It was a long drive from Tuzla in the north of Bosnia to Mostar in Herzegovina down south. But what a drive. As I’ve already mentioned, I was struck by the mountainous landscapes driving north – but the terrain in south of the country is even more breathtaking. The mountains are huge and as we wove our way through them in our little van, the company sat in awe and silence.
En route we stopped at Jablanica and the Neretva river where a battle against the Yugoslav Partisans took place in 1943, which resulted in its railway bridge being destroyed. In 1969 a film was made of these events, endorsed by Tito himself and starring such actors as Orson Welles. The film had a huge budget which meant a replica of the bridge could be built and destroyed on location – not once, but twice – and that replica bridge remains at the site to this day. Despite this massive effort and investment, the footage filmed wasn’t used in the final edit of the film because of excessive smoke… and the event was eventually reshot in Prague using a small table-size replica.
When we arrived in Mostar, it felt like another world. It’s one of the most beautiful cities I’ve ever visited – and not even these photographs can do it justice.
It is famous for its own iconic bridge, this one destroyed in 1993 and then reconstructed in the late ’90s from the original stone and using the original building techniques. Locals solicit money from tourists and then jump from it into the freezing water below. Occasionally tourists have a go too – and normally end up hospitalised. Not recommended.
The theatre, HNK Mostar, was a little like the Tardis. From the outside it looks tiny, but when inside you immediately go down some stairs and realise that most of it is built underground. The playing space was originally planned to be the smaller of two spaces, but the main space was never built due to funding issues, so the theatre just has the one stage. It was the smallest space we’ve performed on to date, but given the advanced warning we’d had we were able to adapt. As in Tuzla, the performance felt much more intimate: we were literally just a couple of feet from the front row.
Sequences such as Amila and Jasenko’s ice routineinspired dance seemed to go more quickly because of the restricted playing space but still worked well. We are planning to take the piece to Edinburgh next year where spaces are often small, so it’s useful to know that the piece can work in this sort of environment.
Representatives from the board of trustees of the British Council saw the piece and we spoke in depth with them about the work and connecting creatively with international partners after the show. I spoke with an ex-musician who gave up touring the globe with his band to establish a rock school in Mostar. In just three years, the school has amassed over 100 students and has 60 on its waiting list. People are crying out for culture and I take my hat off to anyone who helps deliver it. The arts enrich lives in a truly unique way: they give people a sense of purpose and belonging, they give voices to the voiceless. We have to protect creativity and expression.
On our way back to Sarajevo we stopped at Pocitelj, a town home to the ruins of an old fort, where pomegranates grow in their thousands – and then we ate lunch by the source of the river, at the foot of a giant cliff-face. Dervishes had established this idyllic spot as a holy site centuries ago; the water is completely clear and still pure enough to drink.
Back in Sarajevo we were invited to share farewell tea with Nihad, the artist director of SARTR, at his apartment. He shared with us his library: a huge archive of books and documents that his father and grandfather had amassed whilst working at historians of Bosnia-Herzegovina. Their work differed from other historians in that they did not focus on royalty and the upper classes, but on history from the point of view of the common man. Nihad showed us his fascinating collection of passports from former
Yugoslavia through to the present day, the designs of which have changed 11 times in the last 150 years: bearing in mind a state will normally change the designs of its passport perhaps once every 50 years, the sheer quantity of changes in such a short period speaks volumes about the constant identity shifts experienced in this part of the world. Nihad spoke so eloquently and passionately that we all felt very moved, we could have listened to his for days. Nicki was holding back tears when he produced disarmed shells and grenades that hit his building during the Bosnian War.
These few blog posts have only just scratched the surface of what it’s been like to tour here. Our tour of Bosnia-Herzegovina has been a privilege and I think I speak for the whole team when I say we have learnt a huge amount about the history and culture of this often misunderstood part of the world.
I hope one day we can return.