THEATRE / Pinning down a moving target: 'We are cold, hungry, filthy. To present a play about us is shameful.' Should Sarajevo, a tragedy, be staged, asks Michael Kustow

In a square behind Antwerp's Burla Theatre last Saturday there was a small torch-lit demonstration. On a video screen, a cellist looking like Alan Rickman played a Bach solo partita in a wrecked room. But it wasn't the distressed apartment of Truly Madly Deeply, it was a shellshattered house in Sarajevo with rain falling on the instrument. Then came the face of Zdravko Grebo, a law professor and a leading Bosnian peace activist. 'We are cold, hungry, filthy, and Europe tolerates it. It's a cosmic scandal. To present a play about us at a cultural festival is shameful.'

'It's impossible - that's why it should be done,' replies Goran Stefanovski, the author of Sarajevo, which opened in Antwerp that night, and will come to London in July as part of a European tour. 'We can't make anyone less cold, less hungry,' adds Dragan Klaic, the originator of Sarajevo, 'but we can use theatre to keep the issue alive, to sustain emotional involvement.'

In the freshly restored gilt and gingerbread Burla Theatre, the jewel in Antwerp's crown as she becomes cultural capital of Europe 1993, nine performers present a 100-minute hybrid of cabaret, folk-theatre, dance drama, Greek chorus and music-hall. It is an invocation of the soul of Sarajevo in what the central character calls 'a Europe of lonely, uneasy, small, tyrannical, post-historic going on prehistoric city states'.

A girl, Sara, arrives in Sarajevo in search of the secret of cities where different peoples live together harmoniously - as Sarajevo's Muslims and Jews, orthodox and Protestant Christians succeeded in doing for centuries. In a series of encounters, sometimes hyper-realist, sometimes surreal, she meets figures of the city's past and present - clowns, heroes, goddesses, black marketeers, authors, athletes, assassins. At the end, it turns out that the whole action may have taken place in her mind as she lies on the threshold of death in a Sarajevo cellar.

The acrobatic production, underscored with haunting songs and music by Nils Personne, was not yet at home, either in the imposing theatre, or in the English language in which it is for the most part performed. But it is unsentimental, pitiless and, in its understated condemnation of Europe's betrayal of Sarajevo, devastating. It is already a theatrical and civic milestone, created in the harshest conditions.

Last spring the Serbian theatre critic Dragan Klaic fled Belgrade for Amsterdam. In the summer, Haris Pasovic, a leading theatre director from Sarajevo, devastated by the siege of his city which had separated him from his loved ones, came to stay with Klaic. They decided to try to use theatre to understand what was going on in Sarajevo. They wanted to go beyond daily news imagery on television. For Pasovic, it is a story whose meaning is not confined to former Yugoslavia.

'What is happening now in Sarajevo is a warning,' he says. 'All European cities have their problems. Hamburg, Stockholm, Lyon, even Antwerp. This production is about what could happen in all these cities - and I am not talking about war, but about how vital it is for people of every race and creed to learn to live with each other, as they did for so long in my city.'

In December, he wrote to the Antwerp organisers from Lubljana: 'I am going to Sarajevo. As myself, as a theatre director, as the brother of a wonderful girl who's got the birthday soon. As all my persons, all in one.' He managed to get a ride into the city on a U N vehicle at Christmas. Now he is stuck there, and the show is being directed by Slobodan Unkovski, a Macedonian, like Sarajevo's playwright Goran Stefanovski.

Stefanovski lives as an expatriate in Canterbury, with his English wife. They met in Skopje, where she was working for the British Council and where they lived for 18 years. Last year, fearing a Serbian invasion, they left.

'Haris Pasovic rang me up and invited me to write texts for a show about Sarajevo,' he says. 'It felt impossible - the way writing poetry after Auschwitz is impossible, according to Adorno. How dare a playwright touch an open wound? How can you shoot at a moving target? But I've had 10 plays done in Sarajevo, and my mother grew up singing their songs. The play is meant to be a candle of hope for the soul of the city of Sarajevo.'

The script was written and the production rehearsed in Stockholm, with financial support from the Swedish Institute and Council for Cultural Affairs. Producer Chris Torch is a Stockholm-based American, a former actor with the fabled Living Theatre, which pioneered cross-cultural nomadic theatre in the Sixties. Antwerp 93 and the Hamburg Summer Theatre Festival have co-produced it. Sarajevo is a quintessential expression of the new Europe, beyond nation states.

It is also a theatrical caravan of displaced persons. Dragan Klaic, former Professor of Theatre Studies at Belgrade, and now Director of the Nederlands Theatre Institute (imagine us inviting a Serb to run our Theatre Museum), speaks feelingly of both the theatrical and the civic meaning of the whole enterprise.

'Sarajevo is a celebration,' he says, 'of the spirit of the city itself, this great civilisational experiment in urban living that every day tests the limits of individual and collective identity, of cohabitation and acceptance of other, different people. For cities everywhere are great human systems based on the critical mass of enriching difference.'

The actors embody this difference and cohabitation. One actor from Sarajevo walked 50 kilometre through the snow to get out of the besieged city and reach Stockholm, where his mother was dying of cancer. Hearing that a Sarajevo show was being rehearsed, he walked in and joined the troupe. Three actors come from Slovenia's leading theatre company. The protagonist is played by a Bosnian-born Swedish actress whose parents came to Stockholm as guest-workers. Three Swedes and one Catalan make up the cast.

This summer they tour the show through Europe, triggering debates and action about former Yugoslavia. As Haris Pasovic says: 'This show will move on the discussion about theatre and reality.' They aim to get the show into the city after which it is named. What would it take to do so? 'Quite simple,' says Klaic. 'You need to control the airport and move the Serbian troops in the hills 20 km back. They managed it when Mitterrand went there.'

Meanwhile, Sarajevo has given Antwerp 93's launch a shot of adrenalin. The opening weekend in the resplendent city featured a gala, street parades, new music in the central railway station, fireworks - which made the Sarajevans, attuned to artillery explosions, flinch slightly. My taxi-driver, taking me to the hotel through the Jewish quarter, pointed at the fur-hatted and bearded Jews coming out of synagogue and muttered: 'They have lots of money. They look after their own.' Multi-culturalism and tolerance, the sub-text of Sarajevo, still have some way to go in our Europe.

(Photograph omitted)

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