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FringeReview UK 2023

Pussycat in Memory of Darkness

Neil McPherson for the Finborough Theatre

Genre: Contemporary, Drama, European Theatre, Historical, International, Mainstream Theatre, New Writing, Political, Short Plays, Solo Play, Theatre, Translation

Venue: Finborough Theatre


Low Down

Neda Nezhdana’s play is a world: not simply a map of pain and war footage. Both essential and in the mesmerising Kristin Millward’s and Polly Creed’s hands, with this team, it’s almost a compulsory visit.

Written by Neda Nezhdana Translated by John Farndon. Directed by Polly Creed, Set and Costume Designer Ola Klos, Lighting Design Jonathan Chan, Assistant Designer Suzanne Emerson, Producer Fay Franklyn, Stage Manager Anastasia Bunce

Promotional Photography Charles Flint, Press and Marketing Josie Knipmeijer, Associate Producer Ash Wu, Assistant Producers Maria Godwin and Anastasiya Sosis

Till April 22nd


Ukrainian Neda Nezhdana’s  Pussycat in Memory of Darkness, performed by Kristin Millward, directed by Polly Creed, originally premiered at the Finborough in August 2022 and now after huge acclaim it’s back for nearly a month’s run till April 22nd.

Last August it was paired with Nezhdana’s  far better-known compatriot Natal’ya Vorozhbit and her Take the Rubbish Out, Sasha from 2014. Vorozhbit’s had several Royal Court premieres, most recently the acclaimed, stunning Bad Roads in 2017. Both texts, published together by NHB are available at the Finborough and make absorbing reading. Vorozhbit also supplies a 2022 afterword, on escaping Kyiv and predicting that Ukraine’s creative life will be wholly absorbed by war for a generation. It reads like a pendant to Nezhdana’s play, itself set in the Donbas in 2014.

The text’s absorbing not least because you realise the artistry with which Millward and Creed navigate quite a lengthy text (originally billed as an improbable forty minutes) cutting substantially, even then coming in at an hour-five. John Farndon’s rendered a fine idiomatic English. For instance Nezhdana’s occasional references to Donbas dialect has to clarified to Ukrainians, let alone English speakers, and the term “run” serves as a metaphor for Russians. It’s an aside kept in this production.

Farndon’s also found for instance equivalents to Ukraine truisms, keeping the mix of colloquial and learned – the nameless protagonist’s both university-educated and a beauty salon-owner. Till now. Now she has no home friends, job, country.

Millward strikingly offers us three mute kittens for sale, only they’re not for sale and she hasn’t any documents for herself, let alone them. Remove her sunglasses? She soon does this, and you realise why she’s wearing them. This is a woman who’s survived torture. She doesn’t put them back on. We live under the glare of facial weals and bruises.

We also live with a video backdrop on a white wall with Ionian columns, occasionally flashing into life with dates and images, part of an overall design by Ola Klos all rendered in white, as if already ghosts of themselves. Stage right there’s a white table and vase, cups, a shelf full of white crockery. Opposite there’s all Ukraine: crates, some upended as fences, a white cardboard box containing kittens and a jumble of items removed on occasion, usually white but for an orange hard hat. And a Ukraine flag. There’s striking tenebrous gulphs, foreshortening and well as spotting in Jonathan Chan’s lighting. Nothing’s bright for long.

The only purring though is Millward’s deepest register: partly wheedling to begin with, she snaps back to righteous scorn, confiding grief, how she was about to flee, but chooses to stay behind when the family cat Esmeralda, nine, was to give birth. So as she forces husband and daughter to flee she’s left with one cat, three kittens (emblematically white, grey and black, the three stages of entering darkness) and Ralph the dog.

Millward’s tonally shifting in her narrative – inhabiting several characters, Wolfy, a childhood acquaintance and bully now part of the Russian-supporting militia. But most of all the repulsive neighbour Raya, whom she suspects of betraying her, and who undergoes a catharsis of her own at the end. She’s’ not the only one. Millward’s depictions of grief and mourning are electrifying. Inches from her raw power you feel as well as see a rippling out of the terrible.

For Raya, Millward’s cig-miming rasp of a Russcist (Russian fascist) is acetylene to the reasonable and nameless protagonist as she terms Ukraine’s elected government a junta, thinks the Americans occupy Kyiv and that ‘”whatever” as a get-out when each conspiracy is challenged. And asks that the main character’s son, a computer programmer in Kyiv, unlock this PIN. She’s clearly looted it from the Korean Airlines plane shot down with the loss of 306 lives in August 2014.

Equally Raya has ‘friends’, and the threat’s there: they might just find out the protagonist’s son if the mother doesn’t comply. The protagonist’s son was last seen at the Maidan Kyiv protests, causing the Russian puppet president to flee, and furnishing an excuse for invasion. The protagonist, supplying food and other goods to Ukraine defenders is shadowed by Raya. But she’s more concerned with her friend’s son Maxim, whose judge mother has asked her to keep an eye on. She dos, religiously, and there follows more dilemmas.

It’s a chilling portrait of the proportion of Russian-speaking Donbas Ukrainians who welcome the Russian “liberation.” Incidentally the protagonist points out Crimea isn’t even Ukrainian, but Tartar, something not developed but clearly of personal significance to Nezhdana’s character.

Bar family flight, skeins of narratives – Maxim, Raya and Wolfy, Esmeralda, Ralph and kittens,  all vector onto the climax. Millward in all this is in tonal as well as physical command.

There’s also the vivid description. ”For me this is Donbas – the taste of watermelons and apricots… they grow wild here you know… For me Donbas is white chalk downs, apricots in the lanes, cool ponds – and salt lakes where it’s so easy to swim.” But in that description is interleaved stamping, mines and the Muscovites saying “‘So you have communism here’” when such things are given free…

The title reveals its oddball felicity, where at the end a double metaphor penetrates the dark with dark.

Nezhdana’s play – and it should be read at leisure – is a world: not simply a map of pain and war footage. Both essential and in the mesmerising Millward’s and Creed’s hands, with this team, it’s almost a compulsory visit.