Bregovic, sitting centre-stage in his trademark white suit, was surrounded by his usual gypsy brass cohorts along with a string quartet, a six-man Bulgarian choir and two female vocalists. The men, all magnificently rich of voice, wore full evening dress while the woman wore peasant costume and colourful headdresses; in front of this impressive semi-circle sat an armchair and a battered trunk: a container of memories, a symbol of exile and escape.
One of Bregović’s earliest successes, written during the war years when he was based in Paris, was the score for Patrice Chereau’s 1994 film, La Reine Margot, which was set against the backdrop of the French Wars of Religion. Here Bregovic transports that story to a modern Bosnian setting. The music is interspersed by bursts of narration from the actress Lisa Dwan. She plays the widowed daughter of a Balkan General, a Ratko Mladic figure. Her husband is from a different faith to her and so he is first forced to convert before being sent to the front line where he is killed; the man she loves reduced to so much meat. To dull the pain, she smokes weed, tearing pages from her mother’s books to roll her joints, ripping up the words of poets to feed the flames. “Small countries need big poets,” she comments dryly.
On the search for further joint-fodder, she comes across what initially appears to be the diary of a sixteenth century French queen, written during a previous period of religious slaughter. Parallels are drawn between the two women’s lives, between the St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre and the war in what was once Yugoslavia.
Not all of the audience seemed to welcome these spoken interludes or to appreciate what Bregović was trying to achieve. Many people seemed to be anticipating a more conventional Bregović concert. There was an atmosphere of restlessness and unease in some quarters that only grew with each renewal of the spoken part of the performance. And conceptually it wasn’t always successful. There were too many spoken sections and while Dwan is a strong stage presence with an evocative voice (her Irish accent seeming apt in context), there was a static quality to the staging, a lack of progression which at times diluted the potency of the music rather than adding to it. A better balance was achieved towards the end of the night, as the tone of the piece grew darker and the music and the words seemed to coalesce. As Dwan finally, desperately pleaded, “Lord, give the world to women,” a cheer went up, a chorus of female voices. Given the way in which Kustarica’s films either romanticize or interrogate – or both – a certain stripe of Serbian masculinity, the audience’s response was interesting, and the cheer that met Dwan’s entreaty provided a telling contrast to the derisive male catcalls that had marred some of the performance.
The main piece was followed by the obligatory – and, possibly in this case, necessary – encore in which Bregović and his fellow musicians launched into a series of drinking tunes and partisan songs, the stomping, soaring music that so much of the audience had been hoping for, culminating in a magnificent rendition of ‘The Belly Button of the World’. People leapt from their seats and danced and whooped and air-punched and all thoughts of war – and of the wives and daughters left behind – were soon washed away on a wave of rakia and revelry.
Reviewed for Exeunt