevo’s National Theatre – an imposing grand theatre from 1919 (today proudly adorned with Mess banners).  This is no festival ‘confined’ to smaller spaces, or round the corner in the studio.  Rather the buzz as the (sold out) audience gathers for the first event in the National Theatre suggests there is much more a sense of this as a festival for ‘us’, whoever ‘us’ might be.  And on this first night the Sarajevo audience are here in droves.  In the grand foyers a temporary studio has been set up about to go live as the doors to the theatre are flung open.  The whole evening is broadcast live through the festivals partnership with BH.  I love this festivals definition of ‘small and experimental’.

Despite the sunshine and the cities beauty the history of Sarajevo is writ large across the streets, and its clearly written across the heart of the festival too.  We are closing the door on hate, opening the door on freedom states the opening speaker; Mess is about creating a space where, without escaping from the darkness of the present day situation we can dream of a brighter future states Festival Director Nihad Kresevljakovic.  And in everything I saw today the audience are responding to its messages of multiculturalism, of internationalism, of openness, tolerance and cosmopolitism.

Indeed ‘isms’ (and their use/misuse and often lack of meaning) were at the heart of Via Negativa’s The Ninth.  A mesmirising, often beautiful and at times disturbing journey through Beethoven’s ninth symphony, exploring Giorgio Agamben’s reflections on ‘The Open Man and Animal’.  Five performers naked,alone and together attempt to connect with their (our) animal selves despite – or inspite – of Beethoven’s triumphant music. Our constructs, our excuses, the things we hide behind are laid bare.  Bodies (ideas, burdens) are thrown away and gun fire echoes around the space (Sarajevo’s War Theatre, instigated at the start of the siege of Sarajevo as a reminder of human need for art and culture in its darkest hours).  Its dark, and dangerous and leaves me thinking -ears ringing – long into the night.

A second first impression of MESS is its commitment to work for young people.  Early in the day – perhaps as the antidote to The Ninth­ ­I’d enjoyed Gllugl Dindim (Croatia) a heart warming tale of friendship between an elderly man and un expected visitor – a penguin. Its lovingly told, although I regretted sitting a little too far back to appreciate all of the intricate puppetry.  Pre-show the audience is treated to six ‘junior’ living statues and a joyous impromptu dance off!

Talking of dance off’s – back to that first night crowd, buzzing in anticipation for DorkyPark’s (Germany) Open for Everything.  Initially I’m not entirely sure what I’m seeing.  I know from the copy its an exploration of Roma history.  A mass of performers – actors, dancers, musicians emerge from out of a battered car, there’s suitcases and plastic bags, bed matts even a zebra.  A sea of images and ideas difficult at first to know where to look or listen.

But slowly the reality of ‘open for everything’ emerges.  Part performance research, part community theatre, part verbatim, part revue – the result is intoxicating, raw and at times incredible.   I want to write director Constanza Macras has taken 17 members of the Roma community and put them and their stories on stage.  But that implies a level of autuerism which the energy and joy of Open for Everything actively defies.  More then she has enabled something magical to happen, offered and shaped an opportunity which is heartfelt, honest and genuine.  We see the joy and the squabbles, hear the horrors and the lies, sense the poverty and the lack of opportunity.  We see too the xenophobia and discrimination, the good and the bad in the animal we all are.  This though is a performance with a smile, you warm to the performers, their idiosyncrasies, their stories.  It leaves you on the edge of your seat cheering for the sheer joy of life.

Via Negativa Trailer

Open for Everything trailer

Mess Festival trailer


(My trip to Mess Festival has been made possible by an Artists International Development Award from Arts Council England and the British Council, see here)


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