Riverside Studios, London W6
Opened 12 April, 1995

Some theatre pieces require the audience to bring extrinsic knowledge to bear upon what is presented onstage. With Waterfall, such interpretation is simply inescapable, and the combination of stage action and real-world knowledge makes for the most powerful theatrical wail of despair I have heard in years.

Vidosav Stevanovic's play is set in a cellar in an unnamed war-torn Bosnian town. A Croatian mother and her daughter (Caroline John and a remarkable Lucy Cohu) are sheltering from the bombardments and snipers, leading lives of the kind of black, discomfiting absurdism which makes one realise why Susan Sontag chose to direct Waiting For Godot in Sarajevo. Shards of banality are all that survive: bathing in imaginary water, using an imaginary cigarette lighter on your roll-up when the real lighter fails to spark.

Into the cellar bursts their husband/father, a drunken, bombastic Serb (Sylvester Morand occasionally swashing his sinister buckle to excess), intent on ethnically cleansing his family. As Catholic-Orthodox tensions grow the parents argue over saints' days and the "correct" way to cross oneself the daughter's Muslim lover arrives, followed by a blue-helmeted, all but mute United Nations "observer".

Stevanovic's allegory is transparent. The three groups argue over a map of Bosnia; the U.N. observer becomes a U.N. voyeur, taking flash photographs of the violence which eventually erupts (thanks to his refusal to disarm any party), and on trying to take the daughter is revealed as impotent. There are no revelations, no nuances of subtlety.

But the situation a couple of thousand miles beyond the Riverside Studios does not allow the luxury of subtlety or abstract aesthetic delight. Waterfall is not agitprop, urging us to act to alleviate the situation: it simply, forcefully and incessantly compels us to remember what is going on in the former Yugoslavia, going on all the time whether or not we think about it.

The cast of five, under the direction of Lenka Udovicki, give performances of utter dedication, subordinating themselves at every moment to the play. Waterfall will probably not stand the test of time as a play; theatre, though, is an art form which deals in immediacy rather than posterity, and on that score it perfectly achieves its goal: it forbids us to forget.

Written for the London Evening Standard.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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