These two short Ukrainian dramas from 2014, an absurdist black comedy and a harrowing monologue, couldn’t be more stylistically different. What they share is a stark horror of the brutality and disinformation then deployed by Russia in Crimea and the Donbas, and which is now being visited again on the rest of the country.
Though adapted and directed by different duos in a largely shared production team, there’s a stiffness to both plays on stage, a sense that something is being lost in translation or through one’s own ignorance. Huge kudos to the Finborough, though, for showcasing the very culture that Vladimir Putin wants to destroy.
First up is the English premiere of Take the Rubbish Out, Sasha – great title – by Natal’ya Vorozhbit, a leading voice in Ukrainian theatre whose works have been staged by the RSC and the Royal Court. In 2013 outside Kyiv, Katya (Amanda Ryan) and her pregnant daughter Oksana (Issy Knowles) mourn the death from a heart attack of husband and stepfather Sasha, a Colonel in the Ukrainian Army who was previously also the USSR freestyle wrestling champion, and a man equally devoted to his family and the bottle.
There’s simultaneous mockery of and fondness for Sasha – played as a put-upon ghost by Alan Cox - and the macho culture and split loyalties he represents. The mood is playful. A year on, though, Oksana is pregnant again, and Katya is laying in stocks of potatoes, wood and petrol as Russian aggression intensifies. Sasha reappears in uniform, one of many corpses ready to be called up to fight. But Katya has to agree…
Director Svetlana Dimcovic tries to fulfil the author’s vision of total theatre, but the video material on the rear-stage screen is more successful than the tokenish choreography. Knowles and Ryan find the rhythm of the piece: Cox looks awkward throughout.
The second play is the first performance outside Ukraine of Pussycat in Memory of Darkness by Neda Nezhdana, also a prominent figure in her country’s contemporary culture. Here, a Donbas resident known only as She (Kristin Milward) relates how she took part in a student hunger strike for Ukrainian independence in 1990.
Then, in 2014, she is systematically stripped of her business, her husband and children, her home and her “faith in goodness”, as Russia stamps on the Maidan protest. Insurgents bend the truth, neighbour turns on neighbour, soldiers rape and torture and Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 is shot down over Donbas.
The three kittens she’s rescued from her wrecked life, which she tries to sell to us like a cat-person Ancient Mariner, become a metaphor for feeble hope. This a relentless litany of cruelty, again underscored by video imagery and folksong, but Polly Creed’s production would hit home harder if Milward’s performance weren’t so overwrought.
There is a tacit acknowledgement here that a fringe show in Earl’s Court doesn’t count for much against the barbarism and waste of Putin’s war. But it undoubtedly does count for something.