I didn’t even realise I was looking for it, that state of rapt, pure concentration that comes from being totally gripped by a story. I even thought I was paying attention as I returned to theatre after lockdown, a kind of feeble, slightly drained version of myself, bloodless like a vampire’s discarded snack. I kept my thoughts mostly on task, certainly, but without being deeply immersed in that leaning-forward-without-realising way.
Then I went to Igor Memic’s play Old Bridge, and was made to listen, really listen.
Like the other plays that have gripped me most since I started going to the theatre again (Camp Siegfried, Once Upon a Time In Nazi-Occupied Tunisia) it’s a story of ordinary people whose lives are derailed by forces so much bigger than themselves – I wonder why that is eh.
Old Bridge is refreshingly simple in structure, narrated by an older version of Mina (Susan Lawson-Reynolds) as her younger self falls in love in 1988 in Mostar, Bosnia. It’s a literary device that could easily feel artificial but here it feels lulling and poetic: Lawson-Reynolds tells this story so evocatively, with a soothing intonation that’s rhythmic without feeling studied.
Mina is your standard small town girl with big aspirations to join her aunt in England and work in fashion; she falls for outsider Mili after he jumps from the town’s Old Bridge alongside other young men at an annual town celebration.
It’s formulaic but it’s also not: this couple’s ordinariness gives the story an epic, ancient feel, heightened by the horrific events it spans. The bridge that Mili jumps off, full of an outsider’s ignorance and hubris, is a 400 year old stone link between a town’s two halves, divided approximately by religion – Christian on one side, Muslim on the other. It’s an ancient symbol of unity, but vulnerable, almost alive – there’s a real beauty to the way Emina describes it as seeming to grow from the river’s banks, “a bridge of stone and vine and iron, which sprouted from the cliffs like the roots of a great tree.”
Then time passes, it’s 1992, and everything has changed. As snipers fill the town’s streets and the friends hunker down in a tiny flat, Mili’s willing to sacrifice his father’s watch just to get some coffee and radio batteries for Mina – a few minutes of normality are worth everything.
Memic’s text is richly romantic: maybe sometimes a little too romantic, too gendered in its presentation of two women who are so vulnerable and girlish, who rely unquestioningly on the protection of their male friends. But its romanticism acts as a shining point of contrast, too – a nostalgic ideal for reality to clash with, painfully.
It’s ingeniously staged in Selma Dimitrijevic’s production, one which never tries to overwhelm you with bright lights or crashes of bombs – it’s emotionally intense instead. At the back of the stage, set designer Oli Townsend creates a stack of outlined boxes on different levels that the cast can clamber over, totter across in heels or shelter within – it represents the past, while the front of the stage represents the present, more immediate, but also layered over with a kind of mythic energy.
Every so often, there’s a little outbreak of thinkpieces complaining that theatre isn’t political enough – and that always implicitly means party political enough, or not concerned enough with skewering Boris Johnson (a man who surely lives his life in a fug of self-satire). Viewed together with A History of Nazi-Occupied Tunisia, and Camp Siegfried, Old Bridge suggests a landscape where playwrights are intimately concerned with politics, and trying to understand what it felt like to live in a past where world events unseated everything.
What’s the appeal of these stories of young love set against the backdrop of growing cruelty and division? The popularity of Rita Kalnejais’s 2017 play This Beautiful Future feels like a bit of a precursor. Viewed uncharitably, you could call its love story between a young Hitler Youth member and a French teenage girl a way of avoiding some of the grey areas of adult complicity and ugly moral compromises, a way of avoiding also the risk of sympathising with a fully-fledged adult fascist. But I don’t think that would be fair. It feels more like it’s a distinct interest in innocence, and the moments at which that gets lost – the transition from normality to a grimmer reality.
Considering that point of transition feels more urgent, now. The playwrights writing these plays largely (like me) came of age with New Labour and the endless promise of a society that was getting better, one which matured unattractively into austerity politics, sudden jolts to the Right, then Brexit, the pandemic, and continued inaction in the face of climate change. When is the exact point when politics will no longer be background noise, and will start to become unignorable – are we there yet?
Young love becomes a point of universal innocence, against which the world’s bleakness can be measured (only, of course, young love is anything but a universal experience – these couples are all straight and socially acceptable except for the way they cross political and religious lines).
It’s also a strategy that makes way for foreshadowing: the small, specific pains of adolescence are a foretaste of the much greater agonies of war.
In Old Bridge, Mili plummets into the water from the bridge unprepared, like a civilian plunged into war and leaving his old self painfully behind. In Camp Siegfried, Her and Him become covered in painful cuts and welts as they build a podium for a Nazi rally by hand: their bodies sculpted into the Nazi ideal by labour. In This Beautiful Future, Elodie takes chicks from the bloodied nest of a dead hen – the symbolic blood on her hands from this innocent gesture echoed later.
I’m not ancient but I’m just old enough to notice the way that stories of youth predominate in theatre and culture more generally. It makes sense. Everyone has a youth to look back on. Aging is culturally constructed as something to recoil from. Another recent-ish play, Kae Tempest’s Paradise, is rare and fantastically original for the way it considers war from the perspective of age. Lesley Sharp played Philoctetes, the antithesis of yearning young love: he’s a half-strutting, half-shuffling geezer, bent over by betrayal and bitterness, wounded and isolated. The story centres on questions of trust and honour: can Philoctetes unlearn the hard-learned lessons of experience and trust the young soldier who seems to promise escape?
When he does unbend himself, it’s a mistake. He was better off islanded away from the world.
Once you’ve lost your innocence you can’t get it back, and it’s dangerous to try.
There is definitely something political to a theatre that, at its heart, shows how people who don’t pay attention to things beyond their own concerns are forced to. The innocent lovers at the centre of the story are confronted by the cruelties of the world beyond their bed. And the audience who came for a love story, too, are forced to think about wider questions.
I am interested, though, in how this theatre matures.
At the end of Old Bridge, Emina is stuck: the people she loved are lost, and her own dreams are a distant memory.
“‘What happens now?’ they asked us, with that air of foreign optimism… A
man sits broken in his home having lost everything, and you walk in and ask
him what’s for dinner.
‘Nothing’ we told them. ‘Nothing happens’…”
There’s something so heartbreaking about Memic’s evocation of a post-war desolation and stillness – of a town where people walk round with photos of those they’ve lost, still hoping for news.
But after the stillness comes a reckoning.
It’ll be interesting to see whether these playwrights follow up their stories of shattered young love with something uglier and more morally complex: to see how they’ll grow up, after the dust settles.