The stage is bare except for a pair of metallic staircases, a trio of shiny wheelbarrows, and an array of hanging pipes that become ominous gongs when struck. Freshly painted Cyrillic letters mark the space as newly Serbian. The atmosphere is dark, the mood menacingly industrial. Three women emerge in black coats—grave, androgynous, ashen-faced. In the course of 90 minutes, they deliver a journalistic montage about one of the worst European massacres to occur since World War II. At the crux of the story is the genocidal murder of approximately 7000 Muslim men and boys in a Bosnian “safe area” ostensibly under United Nations control. French playwright and director Olivier Py lets the facts speak for themselves.
Requiem for Srebrenica—presented last week as part of BAM’s Next Wave festival—bears witness not only to one of the bloodiest chapters in the recent Bosnian tragedy, but to the Western political missteps that made the atrocity possible. In exchange for UN protection, the Bosnian Muslims demilitarized themselves, turning over their tanks and heavy artillery for a promise that would effectively vanish in the face of Serbian aggression. The play (in French with English surtitles) is culled from a variety of documentary sources, mainly newspapers and journals, with interviews of people like Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic, who boasts about listening to Mozart from the bowels of his armored car. Excerpts from a press conference with François Mitterand reveal both the profound European fear of a ground war and the racist rationale (“the Serbs are not Nazis and the Bosnians are not whiter than white”) underlying the UN’s failure to uphold its military commitment.
Py’s female cast doesn’t so much impersonate these male figures as convey their words in a stark, unaffected manner. The minimalist mise-en-scène, while subtly innovative, registers a deep distrust of stage rhetoric. Instead of conjuring a realistic replica of the actual events, the Brechtian production continually reminds you that you’re in a theater: Technicians openly adjust scenery, bibliographic footnotes are cited, directorial flourishes (like the flying up of a wheelbarrow during a moment of violence) remain perfectly transparent. Py vigilantly guards against sentimentality and other forms of emotional exploitation. The result is an enlightening exposé that’s harsh in its political critique, sober in its style.
But while invaluable as a cautionary historical composition, Requiem doesn’t fully embrace the uniqueness of its chosen medium. The chief benefit Py derives from turning his research into a performance piece (as opposed to a book or article) is the communal aspect of the forum. There’s also the committed service of his actors, who seem as ashamed of the West’s silent complicity in the Serbian massacre as they are of the possibility of receiving kudos for remembering the dead. The production, though, doesn’t venture much beyond journalism. An opportunity arises with the cartoon introduction of Dena, the celebrated Serbian dog that epitomizes the ethnic nationalism fueling the war. Yet Py retreats from this ricocheting satirical interlude to the cover of noble reportage.