Theatre in Wales

Commentary and extended critical writing on theatre, dance and performance in Wales

A Month In Kosova

Gareth Potter's diary of his visit to Kosova

“So Gareth, what do you know about Kosova?” asked the driver as we sped away from Prishtina airport towards the city in a blue Opel Kadett. On the back seat I had a green Adidas kitbag containing eight CD’s, two novels, one book on how to direct theatre and a wash bag. The rest of my possessions had gone missing somewhere between London and Budapest. Outside the car I could see grey concrete buildings and brand new mosques whizzing past, cigarette adverts, military vehicles and tractors, football pitches, coffee shops and petrol stations. I was welcomed to the country by the UN soldier from Cameroon who stamped my passport. Then by the tall severe looking woman with the tied back hair who handed me the form I had to fill in regarding my lost luggage. I was welcomed yet again by the hoards of young men outside the airport selling boxes of cheap Marlboros and Gitanes.

I was in Kosova to work. It’s not the kind of place you’d come to on holiday, and there’s not much written about it in the Rough Guide or Lonely Planet books. Traumatic, depressing, disconcerting, troubled and squalid are some of the adjectives used to describe the region in one such publication. The only coverage I’d seen about Kosova on the television was the war reports describing the conflict here some five years previously. I’d visited Croatia, also a part of the former Yugoslavia, for a rather lovely holiday in the past. There I sunbathed, island hopped and walked around the beautiful Venetian walled cities on the Dalmatian coast. This was going to be a quite different experience altogether.

Earlier in the year, my friend and colleague Jeremy Turner from Arad Goch in Aberystwyth asked me if I had any interest in directing a play in Kosova. He’d met someone at a conference that wanted an overseas director to come and work with local actors in Pristina. Jeremy knew me well enough to know that I’d take the bait and so in the first week of September last year I was on the plane and on my way. My friends and family, of course, thought I was insane. “That place is a war zone!” “How the hell can you direct a show in a language you’ve never heard let alone understand!” “And how exactly is this going to further your career?” Of course, anyone who really knows me knows that I couldn’t really give a toss about little bourgeois details like personal safety, career building or actually understanding what people are on about. Life’s too short to turn down exciting offers like this. Anyway, it wasn’t as if I was up to much else in September.

So there I was, in a blue Opel Kadett, careering towards the rather ugly looking city that was to become my home for the next month. No possessions, no background and no idea what to expect. All I really knew about Kosova was that it was an Albanian Muslim enclave in southern Serbia. Now this is like saying that Wales is a non conformist- chapel going sector of England. So wrong! Luckily my driver saw the funny side, “Don’t you ever say that to anyone you meet here!” he said, laughing sagely.

The driver was Jeton Neziraj, dramatist and head honcho at the Centre for Children’s’ Theatre Development, Pristina, the man who invited me over. In his late twenties, this is a man who’s seen terrible things in his country in recent years. He is also a man who is determined to enrich the lives of young Kosovars so has taken upon himself the task of developing theatre for the youth here.

After being shown to my lodgings, a small flat with a kitchen and a balcony on one of Pristina’s busiest streets, it was time to relax and begin discussing what we hoped to achieve. Jeton wanted me to direct a short play dealing with sexuality and taboo for a young teenage audience that was written by him and two other writers. The title of the piece was My Vagina Has Eyes. Fine… The English translation hadn’t yet arrived, but the intention was to hold auditions with actors over the next few days.

One of the most exciting things about coming to Kosova as a theatre director was the opportunity I was afforded to reinvent myself. I’ve been hanging about the entertainment world in Wales since the early eighties in some role or another; I’ve been a punk rocker, a soap star, a raver, serious actor, a dj and a television presenter to name but a few. But the people of Kosova knew nothing of ‘’Gareth Potter’, and this was quite a relief. I had been given a unique opportunity to begin painting on a blank canvas. I was introduced to everyone as an experienced director from Wales who was going to create an important piece of theatre for the young people of Kosova! I felt an enormous sense of freedom, energy and confidence to be whoever I wanted to be for the next month.

I wouldn’t describe Pristina as a pretty town. Ugly post-Soviet buildings dominate the cityscape and the climate is dusty. Because of the recent troubles, there are ruined and half built houses everywhere, sometimes it’s hard to differentiate between them. This, coupled with the fact that they all drive like maniacs creates an atmosphere of chaos and total confusion. There are beggars on the streets, but not as many as I’d expected in such a poverty stricken place. 70% of the population of Kosova have no proper employment, so there are cigarette, phone card and chewing gum sellers everywhere. Despite this, I wasn’t once offered drugs or prostitutes. The Kosovars are strikingly good looking and the young, urban population are dedicated followers of fashion, wanting to dress in all the latest styles and labels.

Going out at night can be a great experience. A friendly atmosphere, everyone chatting over makkiatos (froth topped espresso coffee) or bottles of the local beer (Peja). The music in the bars is similar to here. Screens show MTV or VH1 and CD players play classic rock or the latest R&B hits. My favourites included an unofficial Hard Rock Café, playing metal and, erm, hard rock, and the Zanzi Bar, home of the Zanzi Band playing off the wall covers with extended comedy interludes all in heavily accented English. There is table service everywhere, so you never actually have to visit a bar and the waiter always remembers how much you have spent.

The food is generally good. Delicious fresh fruit and veg, qebapa (kebabs, but not as we know them), and burek (a kind of sausage roll type thing with minced lamb or feta cheese and spinach) as well as more familiar fast food fare (although KFC, McDonalds etc. have yet to make inroads here). Some of the restaurants outside the city limits are beautiful and very reasonably priced. These are probably the best places to relax, sample the local food and wine and listen to more traditional music.

By my third day there, I had familiarised myself with the text and we were ready to hold auditions. We were to be working at the Dodona Theatre, a small venue holding about 170 in its auditorium. The theatre was established in 1992 to stage shows aimed mainly at children and young audiences, but when the Serbs invaded Kosova, Pristina’s schools and university were closed and Albanian language newspapers, television and radio stations were silenced. Somehow, despite the closure of almost all of Kosova’s cultural institutions, the Dodona managed to stay open. It became a very special place, and Kosovars would often risk life and limb to attend performances there. It became a place where they could celebrate their identity, and take a stand against all the violence and injustice surrounding them. Housed in an inauspicious grey building in Pristina’s back streets, it’s not the most beautiful theatre I’ve ever visited, but it holds powerful , emotive memories for the people of Pristina.

So wearing my important UK director’s hat, I met about twenty talented and enthusiastic actors for the auditions. I asked them to perform pieces in Albanian, to inhabit the stage, to try and make me laugh and to improvise around the text in pairs. At the end of the session, it was time to make decisions, so off I went with Jeton and famous Yugoslavian film actor turned theatre manager, Faruk Begolli to discuss casting over lunch. Lunch was on the terrace of one of the most beautiful and serene restaurants I have ever been to. I could get used to this important UK director business!

The cast was chosen and rehearsals started. There was no language problem. I speak no Albanian and the cast spoke no Welsh. No problem! Of course, we taught each other to say “Good morning”, “Iechd Da!” and “Fuck off!” in our respective languages, but we all had some English; and smiling, pointing and the international language of screaming also came in very handy for communication.

As the weeks went by, the show came together and I became more and more familiar with the sounds of the Albanian lines. We grew close as a group, socialising and sharing experiences and jokes over makkiatos and bottles of Pejes in the bars and flats of Pristina.

Of course, with the disintegration of the old Yugoslavia, civil war has had a deep effect on the young population. The Albanian speaking population are resentful of what the Serbs have done and the open wounds are still very much visible. Everyone has someone close in the conflict, be they family or friends. The brother of one of my colleagues was imprisoned in a travelling prison camp in Serbia for over a year and over 5,00 people are still unaccounted for. Anonymous graves are still being discovered. On the outskirts of every village I saw brand new graveyards. On visiting one, I counted seven members of the same family, all killed within three days of each other. As we commemorate sixty years since the liberation of Auschwitz, it’s terrifying to think of this programme of ethnic cleansing being attempted in the last ten years on the fringes of Europe…

As our first night approached, I had grown into some kind of minor celebrity, appearing on television and being interviewed in the press. The staff of the qebapa restaurant near the theatre were quite excited that we had become regulars there and people would come up to me on the street and in bars after seeing my face in the media. These are some of the friendliest people I’ve ever come across, everyone wanting to shake hands and say hello, showing great interest in what I was doing and why I was there.

Without a doubt, Kosovars feel great love for British and American People. After all, it was their armed forces that arrived to free them from a terrible enemy that had invaded their land. Clinton is a major hero to the people with one of the main streets in Pristina named after him. Tony Blair and Madeline Albright are fairly common names for children here, according to Jeton (!). Everyone I spoke to was pleased to see Milosevic and his band of thieves and murderers facing trial in the Haig.

In the end, the title of the play was changed to Mesimi Ndaluar, Forbidden Lesson, and the first night was a great success. The theatre was full and there were glowing reviews in all the media. I had succeeded; I had directed a show in a totally alien language. But much more than that was achieved. I felt as though I had found a new family over in the Balkans. I had arrived alone and empty handed, and by the time I left I had been enriched in so many unexpected ways. I was offered an enormous welcome, and although I hope I was able to teach something to my cast and audience, I learnt more than I could have possibly hoped for from these warm, proud people.

This article first appeared in Welsh in the magazine Tu Chwith (rhyddid cyfrol 22)

GARETH POTTER 2005















author:Gareth Potter

original source:
15 April 2005

 

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