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)

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Dornan as Christian Grey in Fifty Shades of Grey

film Sex scene trailer sees a shirtless Jamie Dornan turn up the heat

Arts and Entertainment
Fake Banksy stencil given to artist Alex Jakob-Whitworth


Arts and Entertainment
'The Archers' has an audience of about five million
radioA growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried
Arts and Entertainment
Ready to open the Baftas, rockers Kasabian are also ‘great film fans’
musicExclusive: Rockers promise an explosive opening to the evening
Arts and Entertainment
Henry VIII played by Damien Lewis
tvReview: Scheming queens-in-waiting, tangled lines of succession and men of lowly birth rising to power – sound familiar?
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift is heading to Norwich for Radio 1's Big Weekend

Arts and Entertainment
Beer as folk: Vincent Franklin and Cyril Nri (centre) in ‘Cucumber’
tvReview: This slice of gay life in Manchester has universal appeal
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
‘A Day at the Races’ still stands up well today
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tvAnd its producers have already announced a second season...
Arts and Entertainment
Kraftwerk performing at the Neue Nationalgalerie (New National Gallery) museum in Berlin earlier this month
musicWhy a bunch of academics consider German electropoppers Kraftwerk worthy of their own symposium
Arts and Entertainment
Icelandic singer Bjork has been forced to release her album early after an online leak

Arts and Entertainment
Colin Firth as Harry Hart in Kingsman: The Secret Service

Arts and Entertainment
Brian Blessed as King Lear in the Guildford Shakespeare Company's performance of the play

Arts and Entertainment
In the picture: Anthony LaPaglia and Martin Freeman in 'The Eichmann Show'

Arts and Entertainment
Anne Kirkbride and Bill Roache as Deirdre and Ken Barlow in Coronation Street

tvThe actress has died aged 60
Arts and Entertainment
Marianne Jean-Baptiste defends Joe Miller in Broadchurch series two

Arts and Entertainment
The frill of it all: Hattie Morahan in 'The Changeling'

Arts and Entertainment
Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny may reunite for The X Files

Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Clarkson, left, and Richard Hammond upset the locals in South America
A young woman punched a police officer after attending a gig by US rapper Snoop Dogg
Arts and Entertainment
Reese Witherspoon starring in 'Wild'

It's hard not to warm to Reese Witherspoon's heroismfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Word up: Robbie Coltrane as dictionary guru Doctor Johnson in the classic sitcom Blackadder the Third

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Hacked off: Maisie Williams in ‘Cyberbully’

Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challenge

Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything and Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game are both nominated at the Bafta Film Awards
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Isis hostage crisis: The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power

    Isis hostage crisis

    The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power, says Robert Fisk
    Missing salvage expert who found $50m of sunken treasure before disappearing, tracked down at last

    The runaway buccaneers and the ship full of gold

    Salvage expert Tommy Thompson found sunken treasure worth millions. Then he vanished... until now
    Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

    Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

    Maverick artist Grayson Perry backs our campaign
    Assisted Dying Bill: I want to be able to decide about my own death - I want to have control of my life

    Assisted Dying Bill: 'I want control of my life'

    This week the Assisted Dying Bill is debated in the Lords. Virginia Ironside, who has already made plans for her own self-deliverance, argues that it's time we allowed people a humane, compassionate death
    Move over, kale - cabbage is the new rising star

    Cabbage is king again

    Sophie Morris banishes thoughts of soggy school dinners and turns over a new leaf
    11 best winter skin treats

    Give your moisturiser a helping hand: 11 best winter skin treats

    Get an extra boost of nourishment from one of these hard-working products
    Paul Scholes column: The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him

    Paul Scholes column

    The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him
    Frank Warren column: No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans

    Frank Warren's Ringside

    No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans
    Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

    Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

    The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
    Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

    Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

    Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
    Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
    Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

    Comedians share stories of depression

    The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
    Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

    Has The Archers lost the plot?

    A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
    English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

    14 office buildings added to protected lists

    Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
    Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

    Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

    Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee