KOSOVO THEATRE REVIEWS
Reviewed by Bora Shpuza
A Tale of Two (or More) Albanians
And just like that, I went to prison. It was an act of my own volition, for prison is where this play was set. Not only is Death Hour set in prison, it is also performed in a former prison, recently turned into the Prison Museum of Prishtina. An intimidating environment for showcasing one’s art that almost felt like a dare.
Setting and ambiance can be everything in a play, the hook that grabs one’s attention as a theatregoer. I usually take my time diving in, revelling in the atmosphere. But on this occasion, I had no time to adjust – the use of the space, with the audience sat in the prison yard, surrounded by high brick wall and bars. was brutally direct, captivating, and compelling.
As the inmates enter the yard, I can almost the taste of metal, feel the barbwire, the tin cans, handcuffs and pliers. Suddenly, there is loud cackling and smashing, followed by a string of complaints from one particular inmate about how he has not been recently beaten by the guards “Am I no longer relevant?” he quips. Perhaps.
The prisoners are political. The same is true of their crimes. And, as luck would have it, so are their names: Fatmir from Kosova and Fatmir from Albania (fatmir means ‘the lucky one’ in Albanian). “Some luck, eh?” they chuckle tearfully at one point, as they hug on the prisoner exchange bridge between Albania and Kosovo… But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Let me supply some context. It is the 1980s and communist Albania is going about its normal business of imprisoning folk who so much as breathe or eat wrong. In communist Kosovo, then still part of Yugoslavia, Albanians are being politically persecuted by the Serbian regime. One Fatmir has fled Albania to escape Enver Hoxha’s callous regime and has been captured by Serbian military. His namesake has fled Kosova to escape Serbian oppression and to see the “great leader who will unite all Albanians”, as he puts it enthusiastically, before being captured by the Albanian border police. The mutual misperceptions between the two men are baffling, despite the proximity of the two places. The ardour of the Kosovar Fatmir is juxtaposed with the exasperation of the Albanian Fatmir, as both men try and fail to make the other one understand.
Paradoxically, both are sent back in a prisoner exchange process which, to my mind, is the pinnacle of the play. Adrian Morina brings an almost unreal eagerness to his role as Fatmir from Kosovo, a man fiercely in love with his idealistic vision of beautiful Albania and its vigorous leader. At the same time, Arben Derhemi is remarkable in his depiction of Fatmir from Albania and his double drama: suffering under communism and having to explain it to a fellow Albanian. Both find themselves in a kind of surreal no man’s land and neither of them can make sense of it.
Albulena Kryeziu-Bokshi brilliantly portrays a school teacher with the soul of a poet, blamed for the ‘apple’ of discord. Arrested for acknowledging that the apple she bought at the farmers’ market was bad, she is put on trial where the presiding judge (once again played by Arben Derhemi) gives an extraordinary impersonation of the former Albanian dictator Enver Hoxha. His voice, stance, and overall persona brings back chilling memories to those who lived in Hoxha’s time, the self-righteousness and ruthlessness of it all being all too striking.
Next comes a scene of torture, a staple of the communist prison system that spares no one. A man is being electrocuted for having seen the dictator’s infected mouth in a dream. It is a scene worthy of George Orwell. He spits blood and barely manages to ask: “How do you even know about my dream?” “We know everything”, giggles the torturer in response, as the executioner proceeds with his craft and fills out the necessary paperwork.
The scene then shifts to the Dubrava prison in Kosovo, where Albanian prisoners are mistreated, beaten, and starved. After being lured out into the prison yard, under the false pretence of their upcoming release, the prisoners are shot in cold blood by the Serbian military. The real-life event took place in May 1999, where Dubrava prison was the scene of an unprecedented massacre. On that fateful day, hundreds of Albanian prisoners were killed and wounded, while countless others were taken away and never heard from again.
The small cast of actors shifted flawlessly from one role to the other, complete with immaculate Gheg and Tosk dialects mastered to perfection. Attaining the level of accent, pitch, tone and stress of a native speaker of either dialect is a challenge to be reckoned with. Seasoned actor Kushtrim Sheremeti does a commendable job in this regard, and the nuance he adds to his roles is outstanding.
As these stories unfolded before the audience, who are sat in the prison yard under a starry October sky, the ghosts of communisms past came alive in more ways than one. ‘Communisms’ is not an error. Albania and Kosovo had different communisms and misled perceptions due to the propaganda machine of the time. This is illustrated by the extent of misconstructions in Kosovo about the state of things in Albania, where the government ruled with an iron fist, while Albanians in Kosovo believed that Albania lived with a ‘golden spoon to its mouth’. Nevertheless, one sentence helps to get some clarity. “You are being terrorized by Serbs, but we are being terrorized by our own!” – Fatmir from Albania wails at Fatmir from Kosovo at the prisoner exchange point.
As I realized that these are only a few out of countless stories from those dark times, I had newfound appreciation for the writers who picked and put together these accounts. There is no doubt that Ulpianë Maloku and Agnesa Mehanolli did thorough research, including interviews with survivors on both sides of the border. These young writers are very talented at squeezing out salient bits of horror from real life events, but also adding comedic bits to highlight the absurdity of it all. The degree of detail is palpable.
Theatre of the absurd has nothing on Death Hour, as it is too real for comfort. As the play neared its end, black-and-white footage of trials and executions in Albania kept rolling on the back wall, including statistics on the killings, incarcerations, internments and persecutions. Then the names rolled out of prisoners killed at Dubrava prison in Kosovo, as a further wake-up call to this reality of the macabre that unjustly absorbed so much humanity. Three decades of democracy in Albania and two decades of freedom in Kosovo have shown that trauma still lingers. These stories must continue to be shared, because history matters and remembrance is key.
“I never knew these things”, one audience member sitting next to me whispered towards the end of the play.
But I knew them all along. It still feels like yesterday.
Produced by Bokshi Theatre Company & Artpolis
Written by: Ulpianë Maloku & Agnesa Mehanolli // Directed by: Ilir Bokshi // With: Albulena Kryeziu-Bokshi, Kushtrim Sheremeti, Adrian Morina, Arben Derhemi // Costumes: Vesa Kraja // Set design: Bekim Korça // Composer: Memli Kelmendi // Lights: Skënder Latifi