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Old Bridge by Igor Memic at the Bush Theatre

Igor Memic’s Papatango Prize-winning debut play cannot be faulted for lack of ambition. In his very first work, he sets out to build and bridge two specific worlds: intimate family life (starting with the sparks of young love in the late 1980s) and the crossfire of genocidal civil war fought on the banks of Bosnia’s Neretva river just a few years later. As a central metaphor, the Old Bridge of Mostar is pregnant with potential and indeed the play’s narrator, Emina, aged 50 (Susan Lawson-Reynolds), opens the action by providing an extended panegyric on the titular Ottoman-built medieval structure, during which she both personifies and feminises it.

Dino Kelly (Mili) and Saffron Coomber (Mina) in 'Old Bridge' at the Bush Theatre. Photo by Marc Brenner - Old Bridge
Dino Kelly (Mili) and Saffron Coomber (Mina) in ‘Old Bridge’ at the Bush Theatre. Photo by Marc Brenner – Old Bridge.

Memic has a lot to say and, somewhat like Tom Stoppard in Leopoldstadt, he has written homilies, extended prose poems and the odd lecture by which to convey these observations. However, he’s chosen to offer these thoughts mostly through retrospective narration by one of the four characters, the older Emina, rather than setting up a socio-political speech by a character within the family moment. On one hand, his unapologetic eulogising framework frees the twenty-something characters (Mina [Saffron Coomber], Mili [Dino Kelly], Sasha [Emilio Iannucci] and Leila [Rosie Gray]) to exist in concise impressionistic snippets without risk of Hare/Stoppard here-come-the-ideas pontifications. On the other hand, by effectively having a voice-over explaining everything in monologue, the work can feel like a one-woman show with background actors popping up every now and then to do a turn before they exit. Upon reading the script that opens with stage directions of ritualised coffee preparation including its aroma, I couldn’t help but wonder why Memic had written a play rather than a novel (especially if the stagecraft of the likes of Patrick Marber’s Leopoldstadt would never be within this production’s budget)? I am nonetheless glad that Igor Memic has written this story, even if the medium and production don’t quite match the work’s ambition.

Memic and his director Selma Dimitrijevic have chosen to have the play’s diction and dialect reflect the environment in which it’s performed. The effect gives rise to an idiom that occasionally alienates rather than invites; somewhat like reading an international work whose translator doesn’t share your first language – but it seems a reasonable choice in the interest of making the young characters feel familiar and not ‘othering’ them with artificially accented English which would be even more contrived. However, although it’s clear Memic wants to use a love story to connect the audience with the simple joys of youth and the central desire for a peaceful happy life, by giving so much tell-don’t-show power to the older retrospective Emina, the chemistry and energy of the romance loses force. I wonder if Dimitrijevic needs to be bolder in her direction and find more theatrical ways to build this world? Why is a cocky cliff-diver (Mili played by Dino Kelly) not oozing the testosterone and braggadocio that such a feat presents? We will learn he is a lower-key, nice guy soon enough. Literally, why is he not sopping wet in a swimsuit with a towel prop after the great dive that incites the story? Of course, this is a black box production with a minimal set, but if the literal jumping-off point of the story is a young man engaging in a near-death stunt from the all-important Old Bridge, why do the vignettes of the young characters meeting feel like skits on an educational touring production?

The cast is talented and capable, with Emilio Iannucci as Sasha particularly shining as he brings us tomfoolery and tragedy in equally charismatic measures. Towards the end of the first act and into the second, the ‘real time’ scenes build power. When the action is more balanced and the characters have more to do than exposition, the play is affecting and compelling. With a second commission guaranteed thanks to his Papatango Prize, I hope Memic will refine the dialogue he writes to illuminate relationships of all kinds with greater nuance and authenticity. There is strength in his third-person omniscient voice, like a novelist, but I was frustrated that the emotional potential of the dynamics he created were threatened on occasion by sentimentality. Likewise, what change in character occurred over the course of the drama? Sagacious from introduction, despite such a scorching depiction of rising terror and resulting trauma, Emina doesn’t seem to grow or change from the experience. This may make the hearing more palatable for the audience but it also makes for a fundamentally less dramatic experience.

Old Bridge is a first work and is a strong outing of an important and compelling subject. Playing until late November, I can also imagine the production finding a little more chemistry as it settles over the course of its run.

3 Star Review

Review by Mary Beer

One day all you care about is music, fashion, and boys. The next day there’s no food. Piece by piece your world starts to change so you change with it.

Mostar, Yugoslavia, 1988. Mili, a boy from out of town, dives from the famous Old Bridge. Mina, a local girl, watches. As he falls, she begins falling for him.

Mostar, Bosnia, 1992. In a town of growing divisions, Mina and Mili never doubt that their future lies together. But nor can they imagine the dangers that future will bring.

This love story is a bold, fresh, and contemporary take on real events. An epic tale exploring the impact of a war that Europe forgot and the love and loss of those who lived through it.

PAPATANGO AWARD-WINNING
OLD BRIDGE AT THE BUSH THEATRE ON 27 OCTOBER

Papatango Theatre Company in association with the Bush Theatre present the winner of the 2020 Papatango New Writing Prize

Old Bridge
Written by Igor Memic
Directed by Selma Dimitrijevic
Set Design by Oli Townsend
Costume Design by Natalie Pryce
Lighting Design by Aideen Malone
Sound Design by Max Pappenheim
Movement Direction by Georgina Lamb
Intimacy Director – Yarit Dor
Cast – Saffron Coomber, Rosie Gray, Emilio Iannucci, Dino Kelly, Susan Lawson-Reynolds

Old Bridge
Bush Theatre
21 Oct – 20 Nov at 7.30 pm
https://www.bushtheatre.co.uk/

Author

  • Mary Beer

    Mary graduated with a cum laude degree in Theatre from Columbia University’s Barnard College in New York City. In addition to directing and stage managing several productions off-Broadway, Mary was awarded the Helen Prince Memorial Prize in Dramatic Composition for her play Subway Fare whilst in New York. Relocating to London, Mary has worked in the creative sector, mostly in television broadcast and production, since 1998. Her creative and strategic abilities in TV promotion, marketing and design have been recognised with over 20 industry awards including several Global Promax Golds. She is a founder member of multiple creative industry and arts organisations and has frequently served as an advisor to the Edinburgh International TV Festival.

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