Action #8: Slovene National Theatre

"La comunicación no es un instrumento de la acción política, sino la acción política misma."
(Franco Berardi Bifo)


On 28 October 2006 the Strojans, a family of 31 (including 14 children) were forced to leave the Slovenian village of Ambrus under police escort, and taken to a refugee centre in Postojna, 30 miles away. They had been under siege for two days, trapped by a crowd of fellow townspeople who were demanding they leave the town, under threat of death. The Strojans are “tzigani”, to use the local word, gypsies.
The months following the “Ambrus incident” saw an increase in episodes of racism, directed especially at the Tzigane community. But the most disturbing part of the whole episode was the fact that the aggressive language used by the people of Ambrus, legitimized by the political élite, who took it on and thus normalized it.
It is this very language that the Slovene National Theatre invites us to think about: its harshness, but above all its ambiguities; its open, aggressive racism. Slovene National Theatre (Slovensko narodno gledališče or SNG) is a theatrical piece that works on two levels. On the stage there are four actors standing in a row side by side. Wearing headphones, they mechanically repeat fragments of the media storm that blew up around the episode. At the back of the stage are five giant plasma screens playing videos in which, against a background of five places that symbolism the ostracism of the Tzigane gypsies, Janez Janša obsessively repeats the mantra “Tziganes... Tziganes... Tziganes”.


Janez Janša
Slovene National Theatre

A theatre performance re-invoicing the sound dimensions of political public rage

Blaž Lukan
Janša in Ambrus

Slovene National Theatre (Slovensko narodno gledališče or SNG) (1) is without a doubt one of the most interesting ones among recent theatre productions in Slovenia. One is lead by an intriguing theatre act already by its title, which is subtly ironic while at the same time extremely serious: the syntagm "Slovene National Theatre" represents another sort of space inside of which the Slovene nation is defining itself in a very particular way. In other words, more familiar and popular: past fall "people happened". (2) This " happening of" Slovenes " directed by Janez Janša" (3) (a meaningful collision of signifiers) (4) off course denotes the infamous “Ambrus case" (5), the story of deportation of a Gipsy family from this village with all of its side effects. This sad story without a doubt stands for one of the most shameful and tainted moments in Slovenian history since Slovenia became independent.

The most intriguing thing of the piece however is the use of the documentary audio material as a mere sound or rather a "dialogical list", created from the footage from the TV news, which covered the events "live from Ambrus". But even though this material is arranged in dramaturgically extremely precise segments and tries to be "objective", to avoid interpretation of events while reconstructing them on stage and to be a sheer dry description of mere facts, quite the opposite happens as all of it has a dreadful and chilly sound to it. This is achieved mostly in two ways: by playing with the discrepancy between an elevated form of antic choir, represented by four totally disciplined performers (Dražen Dragojević, Aleksandra Balmazović, Barbara Kukovec, Matjaž Pikalo) on the one hand and extremely vulgar and aggressive language, used by the angry mob on the other (6). The threats were repeated on a number of occasions and became part of the »national repertoire" (like the visit of Ambrus by the president of Slovenia Janez Drnovšek. (7) This scene is reconstructed on stage with a shivering precision and intensity. However, when one adds the content of what is actually being said by people who are the real (live) protagonists among us, the hate-speech of the mob and the fact that this kind of language - legitimized by the Ambrus case - became the language of the political "elite" (one doesn't have to look very far back, the rhetoric of one of the candidates in recent presidential elections (8) is a text book case study of a the most primitive kind of populism imaginable (9), one has to conclude that the negative "legitimatism" Ambrus resulted in, thus represents a complete break down of state institutions, which are supposed to guarantee and protect the very fundamental law of "all being equal under the law". Moreover, the Ambrus case not only legitimized the violence of the majority over a(ny) minority. It also uncovered an attempt of the government to find a legal way to implement discriminatory politics as a regime, the latter being then used as a tool behind a meaningless political rhetoric while in the backstage the mechanisms of control - that the (civil) society has so it can protect itself from the potential abuse of the state, which in democracy it is supposed to serve the civil society - are being cancelled, or in other words "the state is being cancelled". And this is what the piece Slovene National Theatre makes the most intriguing of all: what we are watching (or rather listening to) in Stara elektrarna is not so much what is on the surface, a battle between two opposing sides (the majority against the minority, the villagers against the outcasts, the BetterSlovenes against the LesserSlovenes) but rather actual deconstruction of legal state institutions as such; in Ambrus prime minister Janša together with some of the ministers from his government orchestrated a performance of Slovene national theatre par excellence, with all of the necessary drama. At the same time however, he performativelly (maybe even suicidally) destroyed the very same state institutions he became a (totalitarian) symbol of.

