Stalin, Mussolini and Hitler all stand out in the history of the twentieth century. Even Archduke Ferdinand is known to many, but who can name the man who assassinated him and paved the way for two world wars and the decades that made the others notorious? It’s one of those frustrating pub quiz questions, to which people feel they ought to know the answer but either can’t remember it or actually never knew it. Imagine what it’s like, then, to be that man, living with the eternal torment of not being famous.
Movingly written and performed with charm
I Am Gavrilo Princip is a reflection on the conundrum of perhaps being the world’s most forgotten famous man, movingly written and performed with charm by Oliver Yellop, who on a bad day bears a certain resemblance to the man himself. Princip was never going to make it to heaven, but neither is he consigned to hell in this play, despite having committed a murder that changed the course of history. Instead, he inhabits purgatory, perpetually and punishingly pondering in his solitude as to why he never became famous.
The remarkable thing about Princip is that he was, in all respects, quite unremarkable and Yellop effortlessly captures the ordinariness of the young man, the second of nine children, of whom six died in infancy. An Orthodox Bosnian Serb, he came from the obscure hamlet of Obljaj. By various means he secured an education and was drawn to the cause of liberating his people from what he saw as the oppressive Austro-Hungarian occupation and rule of his country. His feelings intensified following a move to Sarajevo, where he continued his schooling and joined a secret revolutionary group, until he was expelled for taking part in a protest. He met with further rejection in Belgrade, following his journey there by foot; his feeble condition and lack of height making him unacceptable to the guerrilla groups. Going back and forth between the two cities he finally confounded all his critics when, as one of a group of conspirators, he fired the fatal shots that killed both the Archduke and, unintentionally, the Duchess.
His immediate attempt to kill himself was thwarted and he was put on trial. The verdict was inevitable, but he was denied the glory of martyrdom, being a few months short of twenty when he committed the crime and the of age at which he could have been executed. Instead, he was sentenced to the maximum of twenty years’ hard labour. The prison conditions exacerbated his tuberculosis and he was dead by the age of twenty-three.
In his various musings on Princip’s predicament, the events in his brief life are honestly and often amusingly told in an engaging monologue that faithfully discourses the dramatic history of the man’s journey from anonymity to obscurity. The addition of musical interludes and backing at crucial moments serves to break up the various scenes and support the action. The unusual instrumental combination of trumpet, often eerily and hoarsely muted, played by Luke Benson with Benji Hooper on Spanish guitar, creates a rustic soundscape befitting the events and that is evocative of Princip’s peasant origins.
Director, Anna Moors brings the performance elements together to create and engaging and understated production that begs the question as to why this man’s story has not received more dramatic attention. That is as much a mystery as the lack of recognition attached to his name. This captivating performance was a one-off on the foyer stage at the Queen’s Theatre, where Yellop has just finished an outstanding run in So Here We Are. He’s a name to look out for and I Am Gavrilo Princip should not be missed if he manages further performances around the country.