Biljana Srbljanovic: An Interview

LONDON– Serbian playwright Biljana Srbljanovic, 43, has built a reputation for dramatizing political and controversial subjects. Her latest piece “This Grave Is Too Small For Me,” which premiered at Vienna’s Schauspielhaus last October and has been part of the company’s repertoire all season (the last production will be June 16), is no exception. The play is focused on Archduke Franz Ferdinand’s assassin, Gavrilo Princip, and his student friends in the weeks leading up to the incident in Sarajevo in 1914 that triggered World War I. The play has received rave audience reaction and has been staged in Graz, Belgrade, Sarajevo and at Berlin’s Schauuehne Theater (where more productions are scheduled for June 2 and 3) and is set to be performed in Lyon and Prague in the autumn. Based in both Belgrade and Paris, Ms. Srbljanovic spoke about her latest play, trying to find motivation to write and being France’s theatrical version of Pussy Riot. EXCERPTS:

People call you a political playwright. Is that a fair thing? Or do you make social commentaries because of where you are from?

 You know what, I am a political person first of all. And then as an author, I am political writer because I am a political person. So when I wake up in the morning, and go to buy the papers and the milk, it is already a political decision. Which press do you buy, it is political. I am aware of political implications in everyday life , especially in the Balkans. And especially in Belgrade in the last 20 years. Family life is political life. You can also say, the social aspect of family or political life. But I think it is more than that. So I do not mind when they call me a political writer. But basically I do not have political subjects, almost never in my plays. I always treat real people in the small milieu,  like family, children. They are always personal and intimate subjects. For me it is silly when they call me a political writer because I write about my father, my childhood and my childhood.

Why did you decide to write this play?

It was commissioned by the Schauspielhaus. Most German- speaking theatres started to do pieces on the 100 year commemoration of the First World War and they wanted something a little different. I am not very much into history and utterly not interested in the WWI in general but I said the only thing that could interest me there was the assassination because he was a Serbian guy, in Sarajevo, and more or less started the war.

As you did research, did you become more intrigued?

I suddenly fell in love with the historical persons, Princip and the guys. And I found the political, philosophical, ethical, feminist and leftist ideas something that I share in a very strange shape with them. So I tried to find a kind of a narrative that was not historical—they speak in today’s language– but still it is very much based on true facts, trying to make a point that they were humans and what kinds of persons they were.  How this idealist and student, Gavrilo Princip, a guy from nowhere, can suddenly become an assassin and an historical figure.

Is it harder to work on commissioned pieces?

I have been working with theaters that commission my work since the very beginning, only the first play I wrote by myself. For me, it is the only way to work. This play was the first time I was given a subject and even though it was a very open and vast subject, and I could do whatever I wanted with WWI and emphasize the political side, still there is a constraint. In the beginning, I was like, ‘what am I doing, this is not for me.’

Schaubuehne am Lehniner Platz. ''DIESES GRAB IST MIR ZU KLEIN''. Von Biljana Srbljanovic, Regie Mina Salehpour, Buehne Celine Demars , Kostueme: Valerie Gasse. Premiere am 6. April 2014 im Rahmen von F.I.N.D. 2014. Mit: Bernardo Arias Porras, Konstantin Shklyar, Tilman Strauss, Luise Wolfram und Ulrich Hoppe.

Schaubuehne am Lehniner Platz. ”DIESES GRAB IST MIR ZU KLEIN”. Von Biljana Srbljanovic, Regie Mina Salehpour, Buehne Celine Demars , Kostueme: Valerie Gasse. Premiere am 6. April 2014 im Rahmen von F.I.N.D. 2014. Mit: Bernardo Arias Porras, Konstantin Shklyar, Tilman Strauss, Luise Wolfram und Ulrich Hoppe.

People call you a political playwright. Is that a fair thing? Or do you make social commentaries because of where you are from?

I am political writer because I am a political person. When I wake up in the morning and go to buy the papers and the milk, it is already a political decision. Which press do you buy?  I am aware of political implications in everyday life, especially here in the Balkans.

Do audiences in different countries react differently to your work?

I must say, I have had big experience in that my first plays [The Belgrade Trilogy and family Stories] were performed all over. “Family Stories” is about childhood and children’s violence and I thought it would be understood and taken everywhere in the same way because it is a very simple idea behind it. But then the difference in the audience reception is really something that strikes me. In Germany I am very much like a common, normal playwright who is produced very often. But in France, they always think my work is as a very, very violent, like the Pussy Riot of the theater scene. The perception  and perspective of each audience makes a huge difference.

How was the reception for the play in Sarajevo?

It was great. It was very painful and important for me because the last time I was there was before the war. I had huge anxiety for the  premiere.  And it has been 20 years now. So I went for the first time during the rehearsal and I was so emotional,People cried, they laughed, they were were so, so moved. And I said. “ I really do not want to see any more of my work performed agan, I want to cherish this moment.” And the party was good, because you always have good parties in Bosnia.

Part of this interivewed was published in the WSJEurope’s “Off Duty”

1st photo, Biljana Srbljanovic; 2nd scene from “This Grave is Too Small…”