When the performance of Treating the Soul In Vivo drew to an end at the Teatrium, the summer stage at the Mansion of Miša Anastasijević, the applause lasted the longest time. Actress Hana Anđeli Jovčić performed a monodrama that she had authored herself. Nada Ljubić, the heroine of this play, was not shown to the audience – we learn facts about her from several psychotherapists, played by Hana Anđeli Jovčić. Nada is also an actress, is fighting depression, has emotional issues, finds it difficult to communicate, cannot work, and cannot fit in with the capitalist society…
In a Kurir exclusive, Hana talks about the show and the questions raised after the performance, her return to stage, and the TV series Lisice (The Foxes), which introduced her to the general public. She reveals what she was faced with while in the National Theatre troupe, how she "caught" depression, and how she has been fighting it for years.
You claim that all the characters and events are fictitious, but it appears that only Hana could have scanned Nada in this way and taken her through this monodrama. Why did you need to develop and perform this play?
"I felt I had the know-how and ability to write a drama on the topic and event that have captured my attention for nearly 15 years. Since I wrote it in the first place, and given that I'm an actress like my heroine Nada Ljubić, it made perfect sense to perform it too."
Psychotherapists in the play often frighten and insult Nada, toy with her feelings, and reveal their ignorance and avarice. Does this play, billed as a tragicomedy, raise the issue which we as a society should consider important – how competent psychotherapists are at understanding what people fighting depression nowadays are going through?
"Yes, it does raise that issue, but only to an extent. Above all, it raises the issue of the doctor-patient relationship at all levels. This isn't a story of competence, but of ethics and morality. The doctor-patient relationship is best described by Adler. The patient is always inferior to the doctor. Their expertise and titles make many doctors feel a bit like gods, until they themselves fall in. This play is concerned with the doctors who are unable to develop an emotional connection to the patient, or see the patient as a complete being. They are egotists more than anything else, engaging in projection. The show has only one female doctor who is avaricious, the others have a greed for other things – whatever that might be – resulting in consciously or unconsciously driving Nada Ljubić mad, discouraging her, dismantling her goals, until they put her in the social margin. It is then that, according to them, she is cured."
Your play has therapists treating an actress. Is the psychiatric approach to artists different from working with patients from other walks of life?
"There are great names of psychiatry who claim that psychiatry is pseudo-medical science, or a pseudo-science. Think about it – diagnosing without analyses of blood or hormones, without CT scanners or magnets, without any of the things that other medical science subdisciplines are concerned with… In conversations lasting no more than an hour and a half, and based on questionnaires with 20 odd questions, psychiatrists give serious diagnoses: whether something is a mood or personality disorder, whether it's a borderline personality disorder or a psychosis. Based on a questionnaire… What kind of science is that anyway? And then they enter this diagnosis into the medical chart, and other doctors just keep copying it. And so it stays for ever and ever. You saw in the show how they contradict and mock each other. The patient is a toy there, and it's only to be expected that doctors swoop at them, given how helpless and confused they are. There is no treatment without love and compassion. Like parrots, the doctors repeat the story of the importance of this thing called transfer. They got that from Freud. Well, transfer ought to be love, not a relationship between a depressed patient and a narcissistic doctor, which is most often the case. Of course, doctors have nothing but the worst things to say about the narcissistic personality disorder, but are there bigger narcissists than them? Just look at all those psychiatrists forever popping up on TV. You see a therapist – professor of this, MA of that, titles trailing behind his name – all spruced up, nice hair, a goatee, speaking in measured tones, but under the table his feet are dancing a compulsive, unbridled, irrepressible tap, a veritable flamenco… They're just people with a million problems."
A female psychiatrist says to Nada: "From now on, I'll be your second mom." How do you explain that?
"Well, there's no God, or logic, or 'Honour thy father and thy mother' there, but 'Reject thy father and thy mother, and acknowledge the psychiatrist as your supreme leader.' Divide and conquer. That's what it's about. Let me just go back to your question about how to treat artists. Psychiatrists know very little about the creative process, least of all acting. The first thing I learned from my acting teachers is that the actor and his body are at once an instrument and a performer, and that each emotion of the character you're portraying must go through the actor's metabolism. Those are very complex things. That's why actors are fragile and vulnerable: they're emotional, with their nervous systems always 'half-open' in order to be flexible and able to respond urgently to a request made by the director, bringing to life the sort of character they portray. The experts treating Nada were so arrogant in their ignorance and full of stereotypes. It'd be interesting to see how in the near future 'experts' from Megatrend and Singidunum will treat Nada, given how she's fared with the professors and other 'medical elite' types. There are vocal opinions out there that artists don't need to get treatment because 'treatments' destroy their gift. And what is an artist without her gift?"
