DramaLondonReview

Old Bridge – Bush Theatre, London

Reviewer: Stephen Bates

Writer: Igor Memic

Director: Selma Dimitrijevic

It is possible to think of wartime atrocities either as part of distant history or, in a modern context, as taking place on far away continents. However, we must not forget how recent and how close to our own doorstep were the conflicts that followed the break-up of the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s. British writer Igor Memic’s 2020 Papatango Prize-winning drama serves as a chilling jolt to the memory.

The story begins in 1988, when the city of Mostar, located in modern day Bosnia and Herzegovina, is still part of Yugoslavia. The historic landmark Old Bridge spans the river which divides the city, vaguely on ethnic lines. It brings communities together, never more so than on one day each summer when it becomes the scene of a diving competition. Mili (Dino Kelly), a young man from another city, joins the competition and jumps from the bridge, catching the eye of local girl, Mina (Saffron Coomber). She is watching with her friends Leila (Rosie Gray) and Sasha (Emilio Iannucci), the joker in the pack until the jokes turn sour.

Mostar’s people identify as Bosnian, Croatian, Serbian, Albanian and so on; they may be Catholic, or Muslim, or Jewish. Their lives are inter-connected but shifting in ways that Mili likens to a Rubik’s Cube. Mina and Mili fall in love, but the play does not turn into an update of Romeo and Juliet; the couple’s dreams are shattered not by their own family or ethnic divisions, but by the horrors of the warfare that begins to rage all around them. 

Memic does not concern himself with politics and he teaches us few specific details of the wars taking place in the Balkans region at that time. His focus is solely on the play’s characters, assessing the impact of epic events on their lives. Director Selma Dimitrijevic’s production, on a wide stage, unadorned by formal sets and with few props, conveys a sense of small people caught up in a vast tide of uncontrollable events, but this sometimes comes at the expense of projecting the intimacy of close friendships.

The writer gives the play a historical perspective through the eyes of Emina, who serves as a form of narrator, looking back from around 30 years later. Occasionally, it feels as if this character is being over used; we want the four young people to speak more for themselves and the actors playing them to expand the characters and perform all of their stories. However, much of Memic’s most lyrical and graphic writing falls to Emina and Susan Lawson-Reynolds is a commanding presence, speaking it with great clarity and emotional intensity.

Throughout the play, Old Bridge is seen as a symbol of division and unification, destruction and renewal. Memic gives us a powerful and moving reminder of the fragility of the peace that we take too easily for granted.

Runs until 20 November 2021

The Reviews Hub Score

Powerful and moving

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