As Vesna Tominac Matačić walks on to the stage at the Pleasance Zoo, she shoots the audience a single, inquisitorial look. Are any of us likely to understand Croatian? Perhaps, if she satisfies herself that we are not, she will perform “I, Who Have Hands More Innocent” as an hour of half-nonsensical abuse. Perhaps she will cheerfully insult each audience member in turn, whilst being careful to stay ostensibly synchronised with the subtitles overhead which are narrating the story of the otherwise blameless Croatian poet Vesna Parun (1922-2010). When she registers me, though, Matačić hesitates and then, after a moment of mental exasperation, she decides to stick to the script for tonight. With my sallow complexion and undisguised tipsiness, I cannot be dismissed as un-Croatian.
This opening salvo will not set the tone for the rest of my review – it is provided more to indicate how tricky it is to come to a balanced conclusion about Matačić’s performance. “I, Who Have Hands More Innocent” transforms the suspension of disbelief into a complicated obstacle course.
I can imagine taking a friend to see this show, a visitor from the colourless world outside of the Fringe, in the hope that it will give a good account of Fringe theatre. I will become horribly embarrassed; my stereotypical friend will find his experience of this play to be stereotypically comic. A lady in a white robe flings herself about the stage, frolics with an umbrella, and prostrates herself over bin bags which are filled with crumpled papers. If Yoko Ono irritates my friend, and she probably would do, then he will be certainly irritated by this. To rub more salt in, Matačić will address the audience only in Croatian, whilst lines of modernist poetry are fired rapidly overhead. My friend will in fact miss half of this show because he is detained in its script. The play is a single recital, not even a monologue really because it is mostly a sequence of poetical declarations. The story, when you are allowed to become conscious of it, is as wishy-washy as a fairytale.
I have to tell you all of this because the commonsensical zone of my mind, which knows how to tie a tie and dispose of the tiny, broken bodies of trapped rodents, reacted with the same indignation. Of course, I have to report everything. In truth, however, the serious part of me did not hear a peep out of my disbelief. It was soon suspended because Parun’s poetry – and this is the crucial thing – works. Even though there is nothing prosaic, or at least everyday, to her poems, they have a swagger and an urgency to them. “Love!” she declares “without fanaticism is naught but a kitchen rag.” Peace, she declares, is a false word in an empty brain, which flatters itself to be better than rage. Culture is struggle! Yes, I had decided very early on, this play is worth exploring – Parun is worth getting to know.
One who takes too long to engage with the play might miss the opportunity to get to know her. There is no recent translation of Parun’s poetry and no edition which is in print today. I can only find a copy of the title poem here and so here are few tantalising lines:
If your embrace gives courage to the heart
and your thighs detain the pain,
if your name gives rest to his thoughts, and your neck
means the shade to his resting place,
and if the night of your voice is a grove
still untouched by storms.
Then stay by him…