One of your heroes, a psychotherapist, talks to his patient Nada about suicide. Is addressing her cruelly part of the therapy, or is it incompetence?
"That sentence from the play, when the female psychiatrist says to Nada that her mother wants her to commit suicide, has been said in therapy and is true. Why the therapist has the need and the brazenness to speak to the patient in this way can perhaps be found in Hannah Arendt's 'On the Banality of Evil'. "
Let's talk a bit about your career. While you were still at the Drama School, you were considered to have a great talent and much promise. Your exit exam submission, which you performed on the Mata Milošević Stage of the Drama School, is still remembered, and when you did Beckett's Footfalls¸ you got a 12-minute applause. You started performing at all the theatres straightaway, getting big roles. You got extraordinary reviews, and were featured in the TV series The Foxes, where you shone in the role of Mima, one of the protagonists. That made you very popular, but you stopped acting. It was as if you had vanished into thin air. What happened, why did it all stop?
"In the year when I was making The Foxes, I had three premieres at three Belgrade theatres. I played Portia in The Merchant of Venice, Hermione in Corneille's Andromaque, and Nadia in Ravenhill's Some Explicit Polaroids at the National Theatre, at which I was a permanent member of the troupe since 2001. It was a very exhausting season. I also got an offer to make The Foxes at the season's end, with 18 episodes running until the end of October. I was at the end of my tether. I had a chat with my mother, who knows what it means to have three big premieres in a single season. I said that I couldn't endure working throughout the summer without a break, and that I had to decline the offer. She just looked at me and said, 'Who's gonna call you afterwards? Directors are vain, and don't forgive being said no to.' I'd experienced that myself. I had to decline The Three Musketeers, Zucco, Lutka sa Naslovne Strane (A Front-Page Doll), and the film Točkovi (The Wheels) due to a busy schedule. When I run into these directors now, they barely say hello. So I accepted. In order to get a little bit of rest, I spent five days in Tivat and got a heat stroke. I came back and started the shoot. I'd get up at dawn and go swimming to be able to get through the day. It was very difficult. I couldn't sleep with the fatigue. By October, I was completely exhausted. Physically, emotionally, nerves-wise. I was suffering from burnout. I continued playing four huge roles in such a condition throughout the season."
Wouldn't it have made sense to go on sick leave?
"No, you don't do that. Actors go on sick leave when they are literally unable to stand on the stage. Our job is the collective 'show must go on' type thing! It's true – so many people are involved in the process, and I was in four plays. At the end of the season, Gorčin Stojanović – the director of The Foxes and a buddy, colleague, friend of mine – called me up and offered a role in a modern play titled Intimus, set in an elite restaurant restroom, to be performed on the National Theatre's V Floor stage. I accepted out of trust, memorized the text in advance although that was a bit unusual, just to make it easier for myself and to make sure I felt more secure, as I was tired. The rehearsals were going as planned. And then, one morning, just before a rehearsal, my phone rang. It was Gorčin. He told me this, word for word: 'Look, Đ.'s been complaining that you don't look at him when he's acting and that you're absent-minded when you're not delivering your lines. It bothers and worries him. He's afraid that he won't have time to develop the role by the opening night, and it's his first role as a member of the troupe. So, I decided to oblige him and have you replaced.' The shock! I couldn't believe it. I'm a theatre brat myself, and I'd been listening to all kinds of stories about what went on behind the curtain, but this was way worse than any story I'd heard. He was throwing me out of the project because I hadn't been looking intently at my partner as he rehearsed! To have the director do such a thing after the result that I achieved in The Foxes ! If only the telephone conversation had stayed between the two of us, that would've made things a lot easier."
What happened instead?
"He spread stories around the theatre, saying that he had to remove Hana from the project 'because she wasn't well mentally.' That's when Gorčin put a target on my back, and whoever wanted to, could shoot at it. And there were many who did want to and did shoot. Whenever any of the junior directors, as yet unversed in slander, mentioned that they wanted me on a cast, a female colleague would quickly cut in, explaining that 'Hana is very ill.'
