Review: Aimée Goldsmith the Heart of Passionate War Drama CHEERS TO SARAJEVO

By: Jul. 05, 2017
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Stephen Jubber and Aimée Goldsmith as
Peter and Mirela in CHEERS TO SARAJEVO
Photo credit: Jesse Kramer

For as long as prejudice exists in the world, people will tell stories of star-crossed lovers. The plot of CHEERS TO SARAJEVO places a Serbian Romeo opposite a Bosnian Juliet, although this iteration of the archetypal story plays out more like Joan Lingard's Kevin and Sadie novels, which similarly take an ethno-nationalist conflict as its backdrop. Like Lingard's young adult series, CHEERS TO SARAJEVO does not melodramatically kill off one or both of its protagonists, but rather makes them live through the conflict in which they find themselves. Further distinguishing CHEERS TO SARAJEVO from similar narratives is the inclusion of a photojournalist as one of its characters, introducing the further dimension of the ethics of war journalism to the themes of the play.

Mirela and Aleksander live in the cosmopolitan city of the play's title. Friends since childhood, the opening of CHEERS TO SARAJEVO catches them in the middle of a passionate and long-standing love affair. As the siege of Sarajevo breaks, the pair finds themselves on opposite sides of the war being waged in the former Yugoslavia, forcing them to continue their affair in secret. Peter, a South African photojournalist, takes a photograph of the two and with Mirela and Aleksander's relationship now a threat to their safety, he blackmails Mirela into guiding him through the city so he can get better shots of the conflicts that play out in settings like the infamous Sniper Alley. As the war escalates, Aleksander is drafted into a militia that commits atrocities against Bosnian women in rape camps, leading to a sequence of events that leaves Mirela with questions about her future in Sarajevo. When Peter engineers an opportunity to get her out of the country, she has to decide once and for all.

CHEERS TO SARAJEVO is written by Aimée Goldsmith and Lidija Marlic, whose passion for the Sarajevans and outrage at the war that tore them apart penetrates every aspect of their play. Their exploration of how the war personally affects Mirela and Aleksander is the most successful aspect of the piece, the complexity of the two characters allowing the audience to invest in the effects of war on the way that people live.

Alistair Moulton-Black and Aimée Goldsmith as
Aleksander and Mirela in CHEERS TO SARAJEVO
Photo credit: Jesse Kramer

Goldsmith also plays Mirela, pushing herself to the limit in a role that requires her to be an incredibly resourceful actor. She bestows Mirela with an explosive façade and strips away those layers to reveal a deeply vulnerable woman without ever compromising the character's strength. She delivers some remarkable work in this production.

As Aleksander, Alistair Moulton-Black matches Goldsmith's intensity, but he hits the ceiling midway through the play, unsure how to further develop the character emotionally under Ashleigh Harvey's hesitant directorial hand. Playing an old friend who betrays both Mirela and Aleksander's trust due to his indoctrination into the beliefs one side of the war, Lamar Bonhomme falls into a similar generically intense emotional delivery of his role, failing to capture what his character is constructed to convey.

Where CHEERS TO SARAJEVO truly falters though, both as a play and in production, is in its handling of the character of Peter. His transgressions beyond his role as an observer are manifold, pushing into thematic territory that is potentially much more complex than the issues that arise from the love story, which have been explored time and time again in wartime dramas. Goldsmith and Marlic handle the character too superficially, the play never getting to grips with how Peter's choices affect his ideologically shaky moral code and his relationships with the other characters. Left to construct a performance from signposts, Stephen Jubber is wooden in the role.

The aural and visual design plots of CHEERS TO SARAJEVO bring together several compelling proposals without boiling everything down into a fully integrated audio-visual experience of the world of the play. Most successful are the costumes, constructed from layers of worn-down clothing which are added and removed and shifted as the action progresses. A pair of unfortunately red underpants aside, the palette of the costume design works well to make the characters live in the cardboard set, which uses packaging materials as the basis for the sculpted buildings and a wall-cum-mattress, which are the key visual markers of the set. Overall, the lighting design is too bright and too diffused to make bold choices like these fully contrive the mood they set out to create.

Alistair Moulton-Black and Stephen Jubber as
Aleksander and Peter in CHEERS TO SARAJEVO
Photo credit: Jesse Kramer

More successful is the ubiquitous soundscape which blends music and sound effects with voiceovers, either from or reproducing news broadcasts or interviews about the war and the role of those who documented it, that punctuate the production as one scene shifts to another. The soundscape single-handedly transforms a tale that deals with the experiences of only a handful of characters into an epic.

It is that very sense of largeness that makes the very intimate space of the Alexander Upstairs sit oddly with CHEERS TO SARAJEVO. While there is power in the intimacy of the piece, it is simply too close to play out in an end-on arrangement that so definitively separates the audience from the action. For that sort of spatial contract to work for this production, CHEERS TO SARAJEVO needs to play out on a larger stage at a greater distance. But the in-your-face nature of the piece seems to want an active engagement with the audience; everything about the production signals an immersive experience without providing one. CHEERS TO SARAJEVO either needs to involve us in its violence or place us at a distance so that we can observe the implications of what plays out on stage. Anything in between is a compromise.

CHEERS TO SARAJEVO is a play that has valuable things to say. Some of these are voiced very clearly in the script, but the script still needs further development to be fully articulate. Having premiered at the National Arts Festival last year, the play is now a year old and faces the challenge that so many new South African plays never overcome: the transition into its own fulfilment as a completely realised theatre piece. Let us hope these theatre-makers take up the gauntlet.

CHEERS TO SARAJEVO runs at the Alexander Upstairs until 8 July at 19:00. Tickets are available from the Alexander Bar website, with tickets costing R90 if booked and prepaid online or R120 if paid on collection at the bar. A special matinee performance will be held on 8 July at 16:00, with all proceeds from the R200 tickets going toward the #saveraph campaign. For telephone enquiries, call 021 300 1652. The Alexander Bar, Café and Theatre is situated at 76 Strand Street in the Cape Town city centre and can be followed on Facebook and Twitter.