Aimee Goldsmith and Charlie Bouguenon perform in “Cheers Sarajevo” at the National Arts Festival 2016. Photo: CUEPIX/Madeleine Chaput
Everything becomes twisted in war. When men choose to kill each other, breaking the strongest moral boundary we have, nothing else can hold. Certainly not love.
So of course, when we encounter the pair of lovers in Cheers to Sarajevo, on a set that works hard to denote the ravage of ongoing conflict, there is a suspicion this is not going to end well.
The danger in portraying war is the tendency to romanticise tragedy, easy to do due to the myriad acts of heroism that emerge when people are placed in extreme duress.
This crew of Witsies avoid that pitfall to accurately portray the difficulties in maintaining one’s own moral values when cruelty and sadism become society’s dominant mode of behaviour, a situation in which principles can cost you your life.
They do this by having a South African photojournalist inserted into a love affair that crosses enemy lines. It’s a suitably layered narrative without easy answers but I much preferred the scenes when Peter, the photojournalist, was not on stage.
Realism is a bold choice director Lidilja Marelic makes for this work, particularly as it is not set in the dining room or kitchen we are all familiar with but in a war zone few us know. She manages to make it work for the most part but there are also a number of scenes and transitions that could benefit from playing with non-naturalistic staging techniques. By the third time the spotlights and sirens sounded to indicate impending bombing I was a bit over it. There was also no need for the rape scene to be realistic unless you’re committed to Realism as your style. But this is a post-modern age and I could discern no reason for a singular commitment. That there was no sound effect when the officer shoots the children was another particular disappointment, his silent miming reducing his horrific act to a poor parody when it was simple to create a direct effect.
Aimee Goldsmith, who according to the programme helped Marelic with the writing, treated us to some great acting, as did the rest of the cast with the exception of Miles Petzer as Peter, who looked like he was bumbling across a rugby field rather than caught in the crossfire of a war and relationship that placed him in the spotlight of critical dilemma.
I’m not sure about the set design. On the one hand it is very evocative of the urban destruction we see in news reportage but it is also very literal and possibly in this sense a victim of her bent for realism. There is a rich vein of symbolism on which to draw and I’m surprised it wasn’t explored.
At one stage Marelic had me concerned that there would be an easy resolution but she proved me satisfyingly wrong, she has a strong text with Aimee Goldsmith and Charlie Bouguenon doing a great job depicting layered characters in a play that, despite a few weak links, manages to portray the compromises we accept in order to survive extreme situations.
Cheers to Sarajevo is on at 22h00 tonight (Fri) and 10h00 tomorrow. Programme notes and bookings here.
— Steve Kretzmann