As part of my ever-continued quest to explore new places and ‘do more cultural things’, I ventured to visit the Pentameters theatre in Hampstead, North London. A brief statement of declaration: a personal friend of mine, Daniel Sawicki, was performing. I went to see a play called ‘The Tree’ by a Bernardo Stella. The story that was told before the play began was that Stella is a local restaurant business owner who sometimes writes plays and poetry, some of the former had been performed at said Pentameters venue.
‘The Tree’ was a romance story that was in impossible circumstances, as it was set between a Serb boy and a Muslim girl in what is now Bosnia and Herzegovina. I often hear the comparison of ‘Romeo and Juliet’ attached to stories and it often sounds very naff, and often undermines what the actual Shakespeare play was about by its elements. Often the ‘Romeo and Juliet’ comparison is seen as a desirable kind of romance or a very lovely situation. Of course if you actually read the Shakespeare text it is about two teenagers who fall in love but are from two families who basically have been killing each other for centuries. As far as adult relationships go, Romeo and Juliet is not a good cultural model for ideal behaviour. While I am on this point, I also don’t get the fascination with Goethe’s Werther for that matter.This story however, is, with the unfortunate cliche, an accurate Romeo and Juliet ‘star cross’d lovers’ situation. The story is set in around 1990/1991 and seems to go on to about maybe 1994.
The twinkle of attraction between Esad and Nikola in some respects is like many intercultural relationships. While flourishing it is between communities with cultural contact but mutual suspicion. As the story goes on the wider political backdrop becomes more and more relevant to their relationship and ultimately defines how it ends. It made me think about how the circumstances of a given time may affect romances. In better economic and social times I would like to think that these big forces have a minimal impact on relationships. It is at the more extreme of times, such as poverty or civil unrest, that our personal lives can sometimes take a back seat.
‘The Tree’ refers to a backyard tree from Nikola’s family home. Esad’s neighbouring family find the tree to be an annoyance and later on the basis for antagonism between the two families. In more peaceful times the tree had flourished and the narrator (Brankovic) later mentions that the tree eventually became a burned out stump from a bombing.
This is an ugly and harsh play. It made the audience uncomfortable and anxious. This play communicated a very specific set of historical circumstances and did so in a way that an audience could understand. The ugliness of the play reflected the ugliness of the inhumanity and the world of what was the post-Yugoslavia Bosnia. I have spoken in the past about how the Kantian description of beauty has an inverse, and this would be the ultimate expression of what is aesthetic ugliness. There is one point in the play when the two main characters are dead and Brankovic’s narrator character walks to the audience and looks at us figuratively in the eye (he physically looked at me in the eye briefly) and said: “LOOK AT THEM!”. Their plight represents not just a personal tragedy, but the collective tragedies of so many who went through a period of civil unrest in a historically located situation.
The moral significance of ugliness is expressed through this “LOOK AT THEM!” utterance breaking the fourth wall. In our lives our culture is a selective mirror to ourselves: we look at the world we want to be in, or perhaps a world we might enjoy imagining, or a world reflecting some aspect of our values. This “LOOK AT THEM!” is a wake up call to say: do not forget.