It has been six months now since Russia invaded Ukraine, but as a double-bill of Ukrainian plays – published this week and currently showing at the Finborough Theatre in London – makes clear, the conflict really began much earlier than that, when Russia invaded and annexed Crimea in 2014. For the two leading Ukrainian playwrights whose work is being staged, and who both still live and work in Ukraine, the war there is as devastating as it was foreseeable. Here, Natal’ya Vorozhbit and Neda Nezhdana (together with their translators, Sasha Dugdale and John Farndon) write about the anger, dismay and horror that has fed into their work, as well as the extraordinary human resilience in the face of outrageous Russian aggression.
Natal’ya Vorozhbit writes: ‘When I wrote Take the Rubbish Out, Sasha in 2014, the war in Ukraine had already begun. It continued in the east of the country, and it was impossible to believe. I tried to wear this war, as did my family; I wrote about my fears and premonitions and hoped that they would never come true, that humanity would be horrified and stop the war at that stage. But humanity pretended that nothing was happening and bought gas from Russia. Eight years have passed and everything that I described in the play, only much worse, has happened to the whole of Ukraine, hit all of us and touched all of you.
For eight years, neither Ukraine nor the world has coped with the evil that came without hiding. It really hurts me that this text is only now so relevant. Can it change anything? It seems that art does not become a warning and does not change the world at all. And only the human ability not to lose hope moves us further, makes us write, fight, and believe that good and truth will win.’
Sasha Dugdale writes: ‘I translated Take the Rubbish Out, Sasha in late 2014 for A Play, A Pie and A Pint at Òran Mór in Glasgow, directed by Nicola McCartney. The war in Donbas had begun earlier that same year, so by the time Natalka wrote her short play the initial shock of war and invasion had worn off. In her lithe, funny and poignant work, Natalka looks back to the Soviet period, and the confusion of the nineties, and shows how ideas of masculinity have shifted over a period of turbulent change. With her “sly writer’s heart” (a phrase she uses in her 2017 classic Bad Roads) and her abundant compassion and humour, she depicts a family operating under all sorts of strains: the burden of alcoholism, divorce, poor health, death, financial constraints, and the various toxins of a corrupt and venal late- or post-Soviet military system.
It is a surprise when war interrupts this mess of ordinary lives and their tensions – as much a surprise to the viewer as it appears to be for the characters. They are wrenched backwards into a time when masculinity counted for something – and yet paradoxically it is women now managing, holding the fort, buying the supplies: the men turn out to be absent, shadowy or supernatural.
I have translated Natalka’s work for many years and it has been a privilege and a responsibility. Over the period of our collaboration she has documented the emerging Ukraine and its process of self-definition, through protest and uprising, into the woeful period of Russian aggression which has dominated Ukraine’s recent history. I love and relish her deft, wry dialogue and its humour, and the power female protagonists have in her writing. Most of all I love her joy in humanity, in all its forms, and I take this into my translating, often laughing aloud at her sheer cleverness and wit as I strive to find English equivalents.’
Neda Nezhdana writes: ‘Since the Revolution of Dignity, I have “mobilised” my “literary soldiers”; all my texts have been related to the Maidan and the war. At the beginning of 2014, my native city of Kramatorsk in Donetsk region was occupied by Rashists (Russian fascists) for several months. My relatives managed to escape, and I wanted to write a play about it: what it is like to become a refugee. They had had their whole world stolen from them: home, work, friends, city… And the total lies of Russian propaganda – about the Maidan, Donbas, Ukraine in general – were outrageous. Nothing to do with reality. On the contrary, they called the Maidan’s international goal of association with the EU “Nazism”, and described their own aggression, terror and looting as “liberation”. Time has shown that their hybrid occupation brought only grief: tens of thousands killed, wounded, orphaned, millions of refugees, destroyed houses and destinies… And people, provoked by propaganda, became murderers, executioners and traitors…
I searched for a long time to find the right form for my play, Pussycat in Memory of Darkness. The impetus was the true story of Iryna Dovgan, a beauty-salon worker who was captured and tortured by the Russians. Her words suggested the title of the play: she saw “darkness” in the eyes of her executioner. This is what I wanted to talk about. I wanted to warn the world about this “darkness” – the impunity of criminals turning into a “tsunami” that can engulf all of us in a terrible nightmare of terror… Yet “in dark times, bright people are clearly visible,” as Erich Maria Remarque wrote. The second impetus for the play was photos of our retreating soldiers rescuing dogs, cats and parrots. Animals, whose owners had been killed or captured, sensed where they would be helped, and went to Ukrainian soldiers. I believe that humanity begins with our attitude towards animals. This is how the eventual image of a volunteer heroine who helps soldiers and saves kittens was born. White, grey and black are the three steps in the war of light and dark… Documentary stories from relatives and friends, my own memories and news, such as the shooting down of a passenger plane by the Russians in Donbas, were intertwined with fantasy. It was a cry for help: people, stop this horror before it’s too late… But millions of crimes in the Russian Federation remain unpunished, and unpunished evil is growing progressively.
