Finborough Theatre, London – until 3 September 2022
Timely, enterprising, emotionally shattering, politically shaming. These two plays were both both first born at the time of the 2014 conflict in Ukraine, the second particularly in the Donbas where ugly divisions erupted between Russian sympathisers and supporters of the elected and legitimate government in Kyiv. The first is called Take the Rubbish Out, Sasha, by one of the most known Ukrainian playwrights, Natalya Vorozhbit: it’s an absurdist-realistic fable about a mother and daughter who are grieving for the man of the family, a Colonel in the Ukrainian army who has died of a heart attack.
They are making pastries for neighbours in a memorial meeting and talk to his ghost, solid in the room, the mother in her grief ‘angry’ that he is gone, bewailing the funeral costs, and needing to accept he can never come back. But Sasha is suddenly adamant that after a further call-up of reservists he has to return to duty: “When we went into the army we made a solemn oath to the people of Ukraine to be loyal and true to them always and support the legal constitution of Ukraine… me and Vova, Sergei, Lyosha… we all swore that we wouldn’t betray the Ukrainian people.” This from a man speaking from beyond the grave, a startling, arresting, solid figure in Alan Cox.
His wife, with a moment of real East-European dark humour, complains that if he returns from the afterlife he’ll only be killed, and they’ll have another lot of burial costs. The direction by Svetlana Dimcovic is brisk and mostly gripping – though it feels like a bit of a slow-burn for a while early on (it’s only 45 minutes overall) but that contributes to the painful contrast between recognisable human behaviour and the surreality.
The second play, Neda Nezhdhana’s Pussycat in Memory of Darkness is a shattering hour-long monologue of one woman’s experience, despair and hope, based on a real individual tale from the Donbas conflict. Polly Creed directs a quite extraordinary, constantly gripping, grim but sometimes blackly humorous performance by Kristin Milward.
She is telling us what happened to her, and what she lost as her family fled and she , supposedly briefly, stayed back to tend her cat giving birth. She keeps offering to invisible buyers three kittens which survived the sack of her home. She speaks for every displaced, beaten-up, betrayed individuals in such wars: “I would like to say to those who brought this on us, not only those who were drawn in but those who sowed it all and those who did not stop it – you have no idea how small and pathetic all these trivial passions of yours, your desire for power, your business interests – how insignificant they are compared to the horrible black hole you have opened, the appalling abyss into which our land is flying.”
A long monologue can be hard going. This was not: it is stunningly done. In both plays the translations are excellent.
And in an afterword the writer of the first one tells of her own flight from Kyiv and says for all playwrights and indeed Ukrainians: “Eight years we’ve been engaged with the subject of war. Eight years we’ve been trying to shout to the world, to alert them to the Russian military threat. And only after 24 February did they finally hear us… we want to win, and return home, and water our plants. And we need your help”
Honour to the Finborough – a room over a pub in the middle of boarded-up refurbishment – for crowning its season of readings with these two plays. Bigger theatres have done a lot less.
Box office finboroughtheatre.co.uk. To 3 sept
And for the second