All images by Mara Bratoš
We are Kings,
Director and Choreographer: Matija Ferlin
Dramaturg: Jasna Žmak, Goran Ferčec
Stage Designer: Mauricio Ferlin
Costume Designer: Desanka Janković, Matija Ferlin
Music: Nenad Sinkauz, Alen Sinkauz
Lighting Designer: Saša Fistrić
Stage Manager: Suzana Bogdan Pavek
Co-producer: Kunstenfestivaldesarts, Matija Ferlin
Photography: Mara Bratoš
Croatian National Theatre, Zagreb
What I Saw
In the main theater of the Csiky Gergely, the audience sat to look upon what appeared to be a near-empty temple space—what seemed to be tan marbled walls of epic proportion created a space that was both deep and tall. However what I thought was a marbling pattern was actually giant birds, indicating that what we were looking at was something like wallpaper magnified. Almost all the way downstage were empty benches.
When the show began, figures, each draped from head to toe in one bright blue cloth, slowly made their way to the benches, entering from several doors around the walls (some doors seemingly appearing from nowhere). They all found a place to sit on a bench, and then proceeded to sing, under their covering, a song I will call “Do you know how the world was created?”
In a moment of high effects, all the figures disappeared, and over the course of the next few minutes, the six actors—three men and three women—re-entered in clothes that appeared to be adult—a casual suit, a blouse and skirt, etc, and in turn declared different stories of how the world was created, ranging from silly to familiar. A table and chairs appeared, which began to be used by the actors but not in any familiar ways.
Because I hadn’t read much about the show beforehand and because it was in Croatian so I was reading in supertitles, at some point I realized that either the translation was terrible or the text they were speaking was strange—the grammar was often incorrect or the words didn’t make sense—but what I soon realized was that what we were listening to were the words of children performed by adults.
Part of the reason I realized this was because of the evolving choreography of the six actors which was just off-center of “real” dancing, and usually had nothing to do with what was being said, not even in a metaphorical sense; it was more like a series of physical etudes and children’s movement games overlaid with dialogue. At one point I felt like I was watching a David Lynch movie. And suddenly I realized what I was watching was the serious physical language of adults, as interpreted through children (very seriously), played by adult bodies. Suddenly, the space was a room, from the dimensions of a view of a small child, the walls were the wallpaper of nursery, with actors not playing AT being children, but embodying children playing at being adults.
The narrative of the text moved seemingly through the course of the world and human life through the lens of interviews with children: the beginning of the world, creating of society/crowning themselves kings, the movement of time, love, sex and babies, the difference between men and women, marriage, death, and the end of the world. Each section was punctuated and interspersed with more choreographed dances that still remained in the strange physical language of children—how a child might dance out love or sexiness.
Eventually, the actors returned to being the blue figures from the beginning, resetting the space, but then they were suddenly their child character again, and while painting each other’s faces, returned to the bench where they sat at the beginning.
All the design elements were simple but sharp (much like the show itself): muted, earthy colors punctuated by occasional brightness, and one element I didn’t understand until the talkback: behind the door that sat directly upstage center (it was often left open) were papers with the many of the quotes from the show, pulled directly from the interviews with children that inspired the show.
Matija Ferlin was born in Pula in 1982. He obtained a degree at School for New Dance Development in Amsterdam. He lived and worked in Berlin and Toronto. Upon returning to Pula, he focused on the research and re-articulation of various concepts of stage performances and other media – short film, video and exhibitions. Since 2010, he has lived in San Vincenti. He has performed all over Europe and America, at festivals in Vienna, Brussels, Lyon, Marseille, Oslo, Prague, Ljubljana, New York, Toronto, Montreal, Zagreb, and elsewhere. His works are: Sad Sam Revisited (2004/06), Sad Sam Almost (2009), The Most Together We’ve Ever Been (in cooperation with Ame Henderson, 2009), Onformance (2010), Lonely Women (2011), Sad Sam Lucky (2012), The Other at the Same Time (2012), Students of Harmony (2014).
Reflections by Susan
Directed by theater and dance artist Matija Ferlin, with a text curated from hundreds of interviews with children, it became clear through the performance and talkback that the goal of the performance was not only to the explore the verbal language of humans but also our physical language, which is something I as a theater maker am very interested in currently, especially the physical representation of words themselves.
But outside my own deep interest in the subject matter being played out from a perspective I hadn’t seen before (which is always refreshing), We Are Kings, Not Humans was one of the shows of the festival that seemed to appeal to almost every audience member on a deep, physical, and intellectual level.
Through the juxtaposition of Ferlin’s unfamiliar, awkward-graceful, almost alien choreography and text (which he devised with the beautiful cast), curated to a narrative journey that both illuminated the wisdom of children and highlighted the hilarity of their often blunt and declarative way of speaking, this piece illustrated in multiple spoken and unspoken layers the complexity of being a human.
While not politically inflammatory or revolutionary, We Are Kings provided different vantage points with perhaps longer-term revolutionary questions: how do we equate our bodies with our words? Could it be that our rigidly regulated physical movement as adults contributes to global conflict? In the talkback, Ferlin stated because the text came from children, that they weren’t working with prose but with poetry, and his piece seems to suggest that in order to begin to understand where we go wrong as adults, we must return to the state of being in which both speech and movement are based in poetry rather than in rhetoric (an idea often explored by experimental artists, like in Audre Lorde’s poem “Power”).
We Are Kings, Not Humans manages to be both beautifully gentle and razor sharp at the same time, and its actors, pulled into an intimate ensemble under Ferlin’s direction, clearly had a deep emotional investment in their content and each other. While this show may be difficult to tour overseas, those venues with the budget to do so should, and those who couldn’t bring the whole show should keep an eye on Ferlin—he seems to be an anomaly in a theater culture mostly known for dictatorial male directors: now in his early thirties, he is hopefully a harbinger of a new generation of male directors more interested in collaboration than control.