Broken Promise Land

Mirjana Rendulic in 'Broken Promise Land' directed by Aoife Spillane-Hinks at Theatre Upstairs. Photo: Matthew Smyth

Mirjana Rendulic in 'Broken Promise Land' directed by Aoife Spillane-Hinks at Theatre Upstairs. Photo: Matthew Smyth

As an exercise in storytelling, Broken Promise Land is a very pleasant experience. Performer and writer Mirjana Rendulic is alone on stage, playing a Croatian girl residing in Dublin on August 3rd, 2003 (according to the tear-away calendar situated by the bed). Her flat is predominantly blue in colour, matching her flower-patterned dress and mobile phone. Six pairs of shoes sit on the forestage, joined by a seventh as she enters, slips out of them, and conducts the basic routines of coming home for the evening in a contemplative mood. She looks at her phone and muses “I can live in New York”, suggesting from the outset that this woman’s personal journey is not over, but has reached a significant juncture. Is it exactly in this context that she begins to reminisce for us: delivering an hour-long monologue explaining the year she has spent on the road from Zagreb to Dublin, all the while dreams of California in her heart.

The piece is executed with simple clarity, with director Aoife Spillane-Hinks and set designer Zia Holly giving Rendulic enough space to vary the settings for her memory scenes while also keeping her pretty confined in a way that reminds us how her choices have reduced her to inauspicious surroundings from which she may wish or need to escape. “I’m good at hiding”, she tells us, and yet there is nowhere for her to truly hide from us on stage (under the bedcovers, briefly), and, it turns out, her choice of career is one of significant paradox on the same level. She is an exotic dancer, we discover, and so the combination of revelation and roleplay inherent to the profession becomes a mirror of her inner struggle to realise her dream, which may, in the end, be another fantasy.

Rendulic speaks in a fairly precisely rhythmic form that keeps the story moving along and creates vivid anecdotes that take us away from this dingy Dublin flat. Adventures growing up in a war zone, crossing the border illegally into Italy, being molested by Japanese businessmen in a Tokyo club, being defrauded by an Irish scumbag preying on foreign nationals, then facing the prospect of a visa marriage to an American playboy… wait a minute: adventures? Did you say it was ‘pleasant’ at the beginning? Yes; and herein lies the problem.

Photo: Matthew SmythThere’s something a little too clean about this world we’re hearing about, something less than hard edged about one woman’s story of endless lost wandering and sexual exploitation. The Dublin and Limerick scenes are the worst of the experiences described, but even then it all seems to come out alright in the end, and the play boils down to a rather gently sentimental sense of a moment of thoughtful reverie that has given this woman pause to reflect upon whom she wishes to be, a choice which remains open to her after this year of sex trafficking. This seems a little trite, which is not to say that in itself what we are given to experience isn’t delivered with conviction. In fact, it is drawn from elements of this writer/performer’s real experience, something that makes its sometimes consciously dream-like tone all the more surprising. This is not to say that all plays dealing with the issue of exotic dancers or sex workers need to be brutal and downbeat, laden with atrocity after atrocity in order to justify their presentation of this world and lifestyle, but in spite of the title and in some ways in spite of the actual content (which could be seen to be much darker than it is), there’s something in the way this story has been told that makes it all seem like a young girl’s cheerful diary entries, culminating in a fairytale ending.

There is nice writing in the piece, with good use of repeated motifs such as the description of supermarket work (and, by extension, the mundanity of an unrealised life) as “bagging, sliding, scanning, typing”. This particular phrase comes with a series of hand gestures that continue even when the dialogue has moved on to other mundanities in her life at home. Rendulic is clearly committed to the material, and has a fresh and open performance style that goes a long way towards making the material work. As noted, Broken Promise Land does work on a basic technical level, but there is a constant nagging sense that it stays away from the heart of darkness rather too deliberately for its own good.

Harvey O’Brien is a writer and critic, and lectures in Film Studies at University College Dublin. His latest book is Action Movies: The Cinema of Striking Back (Nov, 2012).

  • Review
  • Theatre

Broken Promise Land by Mirjana Rendulic

7-16 March, 2013

Produced by Stone's Throw Theatre
In Theatre Upstairs @ Lanigan's

Director: Aoife Spillane-Hinks

Set and Lighting: Zia Holly

With: Mirjana Rendulic