There is a definite need for theatre to challenge audiences to step outside their comfort zones and question reality from different perspectives. Theatre as art, and art as commentary, reminds of the quote, “art should comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable”, attributed to the political graffiti activist Banksy. Reflecting on 1991 civil war ridden Yugoslavia at the centre of Cheers to Sarajevo, many of Banksy’s anti-war art messages come to mind, because in the spaces between the gunshots in this play, you “see humans but no humanity”.
Bullets, bombs, rape as a weapon, violence, abuse… Cheers to Sarajevo zooms in on the disturbed, and uncomfortable nature of war crimes within the context of volatile (forced and distorted) relationships. It all unfolds in the very (perhaps too) intimate space of the Alexander Upstairs. As a play, it is unquestionably thought-provoking. It challenges you to question: what would you give up to save your love, and would that love survive even on the front-line of betrayal?
When you take your seat, the “city” constructed out of boxes already shouts at you through the grafittied message that beseeches, “Don’t let them kill us”. A clear commentary on the international community who so easily ‘experience’ war apathetically, through photos and footage selected and mass media packaged by journalists who project opinions rather than objective fact. Society – looking on from the outside – has to a degree been conditioned to acknowledge injustices without getting too upset by the visuals of war.
Cheers to Sarajevo, ‘fixes’ that. Apathy is the last thing you will feel when you witness the injustices that are exposed as you get a glimpse into the lives of Bosnian Mirela (Aimee Goldsmith), her Serbian fiancé Aleksander (Alistair Black), their mutual childhood friend Slobo (Lamar Bonhomme) and South African photo-journalist Peter (Stephen Jubber).
The production carries with it a warning of sex, violence and language, three elements that collectively turn the 65 minute glimpse into a very powerful theatre experience. Powerful in that it turns predominantly on the feeling of shock, uses that feeling to distract you and then redirects it to punch you in the proverbial gut (and possibly in the face too).
The play is described by the writers, Goldsmith and Lidija Marelic, as a story “about the endurance of the human spirit to overcome insurmountable acts of violence and hate”. Experiencing the violence and hate that underpin that story in an intimate space perhaps heightens the shock element to such a degree that the writers’ intended “message of healing, history and love” is relegated to the background in the onslaught of emotions that Cheers to Sarajevo unleashes. A play of this nature calls for a delicate balance between shock factor and story-line within a very specific physical setting for it to showcase all the text-driven nuances to their full potential.
The story, although it stands critical of the fact that there are two (if not three) sides to every conflict, predominantly reveals the perspective of Mirela, as a Bosnian woman caught in the cross fire while forced to deal with Serbian aggression at both a personal and civic dignity level.
Although the characters' thick Yugoslavian accents were occasionally dropped or overplayed, the performers nevertheless brought a high degree of professionalism and commitment to the stage in the telling of this emotionally taxing story of indoctrination, oppression, struggle and loss. From that perspective, their focus did impress, yet the text and direction could have been stronger in support of that focus.
Considering that the text was originally crafted to bring to stage five characters, but now only introduces four, one wonders if part of the slanted portrayal (as well as accompanying time leaps, which you accidentally pick up through dialogue) is not the unintended result of that adaptation. The now merely implied contextual detail can perhaps be communicated to audiences by pairing the audio interviews that ring through the blackouts with some photo projections. But the presence or absence of such falls within the discretion of the director and design team, and one can only comment on what is present.
In the end, Cheers to Sarajevo does capture one’s attention from the perspective of forbidden love in a time of war. You find yourself torn between feeling pity for The Great(est) Aleksander, who yearns to be more of a man than he is brave enough to be, and empathy for Mirela, who with her survival-driven courage remains willing to fight for her country, regardless of Peter's ‘saviour’-like presence and Slobo’s judgment.
Theatre that captures the attention and makes you feel is always theatre worth seeing, but heed the warning to sensitive theatre patrons: Witnessing the rape scene “commentary” on the political and cultural tension, from the fourth (back) row, was already very unnerving. Only the very brave should take a front-row seat. But perhaps unnerving is precisely what the lingering post-show feeling should be… the Mirelas of this world endure so much more than an uncomfortable 65 minutes.
If you are in the market for a provocative, challenging and thought-provoking theatre experience, and don't mind violence and smoking onstage, then book your tickets online to see Cheers to Sarajevo at Alexander Upstairs by 8 July 2017.