"The play Koštana was being produced at the high point of this whole persecution campaign, and an actress was brought in – a freelancer – to sing Koštana's part. She was an alto, and the entire score was modified. I'm a musician and a soprano. I had seven leading roles under my belt, I know the musical style and the mentality – my father was originally from Vranje. I made a formal request for an alternation, in writing, which is a usual, previously utilized, and lawful procedure. I said that I accepted a smaller number of rehearsals in order not to disrupt the process. I was crudely rejected en passant, in the hallway.
"And the third cherry on top was what Jagoš Marković did at a rehearsal of Pokondirena Tikva (An Upstart Dolt), in which I played the character of Evica."
'My mother is the most important person in my life'
You have dedicated the play to your father, who had long since passed away, and your mother Sonja Jauković, who was in the audience. How important is the help and support of your mother to you, seeing as she is also an actress?
"We help each other equally. She always says that I helped her a lot when I was little, and that I have become exhausted. My mom lost her mother early on. She played difficult parts, there was a war, the inflation, and we were alone… Now we have different views on many different things, and keep having a point a prove to each other – we are 30 years apart after all – but she's the most important person in my life, and I in hers."
What happened there?
"Back in the 1980s, my mother, who was already the prima donna of the National Theatre Drama Stage, was also the Chair of the Art Board for a single term. She was watching the exit exam production of a young student of theatre direction. She liked it, and suggested to the Art Board and the Director, Velimir Lukić, that they give the young and anonymous Jagoš a chance. They did – he directed The Learned Ladies by Molière, starring Olivera Marković, Svetlana Bojković, and Olga Odanović. That was Jagoš's start. The grand stage of the National Theatre, no less, thanks to my mom. Many years later, there I was, cast for the role of Evica in The Upstart Dolt and preparing it. I had played Evica before – also on the grand stage, under the direction of Egon Savin. The actress who appeared in the premiere went on a pregnancy leave and I was given the role. I played it for years, until it was removed from the repertoire. It was unnecessary for me to play it twice. I accepted Jagoš's offer believing that we would have a nice collaboration, not solely because I was on the payroll and it was my duty to work. At a rehearsal, I glanced at my cell phone – glanced, I didn't use it – because my mother was ill and alone at home, having had her brother buried two days before. Jagoš noticed me looking down and yelled out, "Get outta here, you piece of trash." I got up and slowly left the rehearsal room, and my colleagues never said a word. None of them reacted, protested, or reported such an incident to the authorities. On the contrary, Jagoš requested from the management that I apologize to him, and the management backed him up."
This was obviously a huge blow and a disappointment to you. Wasn't he the man who was indebted to you in a way?
"I cried for a long time, gulping back my tears. There were many more humiliations that I don't want to dwell on here, but the least I expected from Jagoš was an apology. Time wore on, I was getting sadder and sadder, and eventually I became ill. I got depressed. For years I'd been slandered, mobbed, stigmatized, and humiliated at the National Theatre. By some colleagues, directors, previous management teams… I was treated like an insignificant actress and a person of ill repute. I appeared in my roles – The Judge, The Upstart Dolt, and Iphigenia – until the productions were removed from the repertoire. I was medicated in all the National Theatre's guest appearances and never took a day of sick leave. They still treated me like I was a malingerer."
But the play Treating the Soul in Vivo shows that you have the strength and ability to keep the audience on the edge of their seats for nearly an hour and a half. You never once lost your focus playing five different characters. Monodrama is considered the most difficult form of acting expression, and you were in control of the stage.
"That came as no surprise to those who had seen me in roles from 15 years ago. But it is a surprise to the young people in the audience and those who don't know me. Perhaps it's my show that is the most surprising to those who have written me off because of my illness, or contributed to it. They won't be glad."
Where will the audience be able to see Treating the Soul in Vivo again?
"The director of the National Theatre, Ivana Vujić, told me that Treating the Soul in Vivo would be put into the repertoire of the Raša Plaović Stage from this fall."
Lastly, your message for all those fighting depression…?
"I wouldn't want to send out a message to anyone, or pretend to be a life coach… All I know is that depression is a severe condition, that less severe forms are treated successfully, but not clinical depression. I know that love will save you, but that few of us have it. I also know that every day of your life without the thought of death is a gain."
Music as important as acting
' I play Tchaikovsky and Beethoven'
Music was your love as much as acting. What music is part of your life now, what do you play?
"In the theatre production, you can hear The Violin Sonata by César Franck, which my father loved. I play concerts by
Tchaikovsky and Beethoven for myself. I've practiced quite a bit for it. [laughs]"