‘Father Courage’, Boris Bakal, Dubrovnik Summer Festival, August 12th

My interpreter is elegant in a black dress with a double rope of pearls. She breathes her translation through red lips and cigarette smoke and laughter. Often she tells me the performance is untranslatable, because you have to know the history – ‘he’s twisting the facts we already know – but then it’s not true, he’s making things up.’ I recognise the practice of the mythogeographer.

And so on my first day in Dubrovnik, I come to see the city through another language and by following a ‘mis-guide’.

The latter is actor Goran Bogdan, who leads me, with a crowd of others, from the playground beneath Mincete to Marin Getaldic Primary School, to the Jesuit Collegium Ragusinum, to the Sponza Palace to a space between city walls near Buža – a route that is roughly at right angles to the tourist shuffle up Stradun and back down Ulica Od Puca, or to the famous February St Blasius procession. Our route is something between a dérive and an alternative tour. It is a more expansive exploration of the city, which does not hesitate to take us down the slippery limestone steps on one side, across Stradun and back up the glassy stairway on the other, returning by steps equally precarious and steep. This is a gentle disruption of a spectacular, spectacularised city. It is primarily aimed at Croatians, not tourists – my presence here is an anomaly, facilitated, kindly, by Bakal and by my persevering companion.

Dubrovnik Aug 2013 037

The first scene, at Mincete, plays games of violence and hatred, recalling nationalism, xenophobia and prejudice, inviting audience members to seize imaginary knives, using laughter to keep the game just the right side of turning nasty, thinking about the hatred produced by fear. We are in a basketball court, a found theatre, where we face each other as opposing sides.

We are told that we are dead and will remain so for the duration of the performance. So we pass through the city with the perspective of ghosts.

We descend the steps and cross the main drag, where Goran waves a torch to lead us like a tour guide. Twining through his mangled history is a laughingly imagined love for the elusive ‘Cvijeta’ – I think this is the Renaissance poetess, Cvijeta Zuzoric whose life and beauty is recalled in the works of others, but about whom little is known for certain.

The Dubrovnik Tourist Board comments: ‘the incomparable Cvijeta Zuzoric is most powerful precisely in the place / places where she does not exist.’ Goran seems to conjure her as if she were Dubrovnik’s nonexistent soul.

Along narrow streets and ascending steps, we enter the school. A pleasant shock to be brought into such an everyday space, after the ostentatious beauty of the bustling streets. We are asked to think about political courage and courage in love, to think about which requires the most bravery. We are given paper and pencil on which to write. I write, ‘It depends. They might sometimes be related.’

And out again, into the hot night and the bright streets and we join the crowd for a little while, to climb the steps to the Jesuit church and college. Goran tells us that we will meet some ‘welcoming committee’ for the city, but in fact, as we enter a leafy courtyard, we meet a couple whose stormy relationship dominates the scene. Jealously guarding the bed that is placed under the stars, Emil Matesic turns into a beast, roaring at the strangers, body arched and dripping with the water he has used to splash himself as we arrived. This, then, is our welcome. By the time we leave, the anger has subsided and the couple lie on the bed, Marija Segvic twining her hand in her lover’s hair.

We descend and by way of Goran’s quirky commentary on the city, we make our way to Sponza, where we each are offered a bed in the courtyard, looking up at the stars ourselves and fighting or succumbing to sleep. We are the dead ones, the sleeping ones, the homeless ones. We are travellers in a dormitory. The sky is our theatre, where momentous scenes take place: the slow crossing of a lighted aeroplane; the white arrow of a flock of birds in flight. My translator cannot whisper to me from her bed, but I am told afterwards about the conversation that sifts through the many histories of Sponza, as morgue, as customs office, treasury, armoury, archive. There is talk about expectation, and how it might be best not to have expectations. Unexpectedly, two rows of white washing unreel above us. An ordinary sight made spectacular and ghostly, beneath the ponderous masonry and dark sky.

Otac hrabrost00040

On our way back through Stradun, Goran points up at the Church and then, rather than comment on it, he suddenly turns and (as in Counter-Tourist tactics advocated by Joel Henry), he looks at the space behind him: a restaurant. He stares at the bemused diners until a waiter responds, drily, by placing the menu into his line of gaze. Point made, Goran moves us on. This is one of many, small, counter-tourist manoeuvres.

Finally, we are led through a small door, into a gap between the outer and inner walls. We enter a fracture, a crack in the city’s facade. We sit facing one another, knees to knees, among fragments of stone. A woman is weeping. Goran joins her. Both commiserate, for this is the opposite of a wake – it is a wakening. We, the dead, are being returned to life – and so they weep. It is past midnight. Coffee is served.

And through all this, the shifting light, the slippery stone, the scraggy little cats, the tourists, the bells. A bat curving through the air in front of the Jesuit college. The twisted history that bubbles up through Goran’s tour-guide patter. When you arrive in Stradun, the city feels hard and polished as a marble. The performance brings it to life, pointing obliquely to its pasts and its pain, its frailty as well as to its relentless beauty.

This is one of five performances, each taking place simultaneously and passing through the same set of locations, meeting the same placekeepers, though not always in the same circumstances. So as we walk we are aware of other walkers elsewhere, and other possible experiences.

The reference to Brecht only evokes his themes of survival, courage and responsibility and his loose, epic structures. The commentary on the city is oblique, but it also allows the city to make its own commentary. Hearing the language through an abridged and intermittent simultaneous translation gave one still more time to experience the relationship between city and performance, and to fit them together in different ways. My account of it here is something of a piecing together of experience and listening and guessing and probably, making a bit up. Yet this could be a way of entering into a discussion about Dubrovnik’s past and future, or it could just be another way of entering the city. Either way, its effect is reanimating and an important contribution to the summer festival. ‘Walls of stone: Heart of Art’, reads the festival slogan; its logo shows a map of the city as a heart. A performance like this helps to keep the blood pumping.