The “poetic-documentary performance” has a strong reference to Graz and runs as a co-production in the “Steirischer Herbst” at the Theater am Lend. This makes sense, since this year’s theme of the festival is “Humans and demons” and many of the contributions and their contents are linked to Graz.
The text was written by the ensemble itself. Bernhard Berl, Vinko Cener, Franciska Farkas, Natalija Teodosieva and Christian Winkler tell stories from their lives and those of their ancestors. Except for Natalija and Christian, who takes over the intro part, they all belong to the Roma population group and come from Austria, Slovenia, Hungary and Macedonia. Between the individual descriptions, they all work together on a wooden boat with the inscription Feuerwehr Steiermark. They core it, sand off parts of the surface, paint and glue together individual wooden parts.
Ivan Trenev (accordion) and Moritz Weiß (clarinet/bass clarinet) contribute a musically harmonious background from the edge of the stage. Klezmer with a strong Balkan drive, but also lyrical pieces that are easy on the ear, as well as dramatic sounds when the events on stage come to a head, are part of their repertoire.
The boat that is used on stage is one that was already used as a lifeboat in the Mur in the 1930s. The fact that it was not used when Bernhard Berl’s great-grandmother drowned herself in the Mur on March 13, 1938, testifies to the hostile social attitude that the Roma had to bitterly experience in the interwar period and during the Second World War.
Bernhard, who comes from eastern Styria, vividly recounts that when he was barely 20 years old, he set out to find his ancestors and learned that he was a Roma. During his narration, one notices how much he is still emotionally gripped by this circumstance, even if he downplays it first and foremost with the means of humor. “I’m Roma? Great, an Italian!” was his reaction to the revelation of his ancestry. Only his grandmother’s curt reply, “No, not Italian, a Gypsy!” pulls the rug out from under the young man. He freely admits that without psychological support he would not have been able to get his life back on track.
Natalja has had opposite experiences. From infancy, she was very attached to one of her “babas”, who was one of the most famous Roma singers. She wanted to become like her. When, at the age of eight, her brother told her that there was no blood relationship between this grandmother and her and that she was not a Romni, a world collapsed for her.
Vinko, a Roma from Slovenia, did not have to learn the language of his ancestors until adulthood. His parents were too concerned about integrating into their country and not standing out as Roma. It almost sounds like irony of fate that Vinko eventually had his own television show where he hosted Roma affairs. He has been living in Graz for many years now and experiences again and again what it means not to have been born here.
Franciska finally begins her account with a horrific story from the Nazi era. After a pause of consternation, in which one notices that the audience has become very uncomfortable, she suddenly puts on a completely different face and asks what would happen if this story were made up. Franciska is a professional actress, a celebrity in Hungary and would like nothing more than not to be constantly cast only in Romnja roles.
As different as all of the ensemble’s life stories and approaches to their Roma origins are, they are united by the fact that at some point in their lives their identities began to falter and they had to come to terms with their origins, whether they wanted to or not. With the inclusion of the boat, Franz von Strolchen created two artful dramaturgical levels that at first glance seem quite unobtrusive. On the one hand, he uses scrolling text to explain the philosophical paradox of the Ship of Theseus. Second, he creates a parenthesis with the rowboat. It encompasses the story of Bernhard’s great-grandmother, which is told at the beginning of the production, to the end because: In the last scene, the boat is sheathed in white fabric without words, wrapped with ropes and ultimately left alone on the stage. The association that stops here has it all: tied up in this way, people who die at sea and are not brought ashore, but find their final resting place in the floods of the seas or rivers.
“The Ship of Theseus” opens many windows into the past, but at the same time the almost overpowering desire of the performers for a better future becomes palpable. A future in which a person’s ancestry and origins should no longer play a role. Utopias become reality when they are lived. Starting now seems to be the order of the day in times like these, in which national countercurrents are on the rise again. Contemporary theater can hardly be more topical.