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Guest post: playwright Sarah Hehir

Sarah Hehir is a Medway-based playwright who will be part of our 'Writing and producing your own theatre' panel during Medway River Lit in June. Sarah also writes for the BBC's 'Doctors' and 'The Archers'. We asked Sarah to tell us about her most recent play, 'The Shadow Garden'.

Actors and writers stand in line
'The Shadow Garden' showcase - Sarah is pictured at the right of the photo.

‘The play’s immediate relevance, as we navigate Europe and the US’s response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, could hardly be clearer. This is a really bold excavation of war by a clearly talented playwright. It’s urgent and it demands to be told.’

The Bruntwood Prize for Playwriting 2022

I was teaching Drama in Cheetham Hill in 1999/2000 when Saranda, Jehona and Fatos Bogujevci were medically evacuated to Manchester after surviving a massacre in their garden. They were the first children to give evidence in a war crimes tribunal and went on to win The Anne Frank Award for Moral Courage.

Many years later, I met Saranda in a bar in Prishtina where we got talking about both Kosovo and the UK. By this stage, Saranda was working for the government in Kosovo and standing for election, having returned in her mid-twenties. She’s now the vice-president of the parliament. Fatos works in Manchester as a graphic designer and Jehona recently returned to Kosovo to start a dental practice with her husband.

When I first met with the Bogujevci family to talk about telling their story, we discussed how there is no linear shape to grief, recovery or memory and how the narrative should reflect this. My vision was to combine theatrical forms to create a textured performance, as much about the audience experiencing joy, grief, confusion and anger as about learning the facts of this particular war crime.

I began the process of writing this script in 2019. With my Arts Council DYCP grant, I explored key themes through workshops with dancers and actors from Manchester and Kosovo in collaboration with a choreographer, sound artist and projectionist. I then spent time in Kosovo with writer Jeton Nerizaj and director Blerta Rustrem-Nerizaj. Here, I gained confidence in embracing a fluid, experimental style of theatre.

During lockdown, I wrote a first draft using archive recordings from Manchester Aid to Kosovo while continuing to discuss ideas on Zoom with the Bogujevci family. A chance encounter on Twitter led me to our amazing director Nastazja Domaradzka who travelled to Kosovo with me in September 2022 to run a development lab in Prishtina with Kosovar actors and composer Tomor Kuci (funded by The Bogujevci Family Foundation and The Municipality of Prishtina.)

This was an intense and emotional week punctuated by laughter, coffee and burek. On the final afternoon, we invited Fatos Bogujevci, journalists and members of Kosovo’s creative community to discuss our work. As a result, we were asked to share an extract in October at The Kosovo Theatre Showcase. The National Theatre of Gjilan came on board as producers with Tomor as our composer.

An actor stands with a projection of Bill Clinton on his t-shirt
A projection from the play.

Saranda, Fatos and Jehona are visual artists, keen on experimenting with representation and space. The final production will immerse the audience in the narrative, using movement, projection and soundscapes. At the same time, it is important that the construct remains visible: slipping between time and place - between reality, memory and imagination - encouraging conscious reflection on the action.

We’ve talked about creating an ever changing space – a shadow ‘shadow garden’ for other people’s stories - where audience members add objects that reflect their own family’s experience of loss and love. (Something like 'The Museum of Broken Relationships', Zagreb)

The massacre, at the heart of this story, never goes away. Tragedy and its aftermath are disorderly. For the surviving cousins, it is a visceral memory. Through the imagined space of the shadow garden, the focus is drawn away from the soldiers with their guns and agency is given to the family: both dead and alive.

The play occupies a very private space in a very public arena: humour, songs, small family moments and unlived scenes build a picture of who the family are and what they could have been.

Ultimately, 'The Shadow Garden' is a story about love, grief, survival and resilience. Accounts of war are dominated by male military voices: this is about the kind of power that doesn’t sit in the weight of a gun.

Saranda continues to challenge patriarchal concepts of strength and power: she’s an inspirational figure at a time when many communities feel broken and divided. Manchester treated the Bogujevci family with great love and respect. It’s something to feel proud of and a call to action to ensure new laws and government rhetoric around refugees and asylum seekers doesn’t create a divisive society devoid of compassion.

Post-pandemic, it feels like a good time to reassess our values as a country and continent: to think about our heroes and our role models. Who do we applaud? What kind of characters do we build statues of?

'The Shadow Garden' premieres in Gjilan, Kosovo in September 2023 followed by a tour of Kosovo, Albania and Macedonia 2024. We hope to bring the production to the UK in 2025.


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