Trade opens with scenes of small-town Balkan life, with the highly intelligent and charismatic Jana (Katarina Novkovic), her younger sister Katarina (Eleanor Roberts) and new boyfriend Stefan (Ojan Genc). The staging makes clever use of a small space, using boxes and hand-held props to set the scenes of the family home and the market in Mostar. The backdrop features various clips of countryside idyll, roads, or club lights to fit with the story, while also displaying subtitles for both English and Bosnian-Croatian-Serbian speakers (along with D/deaf audience members). This makes for a simple yet effective means of incorporating accessibility.
Ella Dorman-Gajic has produced an excellent piece of writing, and combined with strong actors directed by Maddy Corner, Trade is tense and engaging from the start. The development of relationships feels real and intimate, adding to the eventual tragedy of Jana’s story. Spoilers: Stefan is not who he appears to be, and tricks Jana into leaving her hometown, forcing her into sex and cleaning work in Sarajevo and later London. As Jana is plunged deeper into this murky underground world, her once pristine white costume is tarnished with brown and bloody hues. Novkovic’s performance is gripping and heart-wrenching, conveying Jana’s transformation throughout her unfortunate journey.
Jana finds herself in increasingly morally dubious positions: she co-operates with traffickers to protect her own interests, consequently harming other vulnerable girls. Dorman-Gajic does an impressive job of navigating the complexity of this topic, presenting Jana as both sympathetic and criminally complicit. Roberts and Genc multi-role throughout the production, demonstrating the few interactions Jana has with others: the men who may abuse or seek to aid her, and the girls who find themselves similarly forced into labour. The cast are exceptional in terms of setting differing moods, switching between vulnerable and abusive characters within moments and underpinning the strong emotional impact of the overall production.
The use of multilingualism in Trade is cleverly done; despite being performed almost entirely in English, the show successfully conveys that English is a foreign language and a lingua franca of the illegal sex trade. Conversations between the sisters Jana and Katarina studying English for school are juxtaposed with Jana’s interactions with brothel clients; one of many ways in which the show highlights the misfortune of a talented girl losing everything. Trade does not lose its focus on Bosnian roots, with references to cultural staples such as burek, as well as the use of subtitling.
Emotions run high throughout this production, however the tension really culminates where Jana’s morality is pushed to its limit. The themes of abuse and deception are explored in such a visceral manner that I in the audience felt my entire body tense up; personal values and moral difficulty are built up in such a gradual way that it is as if a bomb is dropped at the end.
Trade is an extremely poignant and thought-provoking production, delivered powerfully by a strong cast. The entire plot feels true-to-life, demonstrating how easily girls’ lives are snatched away, the difficulty of escaping a trafficking situation, and the reasons why victims may become perpetrators. This is an important and emotional piece of work that is certainly worth catching at the Pleasance.
Written by Ella Dorman-Gajic
Directed by Maddy Corner.
Trade plays at Pleasance Theatre until 25 March. Further information and bookings can be found here.