Childhood under siege of war

4th June 2004 at 01:00
Zlata's Diary. Communicado Productions. MacRobert Theatre, Stirling. Touring to: Inverness, June 5, Dundee, June 8, Livingston, June 11, Gilmorehill G12, Glasgow, June 13, Traverse, Edinburgh, June 15-19

The book Zlata's Diary: A Child's Life in Sarajevo is found in the young adult section of a shop or library and the stage adaptation by Communicado Productions is aimed at 11- to 14-year-olds, so it was surprising to see the number of primary children in the Stirling audience.

It was equally surprising that despite the length of the show (two hours 20 minutes including an interval), they didn't fidget in their seats. However, when the subject matter is as serious as this play's, and the production is as dramatic and moving, it is not difficult to hold children's attention.

Zlata's Diary is a compelling record of a girl's innermost thoughts and fears during the Bosnian war. Zlata Filipovic, who lived in Sarajevo, started to write a diary just before her 11th birthday in 1991 and completed it at the age of 13. The diary became an international bestseller and led to the French government and the United Nations, who were trying to bring peace to the region, arranging to fly Zlata and her family to safety in Paris.

The autobiographical account transfers well to the stage in this adaptation by director Gerry Mulgrew. Scenes are drawn from the diary and news reports and show the change from an everyday childhood to one full of fear, sadness, anger and frustration.

The first part is about school, woodwork lessons, piano practice and trips to the countryside to visit grandparents. Zlata, played by Frances Thorburn, is a bubbly, over-enthusiastic, wide-eyed girl. She likes pizza, MTV and listening to Michael Jackson and daydreams of models strutting down catwalks to Madonna's "Vogue".

All of this comes to an abrupt end as the war in Bosnia breaks out in 1992 and Sarajevo is put under siege. The happy sounds of childhood are replaced with harrowing sounds of gunfire and bombs. Zlata and her parents live in the cellar of their house and struggle to cope.

The change in atmosphere - from the excitement of the trip to the countryside and picking apples in the garden, to the dark cellar and the terror - is skilfully achieved, largely through music. Composer Allan Tall, who is also one of the seven cast members, combines recorded tunes with a range of instruments played on stage to create the perfect atmosphere for the given moment.

The play shows how, in Zlata's world, ordinary anxieties and pleasures took precedence over the horrors of war. It also shows human strength; how people found the capacity to survive and to go on with their lives.

Although children in the audience may not comprehend the background to the war, it can help them to understand the effects war has on civilians. There are scenes which try to fill in the background, passing information about the war to the younger audience, but these don't detract from Zlata's Diary as a play which speaks to people of all ages.

Zlata, who is now 23 and living in Dublin, will join in after-show discussions with the director and cast in Glasgow and Edinburgh.

Karen Shead

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