Two Ukrainian Plays: Take The Rubbish Out, Sasha / Pussycat In Memory of Darkness
Natal’ya Vorozhbit, translator Sasha Dugdale / Neda Nezhdana, translator John Farndon
From June to August 2022, the tiny Finborough room-above-a-pub theatre has given a platform to ‘Voices from Ukraine’ on stage and online: a noble and generous move in solidarity with the traumatised people of Ukraine.
The latest is a double bill of plays by established Ukrainian female playwrights Natal’ya Vorozhbit and Neda Nezhdana. Kyivan Vorozhbit has had work produced in the past by the Royal Shakespeare Company (The Grain Store) and the Royal Court (Bad Roads). Vorozhbit has written in The Guardian (30 March 2022) of her escape from Kyiv with her mother, daughter and cat, leaving everything else behind. Take The Rubbish Out, Sasha, written in 2014, premièred in Scotland.
In contrast, this is Nezhdana’s (real name Nadiya Leonidivna Miroshnychenko) UK debut. A name in Ukraine, she writes with erudition and passion, so why is she only just being discovered here is a mystery to me and to her translator John Farndon. Originally from Kramatorsk in Donetsk, she now lives in Kyiv.
Nezhdana’s Pussycat In Memory of Darkness was also written in 2014, post Russia’s spiteful occupation of Crimea. Eight years later, much worse has come to pass. Eight years the West turned a blind eye, now we see the Russian lies and barbaric brutality that seemed too incredible to believe. The world is in a surreal and existential crisis—not to mention climate, COVID and the rest.
Vorozhbit turns to the absurd with her play, which is about loss and grief. Katya’s husband Sasha (Alan Cox), a former colonel in the Ukrainian army, has died of a heart attack—not fighting, but he has fought. She (Amanda Ryan) is the breadwinner, baking and organising his funeral meats and treats. Her daughter Oksana (Issy Knowles) is pregnant, twice. But, to them he is still there. Anyone who has suffered loss will know this syndrome.
The twist in this forty-minute play is that the dead have been called up to fight because there is no one else left, and they are ready. He is ready. It’s like The Tale of the Tsar Saltan, or the Arthurian Knights of the Round Table, who will rise from the sea or the dead to defend the land in its hour of need. Like Gogol, too, and Bulgakov—the satirists of tsarist and Stalinist eras. Has anything changed? I even think of Daniil Kharms and Sigismund Krzhizhanovsky’s fantastical tales. Russia was always ripe for satire and many perished for it.
It’s a deceptively light play, directed by Svetlana Dimcovic, but the more you know beforehand of the intertwined histories of Ukraine and Russia and the Soviet Union, the more you’ll get from the subtext. Video projection and sound put it into context.
Today, I read that ballet dancer Sergei Polunin, he of the tattoos (wasn't he meant to be erasing them?), now has three Putin tattoos on his chest—can one get more surreal and bonkers than that? The different mindsets of people is brought out in Nezhdana’s Pussycat In Memory of Darkness monologue—forty-five minutes of inflamed, impassioned, articulate writing, delivered in a blistering performance by Kristin Milward, directed by Polly Creed.
Based on a true story, on a real person, the hairdresser Iryna Dovgan (Dovhan surely if she’s a Ukrainian), who was captured and tortured by the Russian invaders. Her neighbour denounced her—as was common in Stalin’s times—to get her property. The war for the Russians is about how much they can plunder, opportunistic profiteering. Her lovely home is gone, her husband and child she sent away so she could look after three newborn kittens and then she’d join them. Too late.
Now She (she has no name), wearing dark glasses to hide her bruises—and as a metaphor for not seeing properly—is selling the kittens in the street, a white one, a grey and a black (another metaphor for shades of seeing, and for caring), fathered by a hippopotamus of a black cat—a reference to Behemoth in Bulgakov’s Master and Margarita, no doubt. She leaves her dark glasses behind for the blinkered shoppers.
Literary references there are plenty, and a political and social history of the last eight years and more in snatches, of the Malaysian Boeing the Russians shot down and the locals looted. Of the fake news, that her neighbour believes, the hatred for the other, yet they are from similar stock, in her extended family people speak both Ukrainian and Russian—it’s like dividing Siamese twins. But the hatred is being cranked up for one man’s monstrous megalomania.
“Russia, where are you flying? Answer! She gives no answer… Everything on earth is flying by, and, looking askance, other nations and empires draw aside and make way for her.” (Gogol’s Dead Souls) She, the woman, alone, is dead inside.
Ukrainians have been here before at the hands of Stalin and Hitler, must history repeat itself? A brutal genocide: pillage, rape, pollution of a fertile beautiful land, murder, blatant lies—what century are we in? “I want to report a robbery… I was robbed. What was stolen from me? Almost everything… Home, land, car, work, friends, city, faith in goodness…’” Not a jolly night out but a necessary poignant one. “The Horror! The Horror!” (Heart of Darkness).
Reviewer: Vera Liber