Since 24th February 2022, this “darkness” has spread over the whole of Ukraine. When I wrote this play, I didn’t know, like my character, how it was to be with children and animals under fire from rockets and bombs, what it meant to be a refugee. But now I know this from my own experience in the Kyiv region, and my relatives in Kramatorsk live next to the train station that was hit by Russian rockets on 8th April… Tens of millions of people are going through this now, dozens of countries around the world are helping displaced people and the wounded from Ukraine. More than two-thirds of Ukrainian children are refugees, others are under fire, in infiltration camps, deported, wounded, killed… Now refugees are a problem for the whole world. Rashists destroy entire cities and villages, especially schools, hospitals, museums, theatres, churches, burn books… And they also “denazify” animals: horses are burned in stables and cows are blasted by “hail”… They even attack plants – mining forests and burning grain fields… This is not only the most terrible war in terms of weapons, it is genocide, the attack of barbarism on civilisation, slavery on freedom. It is important to understand: leaving the occupied territories of Ukraine to the Russian Federation means condemning people to death and torture. Unfortunately, this play has only grown in relevance. I believe that such texts help those traumatised by the war and those who want to understand what is really happening. All over the Earth, which is becoming absorbed by the “darkness”. However, I remain in Ukraine and continue to write, because I believe in the victory of light. Thanks to all “warriors of light” in the world.’
John Farndon writes: ‘The ongoing Russian attack on Ukraine is a horror which no one can ignore. What can theatremakers do? The very painful answer is not much. But since the beginning of March 2022, I’ve been working with the Worldwide Ukrainian Play Readings project, in collaboration with Theatre of Playwrights in Kyiv, to bring the words of Ukraine’s amazing and courageous playwrights to the world by translating dozens of their plays, many written almost from the frontline – raw, immediate and powerful.
For me, the most extraordinary discovery has been the writing of Neda Nezhdana, and it’s been a privilege to translate her work. She is something of a legend in Ukraine yet her work has never been staged in English until now. It should have been. Neda has an extraordinary ability to distil the most challenging aspects of Ukraine’s situation into bold, provocative, thrilling drama.
Pussycat in Memory of Darkness is set in 2014, when Russia occupied Crimea and began its ongoing attempts to destabilise the Donbas, in revenge for Ukraine’s Maidan revolution to rid the country of Russian influence. It tells the story of the nightmare life that develops for one woman in the Donbas in the face of the insidious violence stirred up in her home town by the Russian-backed militia and propaganda. It is a beautifully crafted, yet uncompromising drama that takes us right into the heart of darkness that is Russia’s war on Ukraine. Yet the message is not just about Ukraine, but for us all.’
This is an edited version of the introduction to Voices from Ukraine: Two Plays published by Nick Hern Books. Save 20% on your copy when you order direct from the Nick Hern Books website here. 10% of the proceeds from sales of the book will be donated to the Voices of Children Charitable Foundation, a Ukrainian charity providing urgently needed psychological and psychosocial support to children affected by the war in Ukraine.
The plays Take the Rubbish Out, Sasha and Pussycat in Memory of Darkness are in production at the Finborough Theatre, London, until 3 September. For more information, and to book tickets, visit the Finborough Theatre website.