The Nineties: cassette tapes, Cool Britannia and… European conflict. Yes, there’s a rupture running through our kitschy, nostalgic idea of this decade: the Yugoslav Wars, which have since largely faded from memory, cost the lives of over 140,000 people, according to the International Center for Transitional Justice.
But a new play, Old Bridge by Igor Memic, puts the war in Bosnia back into view. It’s about the intoxicating experience of being young and free, diving headfirst into your future – until a war breaks out in your town. One of the characters wonders: how could there be a war when Mariah Carey is number one?
Named the winner of the 2020 Papatango Prize, previously won by Shook writer Samuel Bailey, Memic’s play opens at the Bush Theatre this week and rescues the stories of a generation who were trying to grow up and have fun, until their lives came under siege. The Old Bridge, Mostar’s breath-taking, ethereal 16th century bridge, brought to the ground during the fighting, is almost a character in the play.
Memic was born in Bosnia but came to London with his mother in 1992, when he was just two. His dual Bosnian-British identity has meant he’s spent his life “just feeling like a hyphen”, always somehow “other” in either place – “I guess sort of absorbing your identity from what other people tell you you are, rather than what you feel you are.” Old Bridge, he says, “was my excavation of the self. This was me taking all my trauma from the stories that I’ve absorbed from the people I care about and putting it on paper, and I guess through that finding out with clarity who I am.”
Back then, he cried at the airport – he didn’t want to leave their home in Mostar. “I think there was always that sense of ‘it will never happen to us’. And I think at least in this country, there’s always so much othering that takes place in conflicts around the world, when something happens in Syria, in Palestine, in Afghanistan, Bosnia, Kosovo, we always go, ‘oh, that’s a Them problem, they’re used to wars, they have them all the time’,” he tells me. “But it’s not true. My mum tells me stories about just living her life being fabulous, and then her dad turns and says ‘you need to leave right now.’”
The first time he went home to Mostar after the war, in 1999, “it was flat, there was nothing. It was just a shell of a city. Being told at nine years old, this is your home, this is where you’re from, and you just see a war zone, and then someone tells you ‘this is yours’ – it opens up a lot of questions.” He goes back often, and took some friends earlier this year. They were caught off guard – the rebuilt city “looks like a fairy tale”, he says.
It was while growing up in London, at a school that was “a bit rough round the edges”, that he discovered theatre. “My friends were, you know, on the rob and stealing bicycles and stuff and I was like, ‘oh sorry I can’t, I’ve got a play on’.” He went on to study playwriting at the Central School of Speech and Drama, and was often asked if he’d ever write about his home, being told it could be perceived as “quite sexy” to be born of conflict.
It was “always in me”, he says, but Old Bridge was “the play I promised myself I would never write.” Eventually, though, it overtook him. “I couldn’t contain these characters and these stories anymore. I come from a culture of storytelling and I’ve absorbed so many stories from people I care about – some who made it, some who didn’t. And this is kind of a justice to them in a weird kind of way.”
The play is not political – Memic didn’t want to write something that required audiences to feel like they needed to read a Wikipedia article beforehand – nor does it look to apportion any blame. Instead, he wrote “a memory play about a woman reconciling her past”, with two teenagers falling passionately in love at its heart. Writing it was “pure catharsis”, the messy first draft an “emotional soup of energy and feelings.”
That this period of history isn’t more widely spoken about, Memic credits to the fact that “the rest of the world is just sort of too busy having fun.” Sarah Kane’s outrage at the violence in Bosnia inspired her to write Blasted (although her now classic play doesn’t reference it directly), but otherwise everyone was talking about Britpop and the Spice Girls. With all of that happening, “you’re not gonna worry about some conflict that’s happening on the other side of the world,” Memic suggests. “And to a certain extent, that isn’t an accident. The politics of the world, and particularly in the UK and the US, was about manufacturing consent towards inaction. It was very much portrayed as ‘not our problem’, and if you allow that to permeate through the zeitgeist, then it gives people permission not to care, and then all you have to do is turn the music up louder.”
When I ask what it’s meant to win the Papatango Prize for a story that means so much personally, Memic tries to explain but sounds momentarily overcome. “The first person I phoned was my mum, of course. And she just burst into tears, because she knew exactly how much of me went into Old Bridge, and how much I’d absorbed from her stories and our friends and family.” In that moment, it didn’t feel like it was about him, but “a validation” for the characters in the play, “because all of them represent 10,000 stories that couldn’t be told for whatever reason.”
His phone has been “off the hook” ever since he was named the Papatango winner, but Memic wants to enjoy seeing Old Bridge on stage before he chooses what he’s going to do next. But he knows it will be the last time he writes a play like this. “I don’t think I’ve got the capacity in me for another war play. I’m not a war writer. I tell love stories, I guess… I think I’m an old school romantic.”