Two Ukrainian Plays review – masterful framing of a nation’s tragedy

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The Guardian

Because theatres schedule so far ahead, they tend to be better at marking historical anniversaries than current events. So the tiny but enterprising above-a-pub Finborough theatre deserves a bouquet of blue and yellow flowers for nimbly premiering, just over five months into the Russian invasion of Ukraine, two plays from the threatened nation.

When a country gains sudden international sympathy – as writers in South Africa, Northern Ireland and the former Yugoslavia have found at various times – the headline emergency is seen as the only subject for discussion. It’s too soon for such plays from Ukraine yet but the Finborough has cleverly chosen scripts foreshadowing and illuminating the 2022 invasion by focusing on the period in 2014 when Russia took over Crimea and the Donbas region, a rehearsal for Vladimir Putin of his bigger ambitions and the west’s apparent insouciance to such intrusions.

Natal’ya Vorozhbit’s Take the Rubbish Out, Sasha, translated by Sasha Dugdale, was seen in a National Theatre of Scotland version seven years ago. In Kyiv, Katya and her daughter Oksana, both clad in black, are cooking dumplings and other delicacies for the local tradition of a ritual mourning picnic. This includes a full plate and glass set in front of a photo of Sasha, a Ukrainian army colonel who died of natural causes. But Sasha’s unquiet ghost, a regular presence, maintains a desire to fight for his homeland. The spirit soldier’s urge must have seemed touching in 2015, when his surviving colleagues had lost only a portion of the nation, but is almost unbearably emotive now.

Kristin Milward in Pussycat in Memory of Darkness. Photograph: Charles Flint

Vorozhbit’s mix of naturalism and the supernatural, comedy and tragedy, works well; less so some awkward choreographic interludes in Svetlana Dimcovic’s production. Amanda Ryan and Issy Knowles, as the bereaved women, present grief and pain that also stand for Ukraine’s resilient resistance now. Alan Cox’s Sasha embodies the paradox that the most effective theatrical ghosts are as human as possible.

Produced for the first time outside Ukraine, Neda Nezhdana’s Pussycat in Memory of Darkness, translated by John Farndon and directed by Polly Creed, is a monologue for a Donbas woman identified as “She”. Searingly delivered by Kristin Milward, the hour-long howl against the betrayals of Ukraine by Russia and Nato is bracketed by scenes of a woman wearing dark glasses as she tries to sell kittens on a busy street. The central short scenes reveal why she hides her eyes and is homeless, due to events during Russia’s crackdown on what the woman now believes was a “false independence … fake democracy”. Like the other play, it makes shamingly clear to UK citizens and politicians that the menace to Ukraine’s freedom began not this February but many years or even decades ago.

Cross-national cultural comparisons are risky and potentially invidious but accounts suggest that Nezhdana is something like a Ukrainian Caryl Churchill. A programme note reveals that she has just completed The Epic Sky, a play set during the Russian invasion, which UK audiences should surely see as soon as plausible (Farndon has translated Nezhdana’s He Who Opens the Door for Òran Mór in Glasgow, to be performed in September). There must also be a case for a bigger, richer theatre hosting a double bill that, for those unable to see it, also makes a revealing and affecting read in the paperback play-text, Voices from Ukraine: Two Plays.

August 12, 2022 at 04:53PM Mark Lawson

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