Q: What do an army deserter in drag, a glue-sniffing bimbo, an alcoholic lesbian, a vicious female dentist, and a shy Muslim girl in a chador have in common?
A: They all want to be Miss Bosnia 1993.
Q: Why a beauty contest, for goodness sake? There’s a war on, and Sarajevo is under siege!
A: Because of the prizes – a packet of real coffee for third, a food hamper for the runner-up and, for the lucky winner, a seat on a UN bus out of Bosnia-Herzegovina. Nuff said?
Under its comic surface, Louis Nowra’s play, which was inspired by a real event in Sarajevo in 1993, has tragic undertones about the horrors of war and the results of ethnic and religious hatred, but this production avoids too much emphasis on these aspects of the play, probably because it would be too taxing for amateur actors.
Basically they play it for laughs, of which there were plenty at the mid-run performance I saw, with an audience who were there for a good night out and didn’t want to bother their heads about ethical issues. And for this theatre and this kind of audience, I don’t see that as a problem, in spite of the political furore the play raised when it was first performed.
On one level, everything it suggests about the bitchiness of beauty contests is true, and the back-biting antics of the contestants are very funny indeed, as is the way the quest is conducted. Officially, the interview section is to elicit the girls’ opinions about serious subjects like nuclear war, abortion and child slavery, but as it’s conducted off-stage, by the organiser and an army general, the questions slide sideways, so that one girl is asked by the general (whose morale may need raising, but very little else) whether she’d pose nude for a men’s magazine. And you can imagine the rest.
Everyone plays a stock character from farce, and some of them are very good, especially Natasha Yantsch as the pageant organiser, who never lets anyone forget that three years before she was Miss Ex-Yugoslavia. She’s helped enormously by her magnificent wigs and costumes, which outshine everyone else’s, but her projection isn’t terribly good and for the first 15 minutes I couldn’t work out what she was on about.
There’s a lot of over-playing which means that the horrors of their lives never come into sharp relief, and the big dramatic moments are often lost, such as the revelation that two of the women survive by selling their bodies to the UN soldiers for food, and that the transvestite army deserter has to perform oral sex on the general, who has fallen in love with him but must never know that he’s a man.
There’s no happy ending because, in spite of all the plotting and bargaining, nobody ends up happy, the UN truck goes off without the winner, and it all ends up in tears.
As long as you can enjoy this production without being disturbed by the political and moral implications, then it’s a good fun night at the theatre. Certainly I didn’t notice the time dragging, even if I did find the interpretation a little hard to take.
Directed by Diana Golden
Playing until 5 March 2005: Thu-Sat 8pm, Wed 2 March 8pm, Sunday matinees 13 & 27 February
Running time: 2 hours 45 mins including interval