Playwright, journalist and poet Matei Visniec was born in Romania in 1956. Throughout the Ceauşescu era his work was severely censored, prohibiting publication and performance of his theatre productions. In 1987, Visniec was invited to France where he asked for political asylum.
Since then, Visniec's work has been performed across the continent. The collapse of Communism in 1989 and 1990 finally rewarded Visniec with the opportunity to produce his work in his homeland. In the years immediately after 1989 he became the most performed playwright in Romania.
Visniec's theatre was recognised in France in 1990 with his play Les Chevaux as la Fenetre. Ten of his plays have since been performed in France and his work has also been received in the United States, Canada, Germany, Belgium, Finland, the Netherlands, Poland and Morocco.
Visniec's The Body of a Woman: as a battlefield in the Bosnian War, showing at the Young Vic from 15 November to 2 December, is a portrayal of two women: an American psychologist and a victim of gang rape and war in Bosnia-Hercegovina (1991 to 1995). The psychologist, Kate, played by Gina Landor, comforts and monitors the progress of her patient, Dorra, played by Sladjana Vujović, in a NATO medical facility on the German border between 1995 and 1996. However, in a classic twist of theatre the tables are turned and Dorra begins to become the inquisitor and the support for Kate.
Visniec's success in Europe and in Romania is undeniable and the production is potentially strong, playing on issues that are crucial to understanding the horrific events of conflict through the body of a woman.
Bosniak, Croat or Serb?
Understanding ethnicity and nationalism is the key to understanding the Balkan conflicts of the last decade. From the outset the performance reveals the relevance of both issues.
What is presumably meant as a radio broadcast acts as a narrative, linking different scenes together with snippets of news, information and statistics about the conflict. Here is where the raw information is provided, but it is taken a little further, somewhat undermining the author's aim to keep the horrific images of war alive as "...the great human dramas fade." (Matei Visniec, The Balkan Plots, Aurora Metro Press).
Nonetheless, Vujović brings back the severity of the situation in her portrayal of a rape victim. She is introduced stating that she does not know who or of what nationality her attackers were: Croat, Bosniak or Serb.
Nationalism and ethnicity are an ongoing theme throughout the performance. The author plays on the humourous and ironic side of Slavs and their penchant for strong alcoholic beverages. This is particularly relevant when Kate brings wine, snacks, vodka and music to Dorra one evening.
Visniec cleverly depicts a situation where different ethnic groups are introduced through music—although some of the chosen music does not, in reality, coincide with the ethnic group that it is supposed to represent. As Dorra and Kate get more and more drunk their opinion about different ethnic groups loses its subtlety.
Whilst the tracks play, Dorra comments "I like them but..." The Greek are domineering and rebellious, as are the Hungarians, the Turks are nice but their history is not so favourable, the Albanians are the oldest Slav people but they are the lowest of the low, the Romanians are whores, fatalistic and two-faced despite a warm side, the Serbs are pure blooded nationalists, the Croatians are open-minded Westernized Slavs but would stab you in the back, the Bulgarians are nice and the Bosnian Muslims deserve their own country. Unfortunately, the humorous, ironic scene would be more hard-hitting if Dorra's own nationality was revealed rather than just implied.
Not wishing to be left out of the drunken conversation, Kate reveals that Bosnia isn't the only place where nationality and ethnicity raise problems. In America, they have the Blacks, Mexicans, Puerto Ricans—but she still likes them.
This comparison seems weak. America was not in the throws of a violent and bloody conflict on their own territory between 1992 and 1995. The fear of death was not ever-present. The United States had not just come out of decades of Communist rule only to be thrown into conflict with their former partners. The US was overwhelmingly more stable than the former Communist regions of Europe. This stereotypical "but we have our problems too" approach almost ridicules the severity of the situation that Bosnia, Croatia and Serbia found themselves in during the 1990s.
Rape and war
Vujović plays the part of the impregnated rape victim with great lucidity. She does not want the child, it is eating away at her insides. She wakes screaming in the night, she can feel it moving, destroying her. Rather disturbingly, Kate will not let Dorra satisfy her wish to have an abortion and rather unrealistically, there are no doctors, no examinations and no counsellors.
Quite understandably, Dorra does not want a child of war, a child of horror. She regards the unborn child as a product of war, a symbol of things she would like to forget. Despite Vujović's high quality and emotive acting, the main use of rape throughout the Bosnian conflict is not explained in detail. The rape not only represents the abuse of a woman but the abuse of a nation.
In cultures throughout Bosnia, Croatia and Serbia, the extended family is an integral part of society. Many of these families, particularly those of Bosniak nationality believed that if a woman was impregnated by a man from a different nationality, that woman would immediately be excluded from the family and become a member of the offending nation.
This may be an extreme case scenario but the sentiment and rationality behind such a situation is still prevalent and is crucial to understanding the wider implications of rape in the Bosnian war. The play failed to bring such issues clearly to the forefront.
The realities of the conflict were brought to life during a description of mass graves. Kate, a psychologist, had left her family in America to provide support for those charged with the task of revealing the hidden secrets of Bosnian mass graves.
Weakened by the horrific images of death and slaughter she was transferred to the NATO medical facility where she met Dorra. Kate explains the mass graves in a clinical and distant fashion which is both somber and ironic. She speaks of the terrifying sights into her tape recorder that she has been using to record Dorra's case notes.
Kate reveals the mixed emotions of hope and fear on discovery of a new grave. There is the hope that one day they will open the grave to find someone still alive but a fear of the horrors that lie beneath the soil. Kate wants to be the saviour. That is why she left her "safe" America and her family, and that is why she prayed that on opening a grave she would be able to pull a survivor out.
It is with this explanation that the roles of Dorra and Kate change. Dorra begins to gain strength from her experiences whilst Kate is reminded of her own weaknesses. Dorra takes control of the tape recorder and speaks freely, indirectly questioning Kate's purpose for being there. The roles are, to some extent, reversed and Kate has become the analysed.
From the moment that Kate refuses Dorra her abortion—arguing that it is too early in the pregnancy—it is obvious where the play will end. Dorra regards her belly as a mass grave containing a living child of war. Kate sees this as her chance to pull a survivor from the mass grave.
In a final blow, Dorra refuses Kate the opportunity to take the child. She doesn't understand how or why Kate would want to take the responsibility when she has her own family at home. Dorra no longer has a family or a home and is, herself, a product of war. Kate can try to understand Dorra's situation but the experiences are simply beyond her perceptions. The incompatibility between the two characters intensifies throughout the play and is epitomized by Dorra's statement: "How can I tell you, Kate, that I hate my country?"
In places, The Body of a Woman: a battlefield in the Bosnian war is a dramatic, emotive and hard-hitting success. However, the characters, in particular that of Kate, reveal a flimsy comparison between very different cultures and societies. This somewhat overshadows the attempts to provide an understanding of rape in the Bosnian conflict. The author plays on typical sterotypes and clichés to put across a complex and difficult issue to interpret for the stage. Despite this, the play does achieve the author's initial motive: "To write as a way of trying to understand." (Matei Visniec, The Balkan Plots, Aurora Metro Press)
Catherine Lovatt, 27 November 2000
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