Royal Court, London – until 23 December 2017
The pine tree design by Camilla Clarke provides a subtle serenity, juxtaposing the trauma of war in Bad Roads – a series of sparsely connected stories by Natal’ya Vorozhbit around her home country of Ukraine. Six scenes paint the picture, not only of soldiers disenfranchised in a time of civil unrest, but of the women caught up amid the horror and heartache that represents the fallout from the fighting. Vicky Featherstone’s powerful direction supports the actors’ portrayal – a constant rollercoaster of dynamic volume that nevertheless fails to consistently galvanise Vorozhbit’s overall conceptual picture.
A journalist (Kate Dickie) falls in love, or in lust, with a soldier on the front line. Of course, he is married – they all are. Yet they still summon local girls like property for their amusement, Ronke Adekoluejo in particular. A prisoner of war (Ria Zmitrowicz) is abused and sexually humiliated in the pitch black by her captor (Tadhg Murphy) before she gleefully takes her revenge. These stories simultaneously weave misconception into their depiction, the fairy tale of love becoming mixed with lust in a time of such uncertainty and unrest.
Dickie’s opening monologue has an unrelenting rhythm to it, a consistency that underpins and supports her varying cadence. Her conviction is contagious – she introduces the need for each woman in Bad Roadsto forge a connection. It’s something that the male soldiers are quick to take advantage of, as they look for ever more sordid ways to drive away their frustrated boredom. Featherstone sets up the narrative with simplicity and continues its bluntness throughout the production.
The counter to the aforementioned tales is the one with genuine tenderness; it speaks of a mutually loving relationship between woman and soldier. Mike Noble is driving the body of his deceased commander away for burial, with the dead man’s lover (Adekoluejo) riding as a nurse in the passenger seat. The commander is married to someone else – they all are – and so Adekoluejo uses this time to express her grief for a man thrown into her life in such violent circumstances; she cannot outwardly lament for him once the body returns to his family.
Featherstone continues with her vision of powerful simplicity here, one that contrasts Noble’s shell-shocked shyness with Adekoluejo’s instinctive, extroverted aggression. This scene is the highlight of Bad Roads, an exchange that puts the hopelessness of the conflict into stark relief; it forges unlikely connections that are destined to lead nowhere, such is the fictional setting of the warring world that Vorozhbit imposes upon the characters.
Bad Roads is a disconnected production – not in its overall message, but in the series of scenes that lack enough of a through narrative to ever truly land their impact. Featherstone keeps the concept together, one of futility and pointlessness at a war that is never really justified or rationalised. Vorozhbit’s characters are individually worthy of note, but the show as a whole is as fragmented as the landscape itself, never providing a firm opportunity for the audience to emotionally invest.