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Russian Composer Sets Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet" in Sarajevo

  • Kitty McKinsey

Zagreb, Croatia Jan. 17, (RFE/RL) - In death, Bosko Berkic and Admira Izmic became known as the Romeo and Juliet of Sarajevo.

Bosko, a Serb, was trying to escape the besieged Bosnian capital in May 1993 with his Muslim girlfriend, Admira, when both were shot on a bridge in no-man's land. Bosko died immediately, but Admira apparently lingered in agony for a day longer, the twitching of her body visible to Sarajevo residents and photographers and cameramen, who sent their images around the world. The bodies of the young man and woman lay on the bridge for eight days before the two warring sides - Bosnian Serbs and Bosnia's Muslim-led government army - could agree to let the bodies be taken away for burial.

The story of Bosko and Admira - combined with elements of the stories of countless other Bosnian couples from different ethnic groups - has now been made into a musical, which received its Balkan premiere in the Croatian capital of Zagreb last night.

Called "Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet in Sarajevo," the musical is the brainchild of Russian composer Sergei Grigorievich Dreznin, who tells RFE/RL that he has long identified with Shakespeare's famous drama of star-crossed lovers, and the irrational hatred between their two families.

Dreznin says "my own biography" was as much of an inspiration as the story of Bosko and Admira. In 1984, then living in Moscow, Dreznin fell in love with a British journalist working for an American news agency, the Associated Press. The two eventually married. But because they came from antagonistic countries, he says their romance in Moscow was plagued by harrassment by the Soviet secret police, the KGB.

When Dreznin and his wife moved to Vienna in 1987, and he founded the alternative musical theatre troupe "Red Angel Company," his fascination with Romeo and Juliet continued. Last summer, inspired by stories he had heard from journalists working in Bosnia, he combined stories from Sarajevo with Shakespeare.

The resulting musical, which Dreznin calls "a work in progress," combines verses from Shakespeare with text written by Sarajevo writer Miroslav Prstojevic. Already performed in Vienna, the musical combines English, German and Bosnian languages. The cast includes Bosnians, Austrians, an American and a Croatian.

In the musical, Romeo is a black-market dealer - as Bosko apparently was in real life - who buys gasoline from Ukrainian troops serving with the United Nations peacekeepers in Sarajevo. He meets Juliet in a cafe and the two only find out they are from feuding families - like Shakespeare's Montagues and Capulets - in a police check of identity documents. But by then, the two are in love and determined to stay together despite obstacles. In the musical, after Romeo revenges Mercutio's death by killing Juliet's cousin, Tybalt, the two vow to flee Sarajevo. Their plan - one executed by many couples in real life - is to convert to Catholicism to gain refuge in Catholic Croatia.

In an ironic final touch, after 'Romeo and Juliet' die in an embrace on the bridge, a waiter in the cafe where the black marketeers gather sells the story and pictures to an American journalist.

Natasa Mirkovic, a Sarajevo singer who portrays Juliet, praises the realism of the musical. She said: "Stories like these were abundant in Sarajevo. This is just one of the many Sarajevo stories that we are doing."

Dreznin agrees. He said: "There is not one invented word. We just arranged the reality."

It is an arrangement that pleased the standing-room only crowd at the Zagreb theatre last night. Denis Derk, a journalist with Zagreb's "Vecernji List" newspaper, was in the audience. He said "It's a very good story and very nice voices. I've been in Sarajevo and this is really the situation in Sarajevo."

Slavenka Drakulic, one of Croatia's best-known writers, who is now working on a book about Bosko and Admira, was impressed with the musical, which she said has universal appeal. She said: "This is a story that catches people's feelings and this is where they can identify and understand what has happened in Bosnia."

Dreznin and the "Red Angel Company" plan to take "Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet in Sarajevo" on a tour of Bosnia next month, including performances in Bihac, Tuzla, Mostar and Sarajevo. Writer Drakulic applauds these plans, but thinks the company should also aim for Broadway.