Theatre prof’s Brecht production wins best play at Serbian festival

Two people on stage performing a number from Cabaret

In December, Glendon theatre instructor Aleksandar Lukac heard startling news. His adaptation of Bertolt Brecht’s Drums in the Night, which he had directed for a regional company in Sabac, Serbia 16 months before, had won best show of 2010-11 at Serbia’s Festival of Festivals.

“I was quite surprised to get the news,” says Lukac, who last saw the production when it premiered in September 2010 and didn’t attend the national theatre festival. “What made me really happy was that Brecht is not always popular. His plays are political, provocative and dark.”  Yet the audience at Serbia’s Festival of Festivals gave it more votes than three comedies and the favourite coming into the national competition.

Drums in the Night is about a young soldier who returns home after being a prisoner of war – and considered dead – for four years to find that his fiancée is betrothed to a capitalist turning metal ammunition boxes into baby carriages. The play, written shortly after the First World War, launched Brecht’s career and his brand of “epic” theatre, aimed at jarring audiences into thinking about political issues they might otherwise avoid.

Two people on stage performing a number from CabaretA cabaret scene from the Serbian production of Drums in the Night 

“Clearly, for me, doing a show about the aftermath of war resonates strongly with Serbians who have just come out of a war,” says Lukac, referring to the civil war that led to the disintegration of Yugoslavia, where he was born.

Brecht’s play is funny and peppered with cabaret, offering relief from a tragic tale of betrayal. But what hit Serbian audiences, says Lukac, was that it dealt with hunger, the black market, manipulation, Two men fighting in a performance from Cabaretrevolution, death, violence and other issues familiar to those who’ve experienced war.

The capitalist and soldier come to blows while the cabaret continues, in Drums in the Night

Lukac first workshopped and produced Drums in the Night with his Glendon theatre students a few years ago. “These powerful plays stick with you and I wished to have another go.” That opportunity came when the Sabac Theatre invited him to direct a show in the summer of 2010.

Brecht often inserts music and cabaret into his plays to distract the audience, prevent a purely emotional response and compel them to see the larger sociological perspective, says Lukac.

Most productions of Drums insert cabaret songs for which Brecht wrote the lyrics, but Lukac decided to insert original cabaret music of 1920s that might have influenced the Berlin playwright. So Lukac’s adaptation includes miniature cabaret skits in four different styles – vaudeville, futuristic, surrealist and political. The production was visually stunning, with costumes by Dragica Pavlovic and set by Marija Kalabic.

Back in Canada, Lukac is currently directing and promoting a play inspired by the Occupy movement. His student Dan Pelletier has adapted Marat/Sade by Peter Weiss to create Move.(me).ant.: The Marat/Sade Occupied. To run nightly from Feb. 28 through March 3 at Glendon College, this play will be streamed live on the Internet for all to see. And – a very big and – viewers will be invited to send in comments on Twitter and Facebook that will be projected onto the tent city on stage during the Theatre director Aleksandar Lukacperformance, a feat made possible by Glendon Theatre’s technical director Duncan Appleton.

Theatre director Aleksandar Lukac

“This hasn’t been done before that I know of,” says Lukac. He’s notified Toronto theatre companies about it so they can witness what happens. The tweets and Facebook messages will be coming in raw, uncensored and the students/actors will be answering them from stage. “It will be a distraction or a help. Once we open the gate anything can pass through. It will show who’s watching, anyway.”

In April, Lukac returns to his native Serbia to direct his adaptation of Martin Crimp’s The Treatment, another play workshopped with his Glendon students.

Lukac has directed over 50 professional productions in Canada as well as productions in Serbia since 1992, when he left the former Yugoslavia and joined York’s contract faculty.

By Martha Tancock, YFile contributing writer