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Michael Coveney: Balkan blast of an unhappy Queen

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Andrew Lloyd Webber's television search for another Jesus Christ superstar slipped off my radar this weekend as I was deluged in other priorities, as well as the rain. I had to keep an eye on Wimbledon, of course, and on the opening of the redoubtable Phil Willmott's free theatre season in the Scoop on the Thames by City Hall, not to mention the silver wedding anniversary party of producer Paul Elliott and actress Linda Hayden.

But the most remarkable event of the weekend wash-out was a one-off performance at the Barbican on Friday night of a Balkan rock oratorio, Margot: Diary of An Unhappy Queen, by Goran Bregovic, with gypsy brass band, string quartet, Serbian male voice choir in evening dress, female vocal duo in native peasant costume, and solo actress, in this instance the Irish Beckett specialist Lisa Dwan.

Bregovic himself sat centre stage in a white suit with his guitar gently weeping, an ageless rock star with a passing resemblance to Tom Conti, abetted on his immediate right by a fantastic drummer who propelled the whole show, which veered between ecstatic, wild gypsy rock, plangent meditative melodiousness, rousing Baroque chorales, and marches of death and war.

Oddly enough, it's exactly the sort of rock and classical synthesis that Lloyd Webber pioneered in Jesus Christ Superstar, but with a tragic basis in the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s. Those events drove Bregovic, a native of Sarajevo, to Paris, where he still lives and works, dividing his time between Europe, America and Belgrade.

When he first moved to Paris, he started writing film scores, and one of the best was for Patrice Chereau's La Reine Margot, based on a novel by Alexandre Dumas, in which Isabelle Adjani's indescribably beautiful Catholic princess was married off to the Protestant leader by her scheming mother.

Bregovic wrenches that story into a modern Bosnian context, where the actress, passionately embodied by Lisa Dwan, is a simulacrum of the Serbian General Ratko Mladic's daughter, whose husband is despatched to the front line in a land where hate is dangerous, people speak four different ecclesiastical languages and flight is the only refuge.

The actress is using her mother's poetry books to roll up her joints, but pauses at the last one, the memoirs of an unhappy queen dating from 1570. In this she finds heroic parallels with her own position, and finds sustenance to deal with the religious persecution of her own brothers, who bully her husband into changing his faith.

At one extraodinary moment, Dwan -- who certainly has the crop-haired gamine appeal and angelic appearance of another Adjani -- discards her black weeds of mourning and pulls on a lilac dress over black leather lingerie: "Give the world to women, lord," she intones, to a rousing cheer, "so the world is like a kitchen."
Some of the audience who had come for a concert were unprepared for the textual performance element, so Dwan had to combat them as well as the war-mongering; this only redoubled the fervour of her contribution, and you could see what it meant to Bregovic at the curtain calls, where he was effusive in his appreciation.

The musicians then got down to a series of encores of traditional favourites, prog rock numbers and drinking songs, a purgative and irresistible antidote to the nightmare of the wars that have torn the country apart.

It all amounted to an unforgettable night of musical theatre, unlike anything I've ever seen, and a blueprint, surely, for something more rigorously conceived, perhaps, and more extravagantly produced.


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