Foe play - Class Enemy
This article is from 2008.
In times of both war and peace, Haris Pasovic has created crucial theatre. Malcolm Jack speaks to him about taking a story set in 1970s Brixton and plunging it into contemporary Sarajevo.
In reference to the assasination that sparked World War I and the bloody siege of Sarajevo between 1992 and 1996, the late Susan Sontag wrote: ‘Just as the 20th century began at Sarajevo, so will the 21st century begin at Sarajevo.’ In the summer of 1993, Sontag, in an act of solidarity with the people of that city, had famously directed a version of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot there, as part of the Bosnian capital’s MESS International Theatre Festival.
The artistic director of MESS at that time, and producer of her play, was Haris Pasovic, an erstwhile wunderkind of former Yugoslavian theatre. Pasovic’s pre-war productions at Belgrade’s Yugoslav Drama Theatre in the late 90s were major artistic landmarks in the region; MESS (which he managed throughout the war) and the first Sarajevo Film Festival (which he helped create in 1993) were not just artistically significant undertakings too, but also crucial bedrocks of normality and free expression in the beleaguered city as the bullets and bombs flew.
Since peace broke out in the Balkans, Pasovic has helped the Bosnian capital’s rebuilding process by staging some emblematically grand productions there, most notably his bold, futuristic take on Romeo and Juliet in 2002, set in front of the parliament building in downtown Sarajevo (the production stopped traffic on the city’s main thoroughfare for four hours every night it was performed) as well as a 2005 version of Hamlet, which was the region’s biggest co-production in over 20 years. The director and filmmaker remains concerned, however, that the ills of his home city, and Bosnia and the Balkans at large, are far from cured, particularly amongst the generation currently approaching majority.
‘At the beginning of the 21st century, we face a completely new, and very much modern, or post-modern, status in the world,’ Pasovic explains, down the phone from the central Sarajevo headquarters of East West Theatre Company, which he formed in 2005. ‘[Bosnia is] a country that’s still recovering from the most brutal war in Europe since World War II, and experienced a siege - something we thought belonged to the Middle Ages - genocide, and the worst human conditions imaginable, all in the era of globalisation when all this information was on daily television news around the world.
‘After this catastrophe, this apocalypse, we have a country that is recovering, and we recognise the same problems among the young people and about the world that Nigel Williams recognised 30 years ago in Class Enemy.’
Written by Williams (best known for penning Emmy Award winning TV series Elizabeth I) in 1976, Class Enemy is a minor classic of modern British drama. In its original conception, the play isolates seven foul-mouthed young adolescent boys - typical victims of Britain’s decaying inner cities during the period - in a decrepit South London schoolroom, and sees them conduct grotesque lessons and vandalise their environment as they await their teacher.
Pasovic and EWTC used Williams’ script as a framework to address similar themes - of isolation, deprivation and a frustrated search for knowledge - in present day Sarajevo, a city of single parent families, xenophobia and confused social values which are increasingly pushing disenchanted, neglected children and teenagers towards drugs and violence. ‘The story remains the same, and the situation remains the same,’ explains Pasovic. ‘We just made it more accessible to a Bosnian audience.’
Class Enemy’s core motivation, according to its author Williams, was bravery in the face of poverty. ‘I was living in Brixton at the time,’ he says of the play’s 1976 inception, ‘and I remember looking out the window and seeing some little West Indian kids playing at being Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. They were really quite poor, and they were walking around in a circle with spades from a building site or something singing, “it’s off to work we go”. I thought it said a rather amazing, silent thing about resilience. There was deprivation, but they were getting on with it.’
As Williams points out, adapting Class Enemy to local situations is no new idea; the play has been similarly used to address young peoples’ conditions in Germany, France and Brazil over the last three decades. Pasovic’s version crucially succeeds, though, in having a universal resonance well beyond its narrow boundaries. The mileage EWTC has already clocked up with the production is telling proof of that: by the time it arrives for its Edinburgh run (the first major staging of the play in the UK in some years) the company will have visited festivals in Singapore, Shanghai and Sibiu Romania, as well as theatres in Ljubljana Slovenia, Novi Sad Serbia and various small towns across Bosnia.
For Edinburgh International Festival director Jonathan Mills, Class Enemy and EWTC’s quality was irresistible, particularly in light of this year’s theme of exploring challenges, shifts and changes facing Europe today, alongside the wider theme of borders. After visiting the company’s base in Sarajevo last year and viewing all of their current productions, Mills was so impressed that the official launch in April, for the first time in the EIF’s history, happened outwith the UK, in the Bosnian capital.
‘Jonathan Mills saw that it works globally,’ Pasovic comments. ‘I think this is a fantastic phenomenon and how theatre can point to the essence of all of us around the world, sharing similar problems, similar dilemmas and similar concerns. It proves the vitality of theatre, it proves this theme of artists without borders, and it transcends politics by trying to address directly our human dimensions, whether we live in Sarajevo, Edinburgh or any of the other places it will play.’
In its aim to help highlight and ultimately improve the plight of young people in Sarajevo and the Balkans, Class Enemy is in some ways self-fulfilling: the cast and crew comprises many young people from across the national spectrum in the region - Bosnians, Croats, Serbs - practically all of whom have been touched in some way or other by its troubles.
‘In the production, actors who grew up during the war talk as characters who grew up during the war,’ Pasovic comments. ‘The executive producer, costume designer, technicians also grew up at that time. The very fact that they have overcome this, and that they’re brilliant, young, energetic, smart, talented people ready to engage totally in contemporary artistic life in the world is a very strong message.’
Pasovic is no romantic; he accepts that, alone, a single theatre production can’t expect to alter the prospects of an entire generation. ‘I am realistic; this is only one play. But as one play, it’s made a rather big story in this country and in the region and it’ll make a big story in Edinburgh; it’s a big achievement for one show. One show cannot resolve the problem, but it can point to the problem.’
Certainly it can only help generate a renewed sense of perspective and optimism for the Balkans in the century ahead. It’s the same sort of optimism that Susan Sontag - even in the gloomy implications of her words on Sarajevo and Europe’s violent new beginning during the 90s - must still have been able to muster. ‘As someone put it once,’ says Pasovic, ‘writing about some of my shows during the war: “These shows prove that life has the last word”. This somehow I like very much. Theatre is a big survivor.’
Class Enemy, Royal Lyceum, Grindlay Street, 0131 473 2000, 20-23 Aug, 8pm, £10-£25.