Dubbed an “electro-folk drama” by theatre-maker Patrick Eakin Young, director of the company Erratica, Remnants is a work that resists categorisation – a potent tapestry of song, electronic music, dance and recorded interviews.
The starting point was Courtney Angela Brkic’s memoir, The Stone Fields, which recounts her experiences of exhuming mass graves in Bosnia in 1996. She was just 23. But this is a double excavation: American-raised Brkic was drawn there because of her family history in the area. In the second world war, her grandmother’s Jewish partner was interned by the Nazis, while her grandmother’s sister was married to a Nazi war criminal. Both their husbands disappeared.
Eakin Young’s recorded interviews with Brkic form the backbone of the evening. A solo female dancer (Fabiola Santana), in movements tough and beautiful, bone-clickingly jerky and femininely sinuous, embodies both Brkic and her grandmother. The story is also animated by music: four female vocalists sing in harmonies often close and sweet, often unnervingly discordant; keening lamentations using both Balkan folk songs and Brkic’s own words. They provide a haunting emotional outlet when the horrors of war pass beyond what words alone could convey.
The focus is the impact of war on women, and particularly the impossibility of grieving when you don’t know if a loved one is dead or alive. Remnants is only an hour long, but feels longer; this is hefty stuff. It can be ponderously paced, with dreamy sequences about family holidays and love affairs interspersed with darker reflections. But it’s also extremely elegant in adapting frequently disturbing material, and contains one scene as powerful as any on stage right now.
Brkic’s job was cataloguing items found in the graves alongside decomposing bodies to help identify them, a process we ‘see’ in one moment. A singer takes a knife to a cardboard box, their high, piercing harmonies disturbingly in tune with the high, horrible whine of a saw. Slowly, with great effort, they pull out revolting looking forms; the mind leaps to entrails, but they untwist into clothing, laid out and numbered. Some are children’s clothes, heartbreakingly small. It’s a brilliant moment, where the horror of a real-life account is viscerally realised in the audience’s minds, through the power of suggestion and the human voice raised in song.
Brkic’s memoir could be told as documentary, stark and real. Erratica’s production takes a different path, but in doing so, takes us close to the emotional heart of the story.
Until 1 July