Jernej Lorenci: I do not strive for illusion, but for allusion

Asen Terziev talks to Slovenian director Jernej Lorenci on the occasion of the performance “Orpheus”, which he put on the stage of the National Theatre in Sofia. The production is presented on 5 June at the Varna Drama Theatre as part of the Bulgarian selection of the festival and the Showcase programme.

Four of your performances have been shown in Bulgaria in the framework of Varna Summer International Theatre Festival and the platform “World Theatre in Sofia” and they were very well received by the theatre audience and professionals. How did the idea of staging at the National Theatre and working on the theme of Orpheus come?

The previous director of the National Theatre, Marius Donkin, invited me to work here. The idea of Orpheus was his. The second he asked me, I was sure I would do it. Immediately after the proposal, I had an inner feeling about the main theme – death…

How did you prepare for this project?

When the seed was born in me, I started to observe it. Like a stream moving inside me. Somehow I reached the possible structure and then I started looking for materials…

“Orpheus” Photo: Stephan N. Shterev

Tell us about the materials you came across that inspired you.

Rilke’s poem “Orpheus” was very important to me, as was the poem “On Music.” Also the texts of Ovid, Virgil, Apollonius of Rhodes – these were the basic literary sources. I thought that if Orpheus was travelling, I should think about different stylistic approaches. I decided that we should start with the war, because there is little known about Orpheus before Virgil, Ovid and Apollonius of Rhodes’ epic Argonautica. We also know little about sanctuaries. In two or three places in the Argonautica it is described how a battle begins, Orpheus takes out his lyre and peace ensues. I told myself that I should start directly with the war, which would last for a while, then Orpheus would appear and declare himself with a gesture. Orpheus is able to make a difference for others, he may be able to solve their problems, but he cannot do that for himself in the aftermath. He is someone who can save the world but cannot save himself, which is the big problem.

Before Orpheus, I had already done a few shows on ancient myths. With those, the most important problem for me remains how to humanize their characters, how to create a gravitational field around them. I strongly believe that behind all the great stories – about Jesus Christ, Gilgamesh, Achilles, Orpheus, etc. – there are concrete people. That was my approach to Orpheus.

At the first rehearsal, I told the cast about the death of my father and the death of my close friend who played the role of Agamemnon in The Iliad. I started with my two most powerful experiences with death. I wanted to create an intimate space. I knew I wanted to build something around high literature, but I also wanted to change the perspective, the way the story was told, the words…

Jernej Lorenci

What is the big personal theme for you related to Orpheus?

Death, which lasts a moment, but for each of us it lasts longer. How do we bring the audience closer to that experience of death on as personal a level as possible. There are three strategies. The first is fiction – like Metamorphoses, Rilke’s sonnets, etc. The second came about when I discovered medical texts my brother gave me. I didn’t know how the body dies in such detail. These descriptions not only surprised me, but I felt absolutely overwhelmed reading what would happen to my body, my child’s body, or any body… And the third strategy was everyone’s personal experience with death. I wanted to combine these three levels together. So that we would have this poetic level coming from Metamorphoses, Gorgics, and Rilke’s poetry, then we would have the objective, scientific description of death, and finally the most important level for me, the personal level.

You also staged Gluck’s opera Orfeo et Eurydice in 2014 at the Ljubljana Opera. Did you have similar feelings and associations while working on it?

Yes, I took something from that experience as well. You know, pain can be an ego trip. I think the big problem of Romanticism is the birth of the suffering subject. The more you suffer – the holier you become. To me, that’s a problem. Pain can become addictive, like heroin.  From one point on, pain can become a really destructive ego trip.

“Orpheus” Photo: Stephan N. Shterev

How did the actors’ personal stories make it to performance? Are what we hear their own words or were they rewritten by the dramaturg of the show?

These are their exact words. The dramaturg and I were just helping what to be excluded. Now what it’s all part of the show, each thing has its own clear dramaturgical logic. Ultimately, I also looked at their stories as material not dissimilar to that of Metamorphoses, which I curated in the show.

Although your performances are different, I notice three constant elements in them. Let’s start with the music. It is an important element of your performances and is always performed live. What place does music hold for you? Is it some kind of channel for sharing the more intuitive, non-rational things? How do you work with the composer?

Music is important. I neither read music nor play an instrument myself. I listen to a lot of music. Maybe for me music is the most direct path to the total work of art – Gesamtkunstwerk. For me, music enters directly into the person. I don’t just mean the heart. In the art of music there are fewer boundaries unlike other arts. You don’t need to know – music somehow enters you. For me, music is an important layer – it opens an extra space… It’s hard to explain…

“Orpheus” Photo: Stephan N. Shterev

Okay, let me ask you a direct question. Why is it so important to you that actors play instruments and sing even when they’re not particularly good musicians?

For me, theatre is an art made by a human being for a human being. I’m very lucky to work with a composer like Branko Rožman, who is also obsessed with this idea of shared human experience. It’s not about how much someone can sing or play – those are limits. What we believe in is that as much as possible should be happening on stage right in front of our eyes. The effort that an actor puts in to play a piece on, say, an accordion, creates a certain energy field and focus. It’s not about perfectionism.

In Orpheus, I really wanted the first part, “War,” to be musically perfect, lighting, etc. Whereas the next movement, “Wedding”, was to be more open, with improvisations. For me, the music is like one of the actors.


Part of an interview by Asen Terziev for the theatre magazine “Homo Ludens”, issue 26/ 2023.

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