THEATRE / Scenes of hell and damnation: Sarah Hemming reviews a dramatic attempt to come to grips with the suffering of Bosnia and an Irish odyssey of the 'devil' made flesh

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Over the past month, Lift has brought us style, skill, irreverence and spectacle but in Sarajevo (Riverside Studios) the festival has shown us something in a completely different class - a beautiful, troubled and troubling piece of theatre. How do you write a play about Sarajevo? What can a play say when the news every day brings terrible reports of the reality? How can your audience sit in comfort and watch a play about the war, while the atrocities are taking place as they watch?

Sarajevo, created by writer Goran Stefanovski and director Haris Pasovic, doesn't attempt to compete with the news, neither does it offer analysis, perspective or answers. Most surprisingly, however, it doesn't give us a grim dramatic portrait of the horror of war - the sort of harrowing production you might expect. It is certainly fuelled by grief and horror, but it is brilliantly controlled and finds a whole range of theatrical styles - many of them comic - to contain and express the sense of loss and fury. It's a haunting lament for the city but also a celebration of what the city was.

The basic idea makes it sound less sophisticated than it is. We meet a girl, Sara, wandering in an empty space, who is looking for the lost city of Sarajevo. She may or may not be wounded; by the end we guess that she is and that her wanderings and the people she meets are fantasies of her shell-shocked mind. The places and figures she encounters offer glimpses, however, of the multicultural range of people, beliefs and customs that existed in this ancient city. The dramatic form this takes is a beautifully structured, seamless collage of styles - cabaret, dance, drama, melodrama - that endlessly change the mood of the production, bewildering as a dream.

Sara meets Mujo and Suljo, proverbial Bosnian fools, who tell bitter jokes: 'Did you hear the one about the Serb, the Croat and the Muslim?' 'You mean the Muslim, the Croat and the Serb.' 'What's the difference?' 'The difference is war.' She encounters a housewife howling at her departing husband, 'I didn't know I had a nation. I married you, not your past,' then bewailing the fact that she never saw him again. She watches a young man, who tries to deliver a speech but is continually knocked down.

More effective, though, than any big statements are the telling details, which bring tears to the eyes. One neat little man recites the recipe for a good Bosnian casserole, but breaks down when he reaches the ingredient 'water'. Another, describing himself as a 'small-time smuggler' makes a terribly moving plea for normality: 'Could we go back to the small times please? And watch the match on Sunday like everbody does?' Only one character directly attacks the audience, pouring out his feelings in his own language: you don't understand the words, but you certainly get his meaning.

Well-intended efforts to help are satirised in a cruelly funny comic ballet of diplomats and soldiers, whose elaborate salute routine is worthy of Monty Python. 'Sorry, sorry]' cries one diplomat politely, as he executes a graceful leap and knocks down a group of people like skittles.

But the people are not just portrayed as helpless victims either: one woman despairs at the fact that 'we knew it was coming'. 'When a book comes to be written about this,' she continues, 'it will be titled 'The Triumph of the Lack of Will'.'

It is a complex, rich and very moving production, accumulating details to impart a sense of the horrifying disorientation of war. It contains some fine writing by Stefanovski and is held together by Nils Personne's sympathetic music and Slobodan Unkovski's smooth direction (Hasovic returned to Sarajevo in January).

In this dream-like, terrifying world, performances range from strong to outstanding: Aida Jerkovic is touching as Sara, Marko Mlacnik painful as the young man being beaten, and Zeljko Hrs is a wonderful, dynamic chameleon character. A fine finale for Lift.

Gregory Motton's new play, The Terrible Voice of Satan (Royal Court Upstairs), describes the odyssey of Tom Moheny (Sean Murray), an Irish outsider who is held in awe and fear. Is he the devil or an ordinary bloke?

When we first meet him he is in a muddy turnip field on the edge of some cliffs with his aged parents, mother in a wheelbarrow. They are visited by a priest who warns them that Satan patrols this patch of land - though the priest seems a few wafers short of a communion, so this news may or may not be true. Tom, none the less, becomes possessed enough to commence telling the truth, a tactic that is not always

advisable.

He has adventures: he marries spontaneously and takes a mistress instantly, talks to a giant mythical bird, tangles with the IRA, takes a visit beneath the sea and returns, now ancient himself, in a wheelbarrow. In style a kind of Peer Gynt meets Bedknobs and Broomsticks, the play is delivered in short, clipped scenes and has a hazy, dream-like atmosphere.

It is acted with focus, and wittily designed by Bunny Christie. Quite what it says is another matter - apart from that life is bleak and absurd, the truth hurts and you believe what you want to. It passes before you like a fitful night's sleep, with the same intriguing yet irritating effect.

'Sarajevo' is at Cambridge Corn Exchange, 15-17 July (0223 357851).

'The Terrible Voice of Satan' continues at the Royal Court, London SW1 (071- 730 1745).

(Photograph omitted)

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