Coronet Print Room, Notting Hill, 19 June 2017
Remants is often beautifully executed with song and movement, but ultimately it doesn’t have much to say that is fresh or interesting. Moreover, it isn’t quite sure whether it’s a piece about the war in Bosnia in the early 1990s or the Nazi occupation of Bosnia fifty yeats ealier. As this is only a 60 minute piece, it needs to make up its mind.
‘Not to know what happened before you were born is to remain forever a child,” according to Cicero, and it is discovery of both family secrets and national events which happened long ago which forms the substance of Remnants, which runs at the Coronet Print Room in Notting Hill until July 1.
These are powerful, eternal themes. They echo throughout three or four millennia of western art. The past is a different country, they do things differently there, but the experiences, real or imagined, cast long shadows over the present.
But because the themes are so well known, and because, in particular, the vileness of war has been so well explored, one tends to look for something novel and arresting in any new work of art about them. Whether this delivers is a different question.
Remnants is performed by Erratica, back at the Print Room for the third time. The company works in song and dance, with no spoken word emerging from any of the four singers and one dancer on stage.
The Coronet, first a theatre in the 1890s, then a cinema, and now, again a theatre, with Gothic Phantom of the Opera faded glory and peeling gilt, is an evocative space, reminiscent of the New Amsterdam in Times Square before everything got a face lift and became like Disneyworld instead.
The lights come up on a dimly lit stage with a shallow pool down centre, currently empty though it will later slowly fill with water. Upstage of the pool is a high table, partially hidden behind a semi-opaque glass screen. On the table are littered everyday objects – shoes, a camera, an old fashioned tape recorder.
Disembodied words are heard through the sound system. The words are from The Stone Fields, the memoir of Courtney Angela Brkic, an American writer born to a Bosnian father in the 1970s. As a young woman in her 20s she returned to the land of her parentage and helped excavate graves in the killing fields of Srebrenica. This forms the narrative structure of the piece.
It is illuminated by song and music, composed by Christian Mason and Shelley Parker, echoing the soul-numbing sights and smells Courtney experiences among the shallow graves of that most vicious and now often forgotten conflict. With economy of movement and striking expressiveness, a solo dancer – Fabiolo Santana – also underpins the song and the recorded words in modern dance, choreographed by Jamila Johnson-Small.
But Brkic has written not only a memoir about war in what was Yugoslavia in the 1990s, she has written a memoir of her own family before the war began and before her father moved to the USA. She explores the history of her grandmother Andelka growing up in Bosnia before the second world war, marrying, having children, losing her husband and then finding a new man, Josef, with whom to share her life.
This man was Jewish, so his fate when the Nazis sweep into the Balkans in 1941 is not hard to guess. Brkic’s grandmother is also imprisoned, and what she does there to save herself haunts the rest of her life and reverberates down the decades.
In counterpoint to this story is the experience of this woman’s sister, who married a Croatian fascist. He too, never returns.
Inasmuch as these stories focus upon the experiences of women, those that are left behind when the men are fighting or are taken into an uncertain fate, they are worth telling. The trauma of those that are forced to pick up the pieces of their shattered lives without the blissful insensibility of death is relatively unexplored. It’s why Testament of Youth, by Vera Brittain, is an essential part of the immense literature of the Great War.
But, in this case, what begins and is ostensibly a story about Srebrenica and the Bosnian War becomes a family memoir about the second world war. The two aren’t mutually exclusive, of course, but the piece loses impact because it loses focus. The various family associations and relationships are also sometimes a little difficult to follow when all the audience has to go on is a recording.
The director, Patrick Eakin Young, found the memoir and fell in love with it. He decided to retain, the pause and the corrections Brkic makes aloud into the microphone, and he’s right that the lack of polish, the obvious uncertainty about what this all means, adds to the rawness of the writing.
He refers in the programme notes to the ‘things left unsaid’ in the memoir, which is the space for music and dance. This is where Erratica weaves its spell. It has to be said, though, that the singing all pretty much all of a kind. There is a succession of Balkan dirges, seemingly based on local folk songs which though not unpleasant at the beginning can begin to grate a little by the end of the piece. The singers – Emma Bonnici, Victoria Couper, Eugenia Georgieva and Olesysa Zdorovetska – are faultless but the material is rather samey.
It’s an interesting and often moving personal history, but whether it forms sufficient basis for a meditative piece of theatre exploring the themes of war and memory is debatable. Whether the meditative piece of theatre itself is sufficiently well structured to properly illuminate these themes is even more debatable.
The only comment that Brkic makes on the origins of the war in the 1990s is that ‘greed’ was the root cause, exploiting ethnic hatreds for another, undisclosed prize, is so frankly sophomoric that it would be better if we hadn’t heard it.
There’s much to admire about Remnants. It is performed with vigour and discipline. It looks good and sometimes sounds good. But it needs a stronger narrative through line to rescue it from opaqueness.