It’s January 2014 and Ukraine is in a state of siege. Protests are spreading outwards from Kiev, where thousands of activists clash with riot police and blockade government buildings. Central Kiev is on fire; the photos and videos coming through the various media channels look more like scenes from a war than a demonstration. Riot police and specialist units are fighting the mob with batons, rubber bullets, tear gas and water cannons. Protesters, armed with homemade weapons, torch police buses and throw petrol bombs to push them back. The Justice Minister warns that a state of emergency could be imposed and you can hear the people of Ukraine begin to wonder whether they have already reached the point of no return.
At the beginning of July I travelled to Ukraine with composer Ben Osborn and movement director (and informal translator) Svetlana Biba, to undertake first-hand research into the events that had taken place earlier that year, and had become known as “The Ukrainian Revolution”. We met with a wide range of people, including university students, lecturers, musicians and theatre makers, who had all been active in various ways during the Euromaidan protests. We also met journalists, activists, political researchers, refugees from East Ukraine, a mass-psychologist and organisers of AutoMaidan amongst others.
This research journey was the starting point of the writing process of a new play I was working on about four of the most violent days in Ukraine’s modern history: the four days in February which some would say changed the political course of Europe and destabilised relations between East and West to the lowest level since the cold war.
The initial research and preparation for the journey was made in collaboration with the Centre for European Studies at Lund University, a range of helpful individuals, journalists and political experts. In Ukraine, we were hosted by Kyrylo Bulkin from Volodymyr Zavalniuk’s “Peretvorennya” Theatre in Kiev, and after coming home from Ukraine we had research support from Dr. Rory Finnin at Cambridge University.
The political game behind this conflict was and still is a minefield, with every main player having their own version of who’s to blame. But looking beyond the media coverage and the political propaganda, there is a human story to be told from the people who were there on the ground, fighting for a common cause; a story of how a society joined together, across the political spectrum, and struck back against a repressive government. That was what struck me about these events: I was interested in hearing the stories of the real people behind the shields, behind the barricade, behind the masks, rather than the greater politics that were at stake.
Taking to one political activist about her experience during the last few days of the uprising, I began to understand that for her and her friends, there was no turning back. They had all been registered, photographed, recorded, lists of names had been collected – they were branded. If they didn’t succeed in deposing the president, it was likely that they would have spent the rest of their lives in prison … or worse.
The overriding challenge with this project was of course how to tell such a complex story within a very limited timescale (all in a two-hour play) without simplifying or over-complicating things. How to make it