A young woman listens to pop music on headphones. The people around her can’t hear it. We, the audience, can – a bit. But it’s a solitary experience; unshared. Something universal is also isolating.
Igor Memic’s Papatango New Writing Prize-winning debut play ‘Old Bridge’ opened at the Bush Theatre in a swirl of pink tafatta and the sound of bombs, as four chirpy, awkward, hopeful teenagers drink coffee and plan their lives in early 1990s Mostar. Mina and Mili’s budding romance is disrupted by the sudden outbreak of war. Such bald description hardly does justice to a play that uses familiar tropes to bring to life a story that’s both painfully intimate, and huge in its exploration of human nature.
The first half is entertaining and pacy as out-of-towner and (barely) Catholic Croat Mili (Dino Kelly, whose steady and mature performance grounds the play) decides to participate in Mostar’s grand tradition of competitive bridge jumping, from the 700 year old Stari Most (a bridge almost the exact same age as Shakespeare). He fails, but wins a date with local girl, (barely) Muslim Bosnian Mina (a brilliantly layered and nuanced performance from Saffron Coomber). As their sparky and passionate relationship develops he becomes part of her gang, Clash T-shirt wearing Leila (a deliciously deadpan Rosie Gray) and trainee vet Sasha (Emilio Iannucci, aptly managing to humanise and bring layers to a character who, on paper, could have been obnoxious). The religious divides are acknowledged, commented on, debated, but accepted. Until one day there’s only one brand of shampoo in the shops, and then everything goes to hell.
Not that we’re exactly drowning in plays about Bosnia, but writers have always tried to create empathy for victims of atrocities by humanising individual stories, and often these are stories about young people, and often they are love stories. Atrocities – wars, genocides – destroy empathy. The sheer scale of death numbs us, til we’re inured by the parade of numbers on the nightly news rendered meaningless by sheer scale. The higher the numbers, the more shocking the brutal images empathy-bludgeoned in newspapers or history lessons or museums, the more our ability to comprehend that each of these numbers, each of these bodies, represents a person and a life, a love, a future cut short, is eroded.
Credit has to go to the cast, who are across the board warm, funny, distinct, and so real. Susan Lawson-Reynolds (radiating a serene wisdom with a hint of warm mischievousness letting us see the girl she once was) plays an older Mina who acts as a narrator creating a bridge between past and present. The presence of a narrator is perhaps not necessary, but it’s interesting seeing how Mina’s story is told between two actors, segueing between timelines. The young actors are all British, and all use distinctly British accents. A good play forces the audience to ask themselves questions, and I had to ask myself: “would I have found these characters less relatable if they didn’t look like me, sound like me, and be wearing t-shirts bearing the name of my favourite band?” Selma Dimitrijevic neat directing makes clever use of the simple set while letting the characters and dialogue take centre stage, while special mention has to go to lighting designer Aideen Malone whose muscular lighting protects, attacks and barriers.
As a Jew and someone who’s family have survived genocides and wars, I had a very personal reaction to this play. Holocaust stories (often using the trope of a tragic romance cut short as their own empathy machine) are practically their own genre, and there can be a fine line between essential humanising tool in a world still rife with racial and religious bigotry and violence, and exploitative misery porn. Memic is quoted as saying this is a play he never thought he’d write. But it’s a play he needed to write, and that the world needed him to write. Perhaps no one else could have written this play, because – as beautiful and affecting as this love story is (and it is a love story), it’s about so much more. This is a play about the randomness of death, about human nature, about the unbreakable desire to live. About the power of love, if there’s any way to write that without sounding utterly cheesy. For a play about such traumatic events it’s determinedly not a play about trauma, but about endurance and the capacity of the human spirit to overcome. An entire world is contained in the moment of Mina hearing recorded music probably for the first time in years – alone in a room full of people. She finds the strength to carry on, as we all do, somehow.
It feels like a cliché to call characters “relatable” but they just…oh, they so are. Anyone who’s ever been a teenage girl will feel a cringey pang of of recognition in Mina’s attempts to pass off a handmaid frock as “from Italy”. Mina isn’t shallow for being more worried that the restricted access to shampoo will wreck her hair than the signs of incipient war, she’s human, and her concerns do more to illustrate the realities of living in a city you love that tumbles so quickly into something unrecognisable than any war story. The motif of coffee that runs throughout this play (I am sipping a macchiato while writing this) acts as a changing metaphor that also grounds the play. Old Bridge perfectly captures how easy it is to slip into war, and how easy it is for the world to ignore that.
Because who gets to decide whose stories get to be told, and who gets to tell them? There are a million Holocaust stories, but very few about the far more recent Bosnian War and genocide. The day after Old Bridge opened, Abi Zakarian’s ‘I Am Karyan Ophidian’ opened as part of the ‘Terrifying Women’ anthology, a short play inspired by the violent oppression of the Armenian people that’s been constant since the Armenian Genocide which killed over a million people. How many people have even heard of the Armenian Genocide? We are are living in the age of stories; overwhelmed with content, but some stories simply don’t get told.
Memic was born in Bosnia but moved to the UK when he was two. My mother fought in a war and was nearly killed in a second, before moving to the UK to raise a child whose biggest problem was not being picked for netball. Memic’s story is not mine, my mother’s story is not mine, just as his story is not Mina’s story. I can’t understand war but I can understand trauma. I heard a bomb fall once, in a country that’s sort of mine but not really; a country where you can grab a cappuccino on a beach full of bikini-clad carefree teens a couple of hundred miles away from the Iron Dome, a couple of hundred miles away from the most religiously divided city on earth. When I heard the bombs fall in Shepherds Bush I thought about that, I thought about my mum, but I also thought about my grandmother ducking bombs while nine months pregnant at the height of the London Blitz. Perhaps the average Londoner would find the idea of hearing bombs fall utterly alien, but how many of us have grandparents who lived through a world war motivated by racial and religious hatred? Perhaps some things are more universal than we realise. Though honestly in a place like the Bush, in a city like London, who can say where people have come from or what stories they bring with them?
Old Bridge runs at the Bush Theatre until 20th November https://www.bushtheatre.co.uk/event/old-bridge/