On the sixth night of the 58th edition of the International Theater Festival MESS, the audience had a chance to see the performance from the National Theater Belgrade The Power of Darkness directed by Igor Vuk Torbica, one of the most award-winning young directors in the region of countries of former Yugoslavia. Due to a great interest by the audience, the hall of the National Theater Sarajevo was filled to the last seat. Before the beginning of the play, instead of a minute of silence, the audience commemorated the recently passed champion of Yugoslavian acting and drama at the National Theater in Belgrade Predrag Ejdus by a long applause.
The Power of Darkness, a drama by Leo Nikolayevich Tolstoy was once forbidden by order from emperor Alexander III, and its premiere was prolonged by ten years, after which it became one of the most performed plays on stages across Russia and, later, The Soviet Union. During the prohibition, it was performed on many stages in Europe with great success, like the Théâtre Antoine in Paris or Deutsches Theater in Berlin. The piece was inspired by a real event which had happened around the end of the 19th century, when a villager Jefrem Koloskov was convicted for incest, the attempt of murder of his daughters, and the murder of an illegitimate child. As with Nikita, in the ending scene of Tolstoy’s drama, Koloskov repented at the wedding of his stepdaughter and publicly admitted that he had had a child with her, which he killed the moment it was born.
Tolstoy’s The Power of Darkness is simultaneously a drama from a villager’s life and a dark thriller, in which each attempt to hide the crimes leads to even greater wrongdoings, culminating in the scene in which Anisya (Nikita’s wife) and Matryona (his mother) urge Nikita to a monstrous act of murder of a newly-born. The rural community is interconnected by petty interests, which lead to intrigues and corruption, and the fear of becoming a target for gossip from others is one of the main reasons for covering-up misdeeds by even greater crimes. The plot happens in times of the beginning of banking systems, when first indications of capitalism we know today are appearing. “Those who cannot work with money, carry it to the bank, and there is where they snatch it, so to impoverish the people. It is a wise thing” – a simpleminded servant and former soldier Mitritch explains in one of the scenes, to an even more simpleminded farmer Akim, Nikita’s father.
In Torbica’s performance, as in the drama, money is one of the main motivating factors for the characters’ actions. On stage, a society is represented, in which greed, fear and ignorance (which are a result of poverty) force people to crime. Unfortunately, given that heavy misogyny from Tolstoy’s text isn’t avoided, these remain as characteristic of female characters more-or-less. Anisya (played by Hana Selimović), Akoulina (Vanja Ejdus), and especially Matryona (Olga Odanović) stay the driving force behind all intrigues and crimes. The men don’t succeed to resist them, and they, manipulated or killed, as with Anisya’s first husband Peter (Ljubomir Bandović), either retreat, as with Matryona’s husband Akim (Nebojša Ljubišić), or as Nikita (Ivan Đorđević), they commit crimes by their urging. At the very beginning, Nikita isn’t a positive character by any means, but out from a selfish seducer using girls, he is transformed into and an aggressive drunk and a murderer by the women he is surrounded with. It’s as if this misogyny was attempted to be problematized in the part of the performance wherein Mitritch (Nikola Vujović) abuses Anisya’s daughter Anyutka (Jelena Blagojević). “Like cattle without a shepherd, she is the worst, these women. Your class is the most stupid of all”, he shouts at her aggressively, while stalking her (motif of pedophilia isn’t present in the drama). The only apparent tendency here is that the misogyny from the piece is transferred into the picture of society which is misogynous, but that was not sufficient on its own.
The most important and most successful alteration from the original text is the play’s ending, wherein there is no confessing and repentance, unlike the dogmatically-religious ending of the drama text (“Orthodox people! I am one guilty, I shall repent” – says Nikita before confessing). Although Nikita wants to publicly admit all crimes that he committed and those that he witnessed, the community doesn’t allow this, because his confession would drag in everyone along with him. A community built on crime would lose its basis if said crime is confessed. Maybe that is the reason why the stage set-up resembles a basement (although it can also be seen as a church altar, with a cross in the middle). A scene of murder of a newly-born happens in the basement, and there is where they bury its corpse, making the basement into an image of a bloody basis of society. During the entire performance, there is a glass between the actors and actresses and the audience, a sort of barrier which provides some distance from the events presented on stage. At times, it’s as if we are seeing events from the past, with characters trapped behind a glass “fourth wall”, who cannot overcome the space-time border which leads to us, they are convicted to stare through the blurred windows into some better time and place. At the very ending of the play, the girl playing Anyutka leans onto the glass like Alice, and lets out a silent shout, as if she was trying to call us. At that moment, lights are turned on in the theater hall, and we can see our reflections on the glass, while possibly wondering: how much is our “now and here” different from what we see at the other side of the mirror?
Despite the conceptually and visually impressive scenography (Branko Hojnik), the great lighting design (Hojnik and Miodrag Milojević), as well as the effectively resolved ending, the performance is lacking any greater directing interventions. The play begins with a projection of its title upon the glass wall, and in-between acts, timestamps are projected, which determine the flow of the plot (“six months later”). Although they are taken from the replicas in the drama text, here they appear very cinematic. The realistic acting and mise en scène, during which the actors and actresses end up in front of the glass every now and then, in compositions bordered by its frame, while suggestively illuminated, sporadically create an impression that we are watching a film on stage. This approach works well at times, but insisting on realism that will follow throughout is troublesome. Some solutions are overly subtle or “minor-realistic” in order to “shatter the glass”. That is especially noticeable in scenes of Peter’s poisoning, and the murder of a newly-born. After being poisoned, Peter falls and thereby he spills an insignificant amount of vine onto the glass, which is cleaned up by Anyutka with a rag afterwards, which should associate to cleaning of blood, i.e. the removal of evidence of crime. A few droplets of the red liquid on the enormous glass is hardly noticed even from the first rows in the theater, while this dramatic moment demands a strong scenic que (even a simple smearing of a large quantity of blood over the huge glass surface would work). On the other hand, the murder scene of the baby is resolved by Nikita hitting the glass wall with a rubber doll, after which the light is turned off, just before the scene shifts. The fact that the doll is made so realistically only increases the falsity of the scene, and such realistic solutions at places like these shows the shortcomings the most.
A second larger issue of the performance is the how actors and actresses are led by the director. After the first two great acts, characterized by a minimized, and more-or-less realistic actors’ play, wherein the ensemble of actors is very uniform, in the third act, in the scene of Nikita’s drunkenness, it turns into hysteria. This shift in dynamics functions only briefly (when Nikita enters the house in a huge mink coat, and like some bear he topples over everything in front of him), but given that this hysteria on stage is more-or-less insisted on in the same intensity until the play’s ending (the remaining three acts), after a while it becomes pronouncedly monotonous. Thereby, in the general shouting and overly emphasized affectation, all nuances of actors’ play are gradually lost, as well as meaning from the spoken replicas. This amplified actors’ expressiveness will only momentarily make room for comical moments like the etude with Kum (Anastasia Mandić), and the groom’s father (Novak Radulović) at the start of the fourth act, wherein the performance suddenly becomes a folk comedy. Maybe the intention behind such parts (which maybe should have been treated) was the critique of the petty-bourgeois mentality, but they only manage to additionally collapse an already disrupted atmosphere and suspense of what we are watching. In the end, the appetites, increased at the beginning of Torbica’s play, remain unsatisfied.