TWO UKRAINIAN PLAYS
TAKE THE RUBBISH OUT, SASHA ⭐️⭐️
by Natal’ya Vorozhbit, translated by Sasha Dugdale
directed by Svetlana Dimcovic
PUSSYCAT IN MEMORY OF DARKNESS ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
by Neda Nezhdana, translated by John Farndon
directed by Polly Creed
Finborough Theatre – until 3 September 2022
As the UK lurches into chaos and chronic heat, the ongoing unrest in Ukraine has disappeared from our headlines somewhat, so it feels fitting that the ever enterprising Finborough is hosting this duo of contemporary short plays from the region. They serve as a sharp reminder that, however bad we think we have it, there are more difficult places in the world to live in. The first play, Vorozhbit’s Take The Rubbish Out, Sasha is set partially during the current war while Nezhdana’s monologue, Pussycat In Memory Of Darkness, the second, takes place during the 2014 Donbas conflict that foreshadowed it. While the plays are presented in reverse chronological order, their placement makes perfect sense from a theatrical point-of-view, in that the second piece is immeasurably stronger.
Anyway, Vorozhbit’s play, in a naturalistic English language version by Sasha Dugdale, centres on the widow and pregnant daughter of the titular Sasha, a former officer in the Ukrainian army who died unexpectedly, not in combat but at home. Sasha, or rather his ghost, is also a character in this three hander and it’s clear that he enjoyed, or at least endured, a combative relationship with his spirited, demanding wife.
At first, the way the women address each other and the deceased but very present Sasha (Alan Cox) seems an intriguing way of acknowledging that, to the grief-stricken, it is profoundly difficult to admit that a loved one is no longer alive. Svetlana Dimcovic’s direction has Cox and Amanda Ryan almost touch at certain points, but never quite making contact. These domestic scenes work, in the main because the actors are so good (Izzy Knowles plays the daughter), but also because the combination of kitchen sink tragicomedy and the supernatural feels fresh and original.
Unfortunately, both the script and Dimcovic’s direction soon get bogged down with the trivial minutiae of these people’s lives, and become ploddingly literal: for instance, at one point the women have a ritualistic feast at Sasha’s grave to mark his one year anniversary which requires Ryan to unpack a load of prop food and a picnic blanket for a five minute scene, to zero theatrical effect. Worse still, Dimcovic and choreographer Jones make the actors perform a misconceived series of buttock-clenchingly awkward interpretive dance sections for no very intelligible reason beyond daring the audience not to giggle inappropriately.
If the aim of the play and production is to convey that “normal” life continues in the face of tumultuous world and personal events, I’m not sure that straddling the twin lame horses of absurdity and boredom is the best way to get the point across. It’s disheartening seeing such fine actors floundering through this.
One can only hope that disgruntled patrons don’t cut their losses and leave at the interval though, as the following play, Neda Nezhdana’s bizarrely named Pussycat In Memory Of Darkness, translated with edgy flair by John Farndon, is utterly riveting. Inspired by true incidents in the life of a real Ukrainian survivor, it’s a monologue filtering the trauma, fury and living hell of war through the experiences of an unnamed woman. It’s confrontational, sometimes shocking and distressing, but completely compulsive.
Kristin Milward delivers a bravura performance: at first appearance, she is a raggedly glamorous figure with her piled-up curls, breathtaking bone structure and enormous sunglasses, verging on the camp as she tries to cajole passing strangers into buying the pedigree kittens she drags around in a box. Once the glasses are off, the emotional defences are partially down and she tells her story, the effect is anything but camp though: it’s blisteringly truthful and deeply moving. Milward is astonishing, finding power in stillness then suddenly erupting in outraged energy, and morphing subtly but vividly into other figures in this living nightmare.
Her voice is remarkable, transitioning from soothing, almost feline purr to guttural and merciless with utter conviction, and she invests this brave, hardy woman with a grace and dignity even in the face of the most repellent brutality. She’s magnificent and this is an acting masterclass.
Polly Creed’s direction is exquisite, rightly putting her leading lady front and centre where she belongs; Creed’s work is unobtrusive but in utter control of the pace and energy, and also cleverly realises when to step up the energy and ratchet up the tension.
The script is strong stuff, and has the added bonus of never actually sounding like a translation, although the cat references and metaphors do a bit too much heavy lifting for my taste (“I don’t want to be human…I’d rather be born a cat” says the woman, and also, when mourning the death of the kitten’s mother: “No one will ever feel me the way she does”). That apart, there are no other moments where it threatens to trivialise what this woman, and countless other like her, have been through and continue to go through.
All in all, this is a show of two distinct halves. It might have been interesting or at least more authentic to see the plays performed by Ukrainian actors, but having said that, I would not be inclined to miss Ms Milward in this for anything.