We have just returned from Sarajevo after showing Bolero at Sarajevo War Theatre. We premiered the show on 29 June 2014 as part of the British Council’s Connecting Creatively programme marking the anniversary of the start of the First World War. It was compelling to be in Sarajevo on the anniversary of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand. To stand in a city that still hears echoes of the gunshot fired in 1914. To stand in a city marked by so many wars since that day. A city where buildings still bear their battle scars. Where the Second World War memorial wears bullet holes from the Bosnian war. Where shell damage has been filled with red wax to make them look like petals. The pavements there bleed flowers. Sarajevo Roses.
On the anniversary of the assassination we walked past the spot where it took place. The world’s media were there. Police blew whistles and told us to stand on the pavement and an entourage of ambassadors were driven past with their country’s flags bristling on their armoured cars. A replica automobile was parked on the spot where the Archduke’s driver had made a fateful wrong turn with passengers in replica costumes. Its registration plate read: A111118. A horrible coincidence that it spelt out the date of Armistice Day four years later after millions lost their lives.
On the same day we found a plaque on the wall that marks the spot where the first attempt on the Archduke’s life was made 100 years ago. Its faded Cyrillic inscription reflects the fact that noone talks about the first attempt or how many people were injured or killed. They are lost in the margins of history. We are working in those margins counting the human cost of war. Our Bolero puts the music of Ravel centre stage and lets the wars that bookend our story take place in the wings. We never show the audience the conflict only the aftermath; parents grieve over their child’s grave, people mop the floor after a shell has fallen, blood-red paint is spilt.
On 28 June 2014, a concert was held in City Hall, the venue the Archduke was leaving when he was shot. The Viennese Philharmonic played music from the turn of the 20th Century before the world slid into conflict. Ravel’s La Valse was played, a discordant riff on the Blue Danube Waltz that ends with the crashing and clashing of instruments vying for supremacy. When I watched it on Bosnian TV images of war were superimposed onto musicians. Ravel was inspired by the First World War to write much of his music after 1914 and here was proof. Music was his way of dealing with his experience of conflict. We talk in the show about Frontispiece, a composition he dedicated to five close friends he lost in the war, to be played by five hands.
There is a line in Bolero about how ‘… music has power, it is fundamental’. We are referring to the performance of Mozart’s Requiem during the siege of Sarajevo when the conductor, Zubin Mehta, walked through the ruins of the bombed out City Hall to raise his baton during a ceasefire. The same City Hall the Archduke was leaving when he was shot. The same City Hall that hosted a concert on the centenary of the assassination. It is obvious that war has inspired music, Ravel’s La Valse and Bolero being two examples, but music has always survived and thrived during times of conflict. We only have to think of stories like The Cellist of Sarajevo to see how we turn to music at times when the world is too much to bear. It is this human urge for self-expression and the power of music in adversity that we celebrate in Bolero. It is this that made me proud and honoured to be part of the British Council programme.
We tour Bolero to Bosnia in October before returning to the UK in 2015. But we will always be marked by a gunshot fired in Sarajevo 100 years ago. A gunshot that still echoes today in the world we inhabit and the work we make. We can only tell the stories we want to tell about this world. We can only conduct these echoes.