NOTHING but praise should be lavished on the Finborough Theatre (Chelsea, London) for its current production: Voices From Ukraine – Two Plays. Yet again it leads where others follow and its choice of work – performed above a closed pub within earshot of Chelsea Football Club – is both bold and brave.
The plays are of the moment, thought-provoking and in places tear-inducing – leaving the audience with a thunderous message ringing in their ears. Namely, that Russia’s previous actions in Crimea and the Donbas were despicable acts of state terrorism, precursors of what the whole of Ukraine is facing today as its eastern neighbour seeks to obliterate it from the face of the earth.
Despite their Ukrainian themes, the two plays, stretching out over more than two hours, are as different as chalk and cheese. The less intense and convincing of the two is Take The Rubbish Out, Sasha – a play by Natal’ya Vorozhbit (translated by Sasha Dugdale) and receiving its English premiere.
Written in 2014, when the war in Ukraine had already broken out, it looks at how a wife Katya (Amanda Ryan) and heavily pregnant daughter Oksana (Issy Knowles) cope with the loss of Sasha (Alan Cox), husband and step father respectively.
Although an officer in the Ukrainian army when he died, his cause of death was a heart attack. Sasha, we learn, was not without his foibles, most notably drink and women – although he was a dab hand at freestyle wrestling. Yet as time goes by and Issy gives birth and gets pregnant again, Katya’s view of her husband mellows.
The play contains big doses of surrealism as Sasha visits and converses with them. There’s also plenty of rather weird choreography as the three of them dance. The most relevant part of the play comes when Sasha returns in his army uniform, ready to fight for his country. Katya is busy preparing for a siege of her home – and tries to persuade him that he should not fight. ‘You just rest,’ she pleads. ‘Let other people go.’
Ryan is powerful as Katya, her eyes piercing.
Pussycat In Memory Of Darkness, written by Neda Nezhdana and translated by John Farndon, is far grittier. A woman whom we only know as She is trying to sell three kittens – grey, white and black. She’s wearing sun glasses and is obviously in a desperate state. We soon discover why the glasses are needed as She reveals a face bruised and bloodied.
Over the next hour, we learn why she is destitute as she charts her life from Ukraine’s independence through to the bloody Maidan Revolution of 2014, the takeover of Crimea by Russia and the war in Donbas.
In the process, She has lost everything – her house, belongings and dignity – while untold things have been done to her as a result of a neighbour (Raya) betraying her to cronies loyal to the Russians.
It’s a monumental performance from Kristin Milward who puts her heart and soul into She. Her cri-de-couer is both moving and exhausting to watch – and I imagine draining on Milward. But it’s a tour of force as she explains the damage that war has done – to families, neighbours and Ukraine. And the horrors that have been committed along the way, including the shooting down of a Malaysian airline in the skies of eastern Ukraine. It’s all rather harrowing and all rather depressing. Hope is in short supply.
At a time when Russian soldiers are burning Ukrainian school books in parts of the country so as to impose a Russian curriculum on children, these two plays send out a defiant message. The Ukrainian people will not be crushed and will always have a voice.
Go and see the plays if you can – and show your support for freedom above totalitarianism. Blue and yellow to the fore.
Voices From Ukraine: Two Plays. Runs at the Finborough Theatre until September 3. Finboroughtheatre.co.uk
Voices of Children Foundation, a Ukrainian charity providing urgently needed psychological and psychosocial support to children affected by the war in Ukraine. Click here to donate.