During the first half of the current theatrical season in Serbia, which encompassed the last four months of 2023, there were premiers of two shows that deal with the absurdity of our contemporary life. The Cabinet Minister’s Wife which premiered at the Šabac City Theatre approaches this topic in the manner of a comical political satire, while Ljubinko and Desanka from the National Theatre “Toša Jovanović” in Zrenjanin is more of a human-interest story where humanity eventually triumphs over absurdity and loneliness.
Olja Djordjević who directed and adapted the new iteration of The Cabinet Minister’s Wife in Šabac used a conventional playbook in bringing Branislav Nušić’s famous comedy of the same name to the stage. Written in 1929, The Cabinet Minister’s Wife was intended to ridicule and critique the new-money bourgeoisie of the period that was, as the story of the family in the play goes, so corrupt that it eventually self-destructed. Even though the play itself contains a mocking, self-righteous tone of a moralizing author who put himself on a high ethical pedestal, the quality of the text, which made the play a classic, is that it is open to a wide web of interpretations. Minister’s Wife can be seen not only as a comical satire but also as a vaudeville, a tragedy of modern political life, an absurdist play, etc. Yet the countless directors who staged this play in the last several decades have chosen to relentlessly repeat the most obvious interpretation where the audience, from its own morally high pedestal, observes the low life of the scheming, uneducated and corrupt characters, for the sake of easy laughter with no serious social or political effect. Olja Djordjević chose this path of a hundred-times seen subversive-free entertainment that doesn’t make the audience think about corruption but makes them feel superior.
What’s different in Djordjević’s performance is that she set the story neither in the interwar period nor the present-day, the two most common choices of similar directions, but in the decadent 1990s during Slobodan Milošević’s rule. That’s evident thanks to inserts from Milošević’s speeches heard from the television, turbo-folk music and trashy clothes that some characters are fans of (costumes: Milica Grbić Komazec), as well as the set design (Damjan Paranosić) that in the first half of the show represents a crummy lower-middle-class apartment which later transforms into an expensive kitsch environment. The height of the show’s attempted political provocation comes at the end when the minister’s wife Živka (Aneta Tomašević) gives her famous speech directly to the audience, noting that she will be back for sure. The show alludes to a part of the 1990s corrupt political elite which is once again the dominant force in our lives (look no further than the Serbian president Aleksandar Vučić).
Yet the show’s problem is not only its conventionality but the use of simple, and to be honest – cheap, comical effects such as the exaggerated acting to which almost all of the actors abide. It’s often that a character has only one cartoonish trait, sometimes even those that could be considered offensive, like when stuttering or mutism represent someone’s negative character.
Unlike The Cabinet Minister’s Wife which aimed to show the absurdity of contemporary life through a tale of political intrigues and petite bourgeoisie interests – eventually becoming itself a part of the absurd reality thanks to its uncreative approach – Ljubinko and Desanka from Zrenjanin approached this theme from a completely different angle.
Milan Nešković, who had previously been known for several performances based on Aleksandar Popović’s plays, chose to direct this time one of the earlier plays of this Yugoslav writer. Popović wrote Ljubinko and Desanka in 1964 telling a story of two simple-minded and lonely but good-hearted people who meet in the park and clumsily try to create a meaningful relationship. Ljubinko and Desanka is written as an amalgam of absurdism, existentialism and satire with characters from the margins of society in the center of the story. The play was significant in the 1960s because it played around with newly established dramatic conventions and philosophical movements and because it spoke about the citizens from the margins that “weren’t supposed to exist” in a progressive, modernist and socialist society of the time.
Nešković and the show’s dramaturg Jelena Mijović are neither specifically interested in this genre-bending feature of the play nor the individual’s position within a political system. Their iteration of the play is a theatrical version of a human-interest story that aims to see how existential problems such as loneliness and alienation could be overcome. A key dramaturgical intervention that brings this interpretation to life is a flashforward scene at the end of the show when Ljubinko and Desanka, after spending together a random day at a park hardly being able to communicate normally let alone form a meaningful bond, end up living together in perceived love and happiness. Popović’s story doesn’t end this way but Nešković noted that he felt obliged to give a happy end to the audience after last year's mass shooting at the “Ribnikar” elementary school brought a somber mood in the national conscience. This ending could be criticized as naïve and simplifying but it could also be praised for its ambition to offer hope and departure from the absurdity of everyday life that it thematized.
Another risk of Nešković’s performance is that it can be seen as a slice-of-life story that’s overtly simplified or even banalized given that the broader political and existential context is stripped down. However, it’s worth noting that the show is quite successful in this less ambitious format, though it would have probably been a good idea to shorten the text even more. The show smoothly oscillates between its comical and melancholy sides, with the actors Sara Simović (Desanka) and Milan Kolak (Ljubinko) being persuasive and entertaining in the roles of these life-disoriented, clumsy characters. The director, dramaturg and actors also skillfully adapted Popović’s dialogues, bringing them a bit closer to contemporary speech from the author’s logorrheic writing, much of which has become archaic throughout the last half-century.
Both The Cabinet Minister’s Wife and Ljubinko and Desanka are safe, relatively conventional readings of the source materials that aim to easily satisfy the audience with quick laughs or the feeling of melancholy (the latter case). Yet while The Cabinet Minister’s Wife is an almost entirely redundant show thanks to its uncreative approach, the artistic team of Ljubinko and Desanka created the show with much more thoughtful consideration that should be appreciated.