Life, etc

Theatre review: Cheers to Sarajevo

Writer Lidija Marelic has a fascination with the effects of war on individual lives in times and countries far away. By LESLEY STONES.

Last month Lidija Marelic’s play Waiting For Jack took us to Paris in 1939 where a French hooker and a starchy British soldier fell in love. Now we’re deep in the Bosnian war zone in Cheers to Sarajevo, as Yugoslavia erupts in ethnic civil war in 1991.

Both plays feature the same core acting duo of Aimee Goldsmith and Duane Behrens, now playing the Bosnian woman Mirela and her Serbian boyfriend Aleksander. Goldsmith co-wrote the play with Marelic, who directed it too. And like Waiting for Jack, handing over to an impartial director could have added some tautness to the show.

That’s not to say it’s slack, by any means. It keeps the audience on edge and develops into a gruelling and sometimes uncomfortable watch as bombs boom, bullets whizz, soldiers are heard marching and eventually, soldiers barge in and brutalise their victims.

The main fault is that Cheers to Sarajevo feels like a play that wants to say a lot but doesn’t know how to say it. The characters talk of rape camps and endless murders, of snipers and each side committing atrocities against the other. Aleksander argues that the horrors being perpetrated again his people by the Bosnians are being overlooked, yet the play is presented from the Bosnian woman’s viewpoint, so the Serbs are the aggressors. Then there’s the cross-cultural love interest, and a rival love interest as a South African photojournalist falls for Mirela too.

The play tries to pack too much into the story, while also working hard to impress you with its credentials and authenticity. It’s heavy with symbolism, although sometimes I wasn’t sure what was being symbolised, or why the characters were doing what they did.

Solid research saw the script shaped by input from people from the former Yugoslavia and a member of the United Nations Protection Force. Their insight has influenced the personalities, actions and reactions of the characters, and perhaps created too many stories to tell them all effectively.

The local music plays often, adding to the air of authenticity, and Serbian conversation works well as a scene-setter because menace is menacing in any language. But Yiorgo Sotoropolis as the general speaks Serbian for an entire brutal scene, and if anything important was being said, we missed it.

The stage set of a bombed-out street is well designed by Kayli Elit Smith, with shattered arches and steps leading into the rubble. That’s where we first meet Peter (Chris van Rensburg) a young South African wannabe photojournalist, suddenly too scared to take his photos. That’s understandable, but he’s an unconvincing character, even though as the only South African in a play written by South Africans, he should have felt the most rounded. Perhaps so much work went into crafting the foreign roles to ensure they were authentic that the personality of the local bru was taken for granted.

Mirela’s character is constantly combative, never toning it down a notch. In a war zone where your home may be raided at any minute that’s probably a natural trait, rather than a lack of light and shade in the writing, and Goldsmith delivers her character with edgy vigour.

Cheers to Sarajevo is well acted by all the cast, and carefully compiled to present an accurate picture of atrocities that deserve remembering. But local audiences facing battles of their own may not spare much thought to events of the past in a distant country. DM

Cheers to Sarajevo runs at Sandton’s Auto & General Theatre on the Square until October
8. Tickets from 011 883 8606 or www.ticketpro.com

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