Letter From Kosovo

By R. Jeffrey Smith

Thursday, December 2, 1999

PRISTINA –– The action takes place in the 12th century, and the plot is a melancholy rumination on the theme of revenge. But the theatrical production of "Hamlet" now touring Kosovo was brought into the present day when a cast member, who was marooned here while NATO's bombs fell last spring, gave a speech that Shakespeare never wrote.

During a brief forage in nearby shops for food, Luan Kryeziu said, Serb police demanded he show an identity card. Kryeziu said he had lost it, but they determined anyway that he was an ethnic Albanian, and methodically beat him while onlooking Serb civilians cheered. After they demanded he choose the way he would be killed, he struck one of the guards and escaped, trailing blood.

The metaphor of Kryeziu's decision to fight for survival struck a chord throughout the ethnic Albanian audience, which listened in rapt silence during the interruption. Later, the great, timeless lament at the play's heart--"to be or not to be"--also gripped the audience when read in Albanian translation. Those attending said they heard in the soliloquy's famous refrain a distillation of their anguished search for nationhood.

But if the play was meant to call attention as well to the dangers of obsession with revenge, a staple of Albanian culture for many centuries, it came up short.

The tortured quality of Hamlet's decision-making, and the disastrous consequences of his decision to kill his errant uncle--he is surrounded by death and succumbs himself--made little impression here. Almost universally, members of the audience questioned afterward said that while the play itself was of great historical interest, it had little bearing on Kosovo's contemporary life.

This is not what English director David Gothard expected when he selected "Hamlet" as the first theatrical production in this damaged city since the ethnic war between Serbs and Albanians in Kosovo was halted by the arrival of NATO troops in mid-June. "Everybody has a 'to be or not to be' story in Pristina," Gothard said. "This is the pleasure of doing the play here. They understand it all. Should they stay or go? Should they fight or not? Did they have to look after somebody else or take care of themselves?"

Even more important, Kosovo's majority ethnic Albanian population must decide now whether to focus on rebuilding the province or settling old scores with the few ethnic Serbs remaining in it. This drama is played out on the streets every day, where children harass elderly Serbs or commit even worse acts, where Serb homes are routinely burned, and where Serbs turn up at the morgues each morning.

The revenge obsession is an issue barely addressed in public five months after the civil war ended, and Gothard, a former artistic director at England's acclaimed Riverside Theatre, said he prized the fact that Hamlet is "a hero that will question revenge." He brought the play here with funding from the British government, which enabled him to stitch two groups of actors into a single, 70-person company: those ethnic Albanian actors who fled after a wave of government repression hit Kosovo in 1989, and a younger, more adventurous group that operated a half-underground theater here until the war forced them to leave or hide.

There were many challenges. The National Theater, where the play opened recently to a packed house before beginning a tour of five other Kosovo cities, lacked electricity or heat during the day and often had to rely on a generator at night. No funds were available for props, and most of the players took the stage in tennis shoes. Still, Gothard said, "the corridors were filled with people desperate to do some work."

The translation was by Fan S. Noli, the Harvard-educated poet and archbishop who was Albania's president during its short-lived democracy early in the century. Since Gothard does not speak Albanian, this posed an added directing challenge. But Gothard said the shape of the play and its content were so clear that he knew what was being said anyway, and was able to focus his energy on the style of his cast members.

Several dramatic devices were imported to sharpen the play's relevance to Kosovo. At the opening, a ghostlike figure rises from beneath a Muslim burial cloth on the stage and wraps it into a turban around his head, tucking the loose end behind his left ear. In the historically violence-prone village of Rugova in western Kosovo, men wear such turbans routinely as a symbol of their readiness to die.

Early in the play, Hamlet is also given his father's bloodied shirt to wear, an allusion to the traditional ceremony of blood revenge described by Albanian writer Ismail Kadare in his book "Broken April." Local culture holds that such shirts are kept by victims' families until the slayings are answered with new killing. In one of his soliloquies in the play, Hamlet wades through a pile of discarded identification papers like those seized from fleeing refugees by Yugoslav authorities and burned.

"Young Hamlet swears for revenge and . . . our feelings for him are full of pain and support for revenge in the name of honor," said Fran Nazi in his review of the play for Koha Ditore, a leading ethnic Albanian newspaper. "For all of those who have lost someone dear from crime, the joy of justice with killing is demanded--although we know when killings happen, justice is not done."

Nazi caught the play's message that citizens here face "a unique challenge to forgive and forget," but he notes the task is especially hard because no one has sought forgiveness for the civil war's crimes. History and logic, he wrote, say this path is the hardest and most beneficial. "But emotions and honor tell us something else."

Outside the theater, this dilemma is hardly discussed. Despite the chaos and disorder afflicting the city, Pristina remains largely a place where people see things in black and white, not in shades of gray.

Virtually the only other cultural offering in town is a display of exceptionally gruesome photographs at an art gallery not far from the National Theater. Taken by a member of the Kosovo Liberation Army on the front lines of the war, they show only dismembered, mutilated and blasted corpses--ethnic Albanians killed by Serbs.

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