FringeReview UK 2017
Vicky Featherstone directs another Royal Court premiere of leading Ukraine dramatist Natal’ya Vorozhbit, associated with the theatre since 2005. Camilla Clarke’s blasted pine forest design recalls the First World War’s Mennin Road. Natasha Chivers’ head-lamping and other effects suggest different locales. Nick Powell’s soundscape amplifies desolation.
Ukrainian Natal’ya Vorozhbit’s latest Royal Court play Bad Roads directed by Vicky Featherstone uneasily reminds one that Sarah Kane’s Blasted and 448 Psychosis were premiered, the latter posthumously, at this same Theatre Upstairs venue. And Vorozhbit herself has been associated with the Court since her 2005 residency.
It’s an inescapable echo, even given Camilla Clarke’s blasted pine forest design recalls the First World War’s Mennin Road, with a freezer, upturned chairs, water bottle and old bath placed upstage. They’re suddenly lit or blacked-out into use where Natasha Chivers’ head-lamping and other effects suggest different locales. The only sounds are sourced pop out of malfunctioning radios where Nick Powell’s soundscape amplifies desolation.
There’s a devastating permission and locality to these six linked scenes played by seven actors, recalling Kane’s prophetic vision, which might have envisaged but never imagined the detailed harrowing of another war. You could suggest European war like the Bosnia-in-Leeds of Blasted, but Ukraine’s European aspirations and the tug between east and west are sadly its very justification. As Ukraine-resident British journalist Lily Hyde reports in the Guardian, picking over narratives of disappeared soldiers, it’s an aftermath that won’t go away but which no-one here heeds. And even the Guardian, seemingly, has lost interest.
Translator Sasha Dugdale faithfully transcribes Vorozhbit’s directions too, and had they been followed faithfully, intimations of stripping, rape, urination, water poured over a naked hostage, I suspect the play might meet with some of the outrage Kane encountered. Here we’re presented with suggestive essence. Even so, another actor (not abuser who stands aloof) pouring water over a now fully-clothed victim so she couldn’t take a curtain call seems an awkward displacement.
The first narrative is outstanding, a penetrating, fearlessly-flung gauntlet. Forty-year-old journalist Natalya, compellingly embodied by Kate Dickie, describes how soldiers and the front line excite her, despite or because of carnage. She describes ‘you’ as Sergei her soldier escort. ‘I want love with you….’ So when the offer ‘I’ll take you to the front line’ arrives she asks us ‘Who’d turn down an offer like that?’ Natalya’s erotic fixation on a man who’s killed though sharing few cultural values with her, is a sliver of disturbance that edges under your skin. Dickie winningly trawls through her lighting memorial candles – such touches show that kick of difference to a secular west too – through battle zones and unsatisfactory sex, a recurring theme. Dickie’s out-front engagement with everyone around makes one forget just how densely packed this section is.
Dickie returns in the next slight vignette of girls waiting for soldiers, peeling off till only Ronke Adekoluejo’s left to her anxious grandmother Anne Lacey who only wants to feed her. It’s a desperately sad shiver of rejection and teenage sexuality flickered again in the following all-male narrative when the girls’ headteacher Vincent Ebrahim is stopped by soldiers unhappy with his missing passport. He endangers a hard-won freedom by asking them to leave off grooming a schoolgirl he’s spotted.
The fourth narrative like the first is a strong stand-alone, Adekoluejo a medic accompanying her lover’s headless body in a freezer, driven by Mike Noble, who first appeared in the previous scene. It’s an arc of banter, bitterness, finally tenderness with Adekoluejo compelling attention as niceties aren’t just stripped away but start off bare then pare to the bone.
The final pair link in reverse chronology, a disturbing take on Ukraine. Ria Zmitrowicz’s captured Ukraine journalist, tortured by Tadhg Murphy finds strength by exploring human affinity, declaring intimacy under every violence and humiliation enacted in blackout, until a denouement that must be seen. Like the first scene, this probes feminist values too, here as perpetrator and victim, getting performances of subdued explosiveness, as if from underground – highly apposite, this being a cellar.
Adekoluejo returns as the same character in the final pre-war tableau of a hapless young woman trying to make reparation to a farming couple, having run over their chicken. Symbolically they attempt to pluck her in a gathering greed of hatred. ‘Don’t tempt us’ the play’s final lines are like ‘Bad Roads’ itself a comment not just on the appalling post-communist infrastructure, but the journey Ukraine still rucks and buffets over. Inevitably the denouement of the previous scene’s recalled. Cruelty to women stretches a long mileage here. All those mirror opposites – the complicity and allure of war just seen – enact another register of the same damage.
Dickie’s performance is the stand out, though Adekoluejo repeatedly and, Zmitrowicz and Murphy amplify all the scenes’ strengths and less of any potential sketchiness in for instance the second of them. Noble has slightly less to do, and it’s a pity Ebrahim and Lacy, also present in the final piece, have less again.
If this work presents as uneven it’s because Vorozhbit won’t indulge the luxury of exploring just that one opening tableau in isolation or amplify Ariel Dorfman’s Death and the Maiden quality in the fifth. And of course not all Vorozhbit’s directions can be carried out, nor should they be. These are infinitely more than postcards from the edge of the redacted west though. They nudge then kick us back out of our own barbaric comfort-zone.