Two Ukrainian Plays – Finborough Theatre, London

Reviewer: John Cutler

Take The Rubbish Out, Sasha

Writer: Natal’ya Vorozhbit. Translated by Sasha Dugdale.

Director: Svetlana Dimcovic.

Pussycat In Memory Of Darkness

Writer: Neda Nezhdana. Translated by John Farndon

Director: Polly Creed

The Finborough Theatre’s double bill, Two Ukrainian Plays, features short works by two of that troubled country’s leading women writers. Set in the run up to and at the outset of the 2014 Russian-backed separatist struggle in Donbas, the pieces have distinct structures and emotional tones, but share a focus on women’s pain and resilience in the face of catastrophic events they can neither influence nor change.

Natal’ya Vorozhbit’s Take the Rubbish Out, Sasha opens with middle-aged kiosk-owner Katya (an excellent Amanda Ryan) and heavily pregnant daughter Oksana (Issy Knowles) lamenting the recent loss of husband and stepfather Sasha (Alan Cox) to a heart attack on the bathroom floor.

Although in former life a USSR champion in freestyle wrestling, Sasha never really made much of his career in the Ukrainian army. It was Katya’s strength and entrepreneurial ingenuity that brought the family their comfortable life in the country, and there it a resentful edge to her hectoring and berating anguish that hints at a lifetime of unfulfilled hopes.

At one level Take the Rubbish Out, Sasha is about the, at times, bitter internal conversations all mourning people have with the ghosts of those they have lost. It is about the laying out of grievances and the emotional negotiations that come as part of the process of recovery. Written in 2015, the play’s current relevance comes in imagining just this type of internal conversation playing out in the minds of too many Ukrainian women, interrogating the ghosts of war-stricken husbands, brothers, and fathers and asking ‘why did you leave?’

In Ukrainian Orthodox tradition, families come together at funeral feasts nine days and one year after the death of loved ones. In the play’s central conceit, Vorozhbit’s takes a leap into the absurd by bringing the departed Sasha back on stage to confront the two women at each meal. “You barely had a life, Sasha. Come back and finish it off,” a bemoaning Katya demands at the first feast. All he can offer her in response is plaintive contrition for his absence. At the second feast, the trio share a series of more bittersweet reminiscences on the events of a shared life. The feeling of a settling of accounts is palpable.

Neda Nezhdana’s tremendous monologue Pussycat In Memory Of Darkness comprises the second and much better part of the double bill. In it, Kristin Milward gives a dynamo of a performance as an unnamed Donbas woman whose successful and happy life as beauty shop owner and mother is literally ripped asunder by the Russian-backed secessionists.

The monologue opens with the woman unsuccessfully attempting to sell kittens in a war-ravaged Donbas market. Hair straggling, eyes black with bruises, face etched with what seems like the misery of an entire country, she is fighting off the unwanted interest of a khaki-clad official demanding to see her papers. But although beaten and broken, she still has her cats and a spirit of defiance. As an opening mise en scène it is a metaphor for a nation, Ukraine. But it is also an intensely personal picture of a woman who has survived something almost unendurable.

In a narrative that draws together the historical and the individual, writer Nezhdana uses documented evidence about militia brutality in Donbas to portray, in grim and convincing detail, this fictional character’s fight to survive. But in a sense, she is also a kind of Donbas everywoman. Born of a mixed Ukrainian and Russian family, her cultural identity is awoken during the Ukraine’s 1990 fight for independence. Two decades later she joins her son, who has inherited the same zeal for freedom, at the 2014 Maidan Uprising in central Kyiv.

Milward’s wholly committed, riveting, and deeply affecting performance as the woman carries the monologue forward with an intensity that is palpable. Two Ukrainian Plays is worth seeing for this reason alone, but there is much else here to admire too.

Runs until 3 September 2022 

The Reviews Hub Score

Moving and affecting

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The Reviews Hub London is under the acting editorship of Richard Maguire. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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