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Old Bridge at the Bush Theatre – review

The history of Mostar is brought into vivid clarity in Igor Memic's award-winning play

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Old Bridge
© Marc Brenner

Across the Balkans are dotted a series of cities – divided, seemingly, by a simple bridge: Mitrovica in Kosovo, Mostar in Bosnia and Herzegovina. In reality, their divisions are much more complex: fissures of religion, nationality and more ripple beneath a current of cordiality, as the shadow of recent conflict remains.

This is the context in which Igor Memic has penned the award-winning play Old Bridge, named after the Bosnian tourist hotspot located in the heart of the Balkans. Beginning as an earnest and endearing small-town romantic comedy, the playwright contorts and strains his play into an outright tragedy, meticulously exploring the ways in which normality can slide into bloodshed.

The plot follows Mina, Leila and Sasha – three friends watching the annual diving competition situated on the colossal local landmark – described by Memic as such a feat of structural logistics that it seems to emerge naturally from the stone rather than adhering to human architectural norms.

Amidst the daredevil pack of jumpers is Mili, a Dubrovnic-dweller who has headed in-land for a chance to escape an old life. What begins as youthful revelry is soon jarringly cut short by the onset of the Yugoslav Wars – lines are drawn, snipers appear in hidey-holes. A familiar place is rendered alien by the onset of battle. Meet cute meets a gruelling, bloody reality.

Memic never tries to quantify the carnage experienced by his characters – instead bringing the plight of individuals into clear, harrowing focus: Leila (a bluntly humorous Rosie Gray) is separated from her mother, while Catholic-born Mili (Dino Kelly) can do nothing but powerlessly watch as two religious factions undermine his interfaith relationship. Jokester-turned-military man Sasha (Emilio Iannucci) gives us perhaps the most tragic figure of all – whimsy and cheek carved out of him to leave a deadened, haunting depression.

At the heart of the piece is Mina (the role played at two different time periods by Saffron Coomber and Susan Lawson-Reynolds) – witness, narrator, guide, victim, ominiscient presence – Lawson-Reynolds gives the role a conversational candidnesss that turns recent history into startling truth. Director Selma Dimitrijevic provides Memic with a fluid, innovative staging that satisfyingly brings the Bosnian town to life

Winning the Papatango Prize (which Memic did, back in 2020 – this year's winners are doing an audio tour in lieu of a live staging) is no mean feat: a piece has to be plucked from over a thousand entrants. This is a wholly deserving leader of the pack, with the writer bringing a faultless naturalism to conversational dialogue and, while the ending of the show is perhaps too protracted given the zipping pace of the first act, you're carried along by these characters and their quirks, even as their home is transformed into a combat zone. It's made all the more remarkable by the fact that Old Bridge is Memic's debut play.