Janez Janša, the author of the theatre reconstruction of Ambrus in Stara elektrarna, uses a sort of performative twist by serving us these events and returning them to us (10) as temporally and spatially isolated events, taken out of their original time and place, while the documentary material is transcribed into a voice performance, distributed among four performers and a "companion". But the formal(istic) side of this piece (like an admirable professionalism of the performers) is the least fascinating of all. Much more important is the fact that Janša with this reconstruction and transcription of the documentary material brought back to life a fact, which our political (and media) reality already left behind and forgot about it. Trying to keep the memory of the Ambrus case alive and protecting it from (partly dictated and partly spontaneous) amnesia of political and media reality, is the essential quality of this piece. Because Ambrus case originated in the very (traumatic) core of Slovene political mythology, even though Slovene National Theatre doesn't hide (or lack) its theatrical or rather conceptualistic artistic references.

Visual dimension of this more than paradigmatic and eminent political "show" is enriched by a "live frame", performed as an hour and a half long mantra by Janez Janša, the author himself who is repeating continuously and without a break "Gypsies. Gypsies. Gypsies. Gypsies. Gypsies. ... " while moving slowly alongside the walls of the theatre stage. At the end of the mantra, when Janša lines up with the choir of the other four performers, five screens above their heads switch on and we see the images of some of the most prominent (also Slovene) symbols (the highest Slovene mountain Triglav, the Slovenian National library, the Holocaust memorial in Berlin, the church designed by one of the most prominent Slovene architects Jože Plečnik etc.) and suddenly from everywhere we hear a loud mantra, accompanied by all five performers "Gypsies. Gypsies. Gypsies. Gypsies. Gypsies. ... " ... So that we (finally) hear what we already seem to have forgotten and in order not to forget what we should never forget.

Originally published as “Janša v Ambrusu”, in Delo, 2nd November 2007


(1) also the official name for the most elite and prominent theatre institutions in Slovenia of which there are only 3 in the country
(2) thus is also is a famous phrase used to describe for victory of Slobodan Milošević in Serbia
(3) Janez Janša is also the name of the current president of Slovene government
(4) the current prime minister and his government are known for their radically right wing and chauvinistic political views in relation to minorities and especially the Gipsy community in Slovenia
(5) At the end of October 2006, near a little village in Slovenia, called Ambrus, 300 armed villagers came to a nearby Gipsy family Strojan, after a fight between one of the villagers and one of the residents of the Strojan family, and threatened the Strojan family for 2 days , nor the police or the government could calm them down until the Minister for Internal affairs himself "advised" the Strojan family to leave the land which they owned and where they lived for years; Strojans were "relocated" to the asylum seekers center in Postojna, some 100 kilometers away and after 1 year and after one more "relocation" to the outskirts of Ljubljana, the Strojan family still doesn't have a(nother) home after being forced to leave the one they had in Ambrus, behind
(6) villagers threatened the Strojan family with death if they don't leave Ambrus
(7) who tried to help part of the Strojan family on the very Christmas day when the (grand)mother Elka with some of the children returned to her home in Ambrus; this happened after almost two months in Postojna asylum center and after one previous unsuccessful attempt to return to their home, which they legally still owned; to make matters worse, when Elka and her children literally run from Postojna without notifying the authorities, the villagers started gathering again, then the police arrived and (what a coincidence) the government decided this is the right moment to destroy the buildings which Strojans on their land built illegally; so the bulldozers destroyed the houses and Elka and her children were left out on the cold at the end of December; president Drnovšek who is known to oppose the politics of the prime minister Janez Janša, went to Ambrus to help Elka Strojan and wanted to bring two mobile homes so they don't die out on the cold because Elka refused to return to Postojna, but the villagers stopped him before he could deliver and the incident turned pretty ugly with screaming and cursing that shocked Slovenia as villagers basically told the president to go where he came from and Drnovšek accused them of not being Christians and having no respect for human kind
(8) the elections took place in October and November 2007
(9) Zmago Jelinčič, the president of the Slovene Nationalistic Party was very successful in presidential elections and is known by his extremely racist and intolerant views of minorities
(10) after almost precisely one year

Photo: marcandrea