Seven Kilometeres North-East – Kym Vercoe takes annecdote to experience. (Theatre Review)
Seven Kilometers North-East
One of my favourite films is taken from a play (I’m one of those annoying people who don’t mind film that looks like theatre) Six Degrees of Separation, a film I love mostly because of Ousia Kittredge’s final speech (from the Fred Schepisi film), which for me exemplifies the problem for all writers:
“And we turn him into an anecdote to dine out on like we’re doing right now. But it was an experience, I will not turn him into an anecdote. How do we keep what happens to us, how do we fit it into life without turning it into an anecdote with no teeth, and a punchline you’ll tell for years to come: “Oh, that reminds me of the time the imposter came into our house.” “Oh! Tell the one about that boy.” And we become these human jukeboxes spitting out these anecdotes to dine out on like we’re doing right now. Well I will not turn him into an anecdote, it was an experience. How do we keep the experience?”
It was watching Six Degrees of Separation that made me want to tackle the problem of refusing experience to be diluted into anecdote as a writer, A problem that I feel is common to all human beings, whether we chose to be artists or not. Experience burns inside and transforms, and communication connects us to the human race. What affects us deeply is likely to affect others, if only – to steal from Marie Cardinale – we have the words to say it. This is the central dilemma for Kym Vercoe, a talented fascinating woman who, while performing in Europe, decided to make a trip to Bosnia part of her European odyssey, lured by the unconventional destination and the Bradt Travel guide, the cool alternative to Lonely Planet. This trip led to others that led to powerful experiences of Bosnia & Herzegovina that Kym felt needed to be shared. This play is her lucid and yet emotionally wrought retelling of her journey into the dark past of this beautiful part of Europe.
Seven Kilometers North-East opens with the audience facing a large white wall, a doorway carved out of it like a blackened tooth, split into two screens upon which a moving image of a plane preparing to take off sits on repeat. We know we’re about to take a journey. Above the white wall washing is hung on lines, and as the play progresses we will see them absorb images of the filmed journey Kym took through her various visits to Bosnia. Soon Ms Vercoe appears and begins her spirited tale of modern Bosnia, the huge images of her film making projected behind her. She makes coffee, drinks beer and smokes and talks of similarities, differences, beauty and joy of Bosnia, while the lilting tones of Sladjana Hodzic are performed live at various intervals. All of this hinges on a book she read that first led her to Bosnia, The Bridge Over the Drina written by Nobel prize winner Ivo Andric. For Vercoe, an Australian, the horrors of the Balkan wars in the early 90’s were newspaper clippings, and history lessons – informative anecdotes, newsworthy items to be thought about, considered and allocated to the infamous atrocities human’s can inflict upon each other during war-time. History lessons separate from the present of an Australian school girl.
As the monologue progresses, however, the reality of what occurred on the soil she walks can’t keep its distance. Soon The Bridge over the Drina is the location of the Višegrad massacres, and her visit to Srebrenica, warmly encouraged in the Bradt travel guide becomes the gateway into an understanding of the horrors that happened there in 1995 that bring her close to both the sufferers and the perpetrators. In a chilling retelling, Vercoe speaks of walking down the street and looking at the men and asking in her mind, “were you there? what did you do?” The relationship between local customs and mass murder, the soil once soaked with blood and her own hotel room in Vilina Vlas, used as a torture camp where women were raped until they died of their wounds, suicide or insanity. It was the refusal to include these rapes in the listed war crimes that led to Kym Vercoe’s confrontation with her own story telling importance.
But this is no mere retelling of history. Verscoe retains her relationship with both Bosnia and the audience, relating at all times her experience, her guilt at realising there may be a fetish side to thanotourism, previously unrealised, and in a theatrical highlight of the performance, dancing away the sadness of the country to “take on me” with a Muslim man performing in the street on the film behind her. As the artists and the recorded street performer dance in unison, the coalescing of experience, memory and narrative form a perfect moment of essential and exquisite story telling. Kym Vercoe perfectly aligns her own experience with the experience of the audience and manages to bring something alive that must never be forgotten.
Seven Kilometers North-East is a chilling and provocative piece of theatre, perfectly executed from the audience and performers point of view. The final scenes will shock and remain with you, as they should, but in the end it was Vercoe and the anonymous man, dancing away her sand crafted image of The Bridge over the Drina that will forever be able to bring me to tears.