British-Bosnian writer Igor Memic’s debut play ‘Old Bridge’ seeks to shine a light on the on the armed conflict that took place in present-day Bosnia and Herzegovina between 1992 and 1995. Winner of the 2020 Papatango New Writing Prize, Memic situates the narrative around the Stari Most (also known as Mostar Bridge and Old Bridge), a 16th-century bridge in the city of Mostar that was destroyed during the conflict. The play is an intimately layered exploration of love, religion and identity during war and follows a group of friends whose lives get relentlessly entangled in the fallout. This production at the Bush Theatre is directed by Selma Dimitrijevic and designed by Oli Townsend, with Amela Beha as cultural advisor and George Turvey as dramaturg.
The play opens at the site of the ‘Old Bridge’ in Mostar, where Mili (Dino Kelly), a young man from out of town is practicing in preparation for the city’s much-loved diving competition. He meets Mina (Saffron Coomber), a local girl, who watches on with her friends Leila (Rosie Gray) and Sasha (Emilio Iannucci) and falls in love with her. As Mina and Mili begin to date, the carefree group of friends become inseparable, bonding over shared dreams and aspirations as well as their diverse backgrounds. Mina is catholic and originally hails from Croatia, whilst Mina and Leila are Muslims who were born and raised in Mostar. Sasha has mixed heritage but holds all religions and ethnicities in equal regards, often to a fault. These differences in the group’s ethnic and religious backgrounds lead to conversations rife with dogmatic views and opposing opinions but allows them to come closer together.
The city of Mostar itself is a melting pot of cultures, identities and religions between West and East Europe that influences the lives of the group in ways big and small. The city’s location also has geo-political implications for the region, which begin to take precedence as incidents of fights, vandalism and violent protests turn into a full-blown armed conflict. With the city under an indefinite siege and an uncertain future ahead of them, the group must survive through immeasurable loss and pain as they see their lives collapse one by one.
Memic’s writing carefully draws the audience into the vibrant lives of the characters with the first half and then subtly introduces the harsh circumstances that awaits them. With an older Mina (Susan Lawson-Reynolds) narrating the story and recollecting memories from her past, we experience a false sense of comfort (knowing that Mina survived) which is challenged and broken by shifting to the real-time happening of events. All the performers are on top of their game, especially Lawson-Reynolds, whose unwavering presence keeps us engaged throughout. Dino Kelly’s Mili is wonderfully caught between decision and deliberation, as he seeks to carve refuge for his friends. Saffron Coomber’s Mina is vulnerable yet resolute, wringing out the character’s inner aspirations for a better life and stopping at nothing to achieve it. Rosie Gray’s Leila is cautious yet caring, caught between her own journey and that of the group. Emilio Iannucci brings out Sasha’s inner conflict and thoughts with a charming portrayal that is rife with dry wit and uncomfortable truths. Dimitrijevic’s direction allows the ensemble to bring Memic’s text to life with a fresh, engaging and uncomplicated staging, where we move swiftly between the present and the past. This is complemented by Aideen Malone’s light design that carefully punctuates these transitions as well as Max Pappenheim’s sound design that gradually tugs us into the centre of the armed conflict.
To summarize, Old Bridge is a powerful ode to humanity, both lost and found, during times of war and the fragility of the moments we live through in between. Backed by sharp performances, tightly-paced action and a well-crafted design, the streamed version of the live show is even more thrilling to watch for it focuses our attention towards Memic’s writing even more.
You can stream a filmed version of Old Bridge from 30th November to 4th December. Learn more and book your tickets at https://www.bushtheatre.co.uk/event/old-bridge-online/
Reviewer: Gaurav Singh Nijjer
Reviewed: 28th November 2021
North West End UK Rating: ★★★★