23 November 2012

Namibia: The Cellist of Sarajevo Fails

Windhoek — The Cellist of Sarajevo is a stage presentation of an historical event, adapted and produced by the Bank Windhoek Festival organisation, with contributions from various participants. It remains a musical event, nevertheless.

The historical background draws on a tragedy that happened during the Bosnian conflict when 22 people, queuing for bread, on May 26, 1992, were killed in a mortar attack. A lone Bosnian cellist , Vedran Smajlović (b.1956) elected to mark the incident by playing his cello out in a war-ravaged area for 22 days, as a memorial to the 22 victims. In the hostilities, the various factions in the conflict were silenced by this act of bravery and heroism. It has since been re-enacted as a stage performance around the world, by various musicians and music ensembles, in which the cello features prominently. World-renowned cellist, Yo-Yo Ma, and Paul O'Neill, number amongst them.

The music chosen by the cellist is from a partial music score, by Albanoni, the Adagio in G Minor, which subsequently saw David Wilde compose the score known as Cellist from Sarajevo, performed initially by Yo-Yo Ma and Paul O'Neill, and subsequently by many others. The Bank Windhoek adaptation draws on that same score, which has now become internationally recognisable wherever it is performed.

The production at the National Theatre of Namibia recently was an event that combined a script by Aldo Behrens, music by the Trio Feminale from Swakopmund, augmented by a seven-strong band of well-known musicians, and the Bank Windhoek Kalahari Ensemble consisting of 13 singers. The Kalahari Ensemble was a real joy to experience, particularly in the midst of some of the noise, the clang and the mediocrity that masquerade as music in the capital.

Good music, and excellent performances are still to be found in Windhoek. The Cellist of Sarajevo was such a find, and a packed theatre was testimony to what local audiences recognise as worthy of their patronage.

The Behrens script contained both fact and fiction, and a considerable amount of licence was taken in its production. It was very noticeable that the thrust of the text took on a proselytising tone in its reference to Biblical figures and Old Testament events, which was very disturbing in the context of the historical facts of the Bosnian event.

During the Bosnian war, the group that suffered the most, who lost the most family members, in a genocide, which still resonates at the International Court of Justice, at The Hague, was the Muslim community.

Yet the Behrens script does not acknowledge this very well-known fact. In choosing to foreground a Christian focus in the proselytising agenda, it diminishes the significance of the Sarajevo event, and minimises the universality of the moral and the message relative to the folly of war and armed aggression. The original Cellist of Sarajevo did indeed have, and still does have a universal message for those who wish to listen. The Windhoek production does that agenda no good at all, in failing to recognise the thousands of Muslim victims in the conflict that reignited in the Balkans during that tragic period in recent history. The images screened on stage were of Bosnian victims, not of Christians per se. The damage caused to infrastructure was to communities across ethnic lines and divides. A universal message, if it is to have any relevance, must speak to moral issues across those divides. The Windhoek production fails in that regard.

Aldo Behrens applies a familiar contra puntal method of protagonist and antagonist in the structure of this stage production with himself cast as the protagonist, in a running dialogue with the antagonist. This is where the weakness in this theatre piece is most obvious, and some of the production's attraction is lost. The Cellis of Sarajevo, as a piece of theatre, requires a consistency in the delivery of the emotive quality. The Behrens voice, however, is completely unsuited to this purpose. Behrens should have recused himself and offered the role to someone vocally more suited.

The role of the cellist was played by a member of the Trio Feminale, dressed in a suit and hat to resemble the original male cellist. Would it not have been in the interest of authenticity if she had dispensed with red lipstick that was in evidence on the night?

The Cellist of Sarajevo was a very welcome interlude on the local music/theatre scene, but there were certain lapses in the application to detail, which should have been avoided. The Kalahari Ensemble received a standing ovation, and one hopes to see them perform more regularly in future.

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