Three women – Pravda (meaning “justice”), Istina (“truth”), and Nada (“hope”) – sit around a table, grinding coffee and telling stories. Around them on stage are men’s boots, belts and a hat. The men are no longer here but killed in war.
It’s what writer and director Susan Moffat calls “the presence of absence”. In the play My Thousand Year Old Land (A Song for BiH), which Moffat wrote alongside Bosnian war survivor Aida Haughton, we follow three women whose lives are changed by the deaths of their communities’ men in the 1990s conflict in Bosnia and Herzegovina. They find themselves taking on the typically male roles in the family, from tilling the fields to feeding cockerels.
The play is set in the present, with several jumps back in time to the Bosnian war. It considers what it means to have roots when you live in a country damaged by conflict and genocide, and when you have experienced such loss and trauma.
For Moffat and Haughton, focusing on how everyday people are affected is key. “I wanted the ordinary stuff – the towels, the cloths that you put on tables,” says Moffat. It’s these items that remind us of our shared humanity – we all know what it’s like to have to do the washing, or the simple joy in sharing a coffee with our loved ones. As we talk, Haughton shows me a traditional coffee grinder from Bosnia, thin and made of copper. It’s one of many authentic objects featured in the production.
Coffee is a recurring theme. “When I went to Bosnia, everything is coffee,” says Moffat. “People are like: ‘Come in, sit down, have coffee.’” The hospitality of the people Moffat and Haughton met while researching the play comes through, along with a deep respect for the traditions of the country. The fourth wall is regularly broken, with the characters coming into the audience and offering homemade Bosnian biscuits, building connection and empathy.
Moffat and Haughton visited Bosnia to hear the stories of survivors. “Everybody we met had their story,” says Haughton, who lived through the war and knows first-hand what conflict can do to communities.
They were careful to get to know people rather than rushing in with sensitive questions. Developing relationships was key, asking about daily life during the war. This also helps to build the play’s grounding in everyday experiences, the common threads we can all relate to.
“As a documentary-play writer, for me, the way people tell their own story is really important and the words they use to tell it, including the breaks in their voices,” says Moffat. The play uses verbatim speech in the actors’ dialogue, alongside audio recordings.
“It’s really important that we’re very truthful to the way people tell their stories,” says Moffat. “The words that they choose are so important. We have to be really protective of the integrity of that. We’ve tried very much to keep that rhythm.”
Using real people’s speech is an integral part of the play. “It’s how they’re undeniable,” says Moffat. “There is something resounding about the truth when it’s heard and seen. You cannot not hear it, and you cannot not see it. For me, the beauty and power of documentary theatre is that even when it’s in another language, there is something about us as human beings, that we’re wired to be able to receive the truth. Sometimes the world tries to gaslight us or pull the wool over our eyes, or tell us it’s something else when it’s not that. But when we are presented with the truth, then we know it. And then what do we do with the truth that we know?”
Seeing the play come together has been an emotional experience for them. “Every now and then you pause and realise what it is you’re portraying,” says Haughton.
A celebration of Bosnian culture is woven into the play. Traditional music and dance are used, and the characters sing – a moment that brought Moffat to tears. “You have laughter and you have tears, and there are questions,” says Haughton resolutely. “That’s the beauty of theatre.”
“Stories are a re-humanising experience,” Moffat adds. “Groups of strangers sit together and they experience something together. They feel powerful emotions together. We want this play to inspire them to go out and, in their own ways, plant those little seeds of peace and humanity.”
• My Thousand Year Old Land will be performed at the New Vic theatre, Newcastle-under-Lyme, on 23 January, with plans to tour the production in the summer.