If you had 12 minutes and 36 seconds left to live, what would you do? Would you carry on as though nothing had changed? Would you run for the hills? Would you try to save the world? The question at the centre of Ivana Sajko’s intense, disturbing all-female three-hander, with as many answers as there are individuals, puts the audience deep inside the head of the protagonist, a woman suicide bomber advancing on her target.
Ivana Sajko is a Croatian writer, artist, TV presenter and critic, and this is the first production of her work in the UK. Woman Bomb - exceptionally compelling, deeply uncomfortable theatre - is the work of a talented and original playwright. Sajko’s focuses on the exclusively modern phenomenon of women strapping bombs under their clothes, often appearing pregnant, and carrying out assassinations and mass murder. It’s the definition of a taboo subject, something most of us would prefer to ignore, yet a social phenomenon of great significance.
Every minute of this hour-long show is used to great effect. Sajko traces the history of women suicide bombers from the day a 16-year old attacked an Israeli army convoy in 1985, through Israel, Palestine, Sri Lanka, Turkey, Russia. She declares “We don’t want to create a heroine”, but seeks to understand the bombers as people and as women. She weighs up the reasons that women carry out such inconceivable acts, from personal and political liberation to blackmail, delusion and force.
The subject is introduced through Sajko’s own experience writing and living in war-torn, 90s Croatia. She uses two female narrator-investigators (Laura Pradelska and Nikki Squire) to frame the play, their roles morphing constantly as they are one moment confidants, the next violent interrogators. Through the bomber (a committed Laura Harling) Sajko explores female archetypes from the Mona Lisa to the Virgin Mary to the sex ‘bomb’. The theatre provides deft metaphors, the bomber disrupting the action like an audience member bursting a paper bag. A keynote, minutely described scene examines the 1991 assassination of Rajiv Gandhi, his killer completely unnoticed at the centre of a pre-explosion photograph about to force the world to see her for the first time.
Vanda Butkovic’s simple set is based on a video projection which keeps time, counting down the seconds to detonation and, without ever showing a bomb, shocking us with grimly apposite footage, leaving the audience moved and changed. Woman Bomb is excellent political theatre, a complex, intelligent play which deserves to be booked solid when it returns in May.