THE BACKSTORY OF WAR IN TIMES OF LOVE
Between 2003 and 2007, I suffered from “writer’s block.” I couldn’t write anything serious, and I wasn’t even trying. A few of the plays I'd written had been performed, and people had come to see them, and they'd even won prizes, but I didn't think of myself as a great success. Then, in 2006, I met the Canadian director Michael Devine, and we discussed a theater project that he wanted to do in Prishtina. We agreed that we would write a “diptych” play, in which I’d write one part, and he would write the other. I wrote Aeneas Wounded which was performed on stage as part of a double-bill called Aeneas 06.
Writing Aeneas Wounded was absolute torture. It was a battle with my internal demons who were blocking every act of creativity. But, in the end, I defeated the demons. And I think a careful reading of the play reveals my internal struggle and the effort it took to come to grips with the process of writing. Slavoj Zizek says “Creativity is something that does not make you happy. It is something very traumatic and painful.” And truly, that 5-year period in which I tried to write, and then the writing of the play Aeneas was . . . very painful. It also made me fear that, one day, I might again lose the skill and the capacity to write. And since then, this trauma has triggered a self-defense mechanism – I write constantly now, and in a sense, writing has become a healing process for me, a therapy that keeps the trauma under control.
In 2007, I started another play, this time for the English director Luke Dixon. It would be a collaboration between the nomad theatre company in London and Qendra Multimedia in Prishtina. When we conceptualized the project, we planned to work with four actresses, two from Kosovo and two from England. And before the play began to be written, we had already settled on the title, War in Times of Love. I’m not quite sure how it came to us, but it is of course an oxymoron based on the Marquez novel, Love in the Time of Cholera.
Luke and I had agreed that this didn’t need to be another play about the war, which was what a foreign audience of that time might have expected from a project that included actors from Kosovo. But I have to say that avoiding the “topic of war” when writing the play was a strange experience, a bit like the play’s Snake character, who is forced to live a double life as both man and snake. My effort to keep the war at a distance was like an effort to escape from my own “skin.” This is because the war was ever- present. For me, it was a recent experience, and it was the subject of all the stories told by the actresses with whom we were working, and the topic of almost every conversation we had during rehearsals in that post-war period. Nonetheless, even though the war was not apparent in the play, it did remain a distant echo of another world, one which exerts pressure on the characters’ lives – especially that of the Old Woman.
I attended rehearsals every day, during which the four actresses engaged in discussions, storytelling, drama exercises, and the daily “ritual” of drinking black tea, which in Kosovo – I have no idea why – we call “Russian tea.”
And I wrote something every day: fragments, the anecdotes of the four actors (their own personal stories or those they’d overheard), or whatever came to the surface throughout that creative process. The four characters in the play slowly began to disclose intimate things as well, their passions, shames, secrets, wishes, stereotypes, and sentimental clichés, gossip among women, and tales: about love, fear, revenge, the sad past and present, and the daily routine . . .
An imaginary “beauty salon” was transformed into a shelter that enabled these women to survive. And they were surviving – somewhere between reality and fiction.
And, I remember how fascinating it was for the actresses, when after a few days, they were confronted with the scenes that I had drawn from their storytelling. But, when we finished the first set of rehearsals in Prishtina and were getting ready to travel to London to continue, we had a problem with visas. The British Embassy rejected the visa application for the two Kosovar actresses. And this complicated our project. We wrote a short letter which we shared with our circle of friends (and which they, in turn, shared with their friends), asking them to advocate with the embassy officials to review this decision. Caryl Churchill, the well-known English playwright, and Harriet Walter, the well-known English actress, were among those who called and wrote to the embassy to express their frustration. I’d like to share an extract of the letter that Harriet Walter wrote as it illustrates the solidarity that artists often demonstrate, even when they don’t know one another personally.
“I understand from Jeton Neziraj […] that a friendly and creative cultural exchange between Kosovan and UK actors has been cut down at a vital stage of its development because two important Kosovan actresses have been refused visas to take part in a presentation of their work in London. […] Without going into details of your reasons for this refusal, surely you can see that no harm and only good can come of cultural exchange in the field of theatre. This is an art form of civilized discussion and human contact. Complex issues can be acted out, demonstrated, and reasoned out in an atmosphere of celebration and trust. This can only help both nations. [...] I hope you will re-consider the visa applications of these well-respected actresses, and that people like myself will be able to celebrate the high standard of work they can contribute on a British stage.” Harriet Walter CBE
We were amazed when, after the dozens of emails and letters sent to the Embassy, the decision was reviewed and the two actresses were invited to reapply for their visas. I’m sure that all the letters affected the embassy’s change of heart, but there’s no doubt that the intervention from Caryl Churchill and Harriet Walter, two artistic authorities, was pivotal.
War in Times of Love was the first play which brought me a little international attention. It was translated into multiple languages, and performed on many stages, and as a result, it opened countless doors to me as a young author from Kosovo. It remains for me a much-loved play, because it is very different in style and sensibility from nearly everything else I've written.
Finally, in this short note for the American publication, I’d like to thank its first director, Luke Dixon, and the actresses Chloe Gillgallon, Debbie Yearsley, Anisa Ismaili and Arta Selimi. I’d also like to thank Jonathan Chadwick, Fadil Bajraj, Harriet Walter, and Caryl Churchill.
I dedicate this publication to Bekim Lumi, the Kosovar director who has just sadly died, who wanted to put this play on in Kosovo.
~ Jeton Neziraj
Translated by Alexandra Channer