2023/2024 — Season 68
Elfriede Jelinek

Women as Lovers

Directed by: Nina Ramšak Marković
Adaptation by Milan Ramšak Marković based on translation by Slavo Šerc
Première: 11. 2. 2023
Wednesday / 12 Jun / 20:30 / SNT Maribor
  • Dramaturgy: Milan Ramšak Marković
  • Set design: Igor Vasiljev
  • Costume design: Maja Mirković
  • Music and sound: Drago Ivanuša
  • Language consultant: Mateja Dermelj
  • Lighting design: Andrej Hajdinjak
  • Make-up artist: Nathalie Horvat
  • Dramaturgy assistant (internship): Ula Talija Pollak
  • Stage manager: Jera Topolovec/Urša Červ

Women as Lovers, a novel by the Austrian Nobel Prize winner Elfriede Jelinek focuses on two young women, Paula and Brigitte. Both dream of improving their social position, both only see the path to this improvement in loving a man. When it comes to the content, the author references "women’s novels", but she confronts the societal norms throughout, and creates, in language and in the narrative style filled with witty irony, a deliberate distance.

Nina Ramšak Marković and her collaborators focus on the idea of romantic love as one of the key conditions for the reproduction of the world in which we live. And on violence – the physical, intimate violence, but also the structural, societal one – which does not reveal itself as something we could eliminate as a mistake in an ideal bourgeois society, but as the essential other side of romantic love. As an omnipresent trait of our bourgeois society, as its shadow.

In the media

There are parts in the show, where women (with the emphasis on Paula and Brigitte) are objectified, neglected, ignored, harassed, beaten and raped – and it is shown to us without any pity or excessive pathos – thus creating some distance from Jelinek’s work. There is no talking about it with friends or families, and even if there is, the victim is not offered any compassion. The production stayed true to the original text in this respect and in the way it shows the effects of violence – there is no compassion, no pity, no blame. The narrators do not particularly comment on these parts – everything else becomes redundant in the moment. These moments are the show’s strongest, pointing to a truth of the last century that is still true today. The victims acts as if the violence does not affect them, as if they are okay and living a good enough life, maybe not the one they wanted, but at least they are surviving. The relatively naturalistic acting of the whole ensemble is remarkable, (especially considering the intensity of the abuse on display). There is a sense of distance and no overacting in these intense scenes. The characters are not really developed, but they recreate real life incredibly well, with help from the atmospheric sound design.

The transfer of this distance, which is not inherent to the text itself, is manifested in the mode of acting or the narrative format directed by Nina Ramšak Marković. All performers have, in addition to their own main or side roles, a narrating function, which follows the narrative of the novel as a connective tissue. The actors interrupt the narration with dramatic scenes, but it is quite clear when the narration follows Jelinek's written words and when it is the dramatisation or adaptation (Milan Ramšak Marković). Even though the dramatic characters remain caricatures, the dramatic scenes function mimetically realistic, and so does the set design (Igor Vasiljev). Towards the end of the show the dramatic realistic scenes start to dominate, so the narrative distance becomes increasingly blurred. Boris Kos maintains it most convincingly and consciously, and Lara Vouk also successfully moves between empathy and the external gaze. Anja Novak, on the other hand, immerses herself excessively in the role of the victim, almost blending in with Paula's role.

Through storytelling – in which the actors and actresses are more than convincing – the production also successfully stages the signature cynicism and crude objectivity Jelinek uses to describe the lives of her protagonists. All the actors transfer these traits into their gestus as they look dead in the eyes of the spectator while telling the story and, with humorous remarks, brutally embodying the objective and impersonal narrative voice of the novel. [...] A special mention goes to Anja Novak as Paula. [...] In content and style, the production consistently follows the novel and therefore doesn’t provide us with an insight as to which one of the women is the winner and which one is the loser. The staging additionally emphasizes that we observe the lives of the women onstage with a certain degree of privilege – theatre prevents identification even more effectively than in the novel, since our role is inherently one of a voyeur.

The production Women as Lovers, based on the eponymous novel by the Austrian Nobel laureate Elfriede Jelinek, begins with a part of the cast already on the stage. A stage that with its used rustic furniture gathered from all over, a photo of a haystack and mountains as a wall mural and a heap of hay underneath it, a mishmash of vinyl floors, and typical kitschy knick-knacks such as naive, mediocre paintings and vases with bouquets of dried flowers, indicates the tone of the play, while at the same time providing us with rough coordinates in time and space. These coordinates are important for the context of the production as a whole; they show us that the play will not take place in an urban setting and that it is set in the past. […] This setting, firmly placed several decades in the past, [establishes] a bridge with the present, that is, the research of social patterns of violence against women that are still present [… :] partner violence exists in society, women are often understood as objects without content, various forms of violence occur in families, even if a woman dreams of a future that would go beyond the patterns she sees around her and wants a reciprocal romantic relationship, the systemic circumstances will prevent her to realise these aspirations. [...] The play therefore operates heavily with stereotypes, by which we mean the stereotyping of the rural environment and its population as well as the stereotyping of relationships and gender roles. Humour has a similar function in Women as Lovers directed by Nina Ramšak Marković; dark humour accustoms the audience to laugh at something that will only later be revealed as cruel or bitter.

(Anja Radaljac, Delo, Feb. 14, 2023)

The mechanism that propels this system is imbued with all forms of violence that emerge from the monstrosities of patriarchy and capitalism, and violence is normalized to the point that neither the protagonists nor the reader of the novel or, ultimately, the spectator of the play perceive it as an anomaly to be eliminated, but rather as the deeply rooted status quo to which we are all too apathetic. Directed by Nina Ramšak Marković and with a dramaturgical stroke of the dramaturg Milan Ramšak Marković, the cast succeeds, through a precise psychological study of the characters and an intense analysis of emotion, in staging a painful impression of the everyday victims of the institute that completely perverted the idea of romantic love. Special praise should be given to the outstanding Anja Novak, who creates an impression of naturalness and relaxation with her superb, sensitive acting, thought out to the last detail, which embodies the dramatic material almost frighteningly convincingly. [...] The Mladinsko [has] once again succeeded in slapping the audience in the face and talking about human perversion openly and without embellishment. As the stage bled under the weight of the violence, the audience put on their blinders and roared incessantly in voyeuristic drunkenness. Yes, we really need a slap.

Guest performances

  • Maribor Theatre Festival, Maribor, Slovenia, June 2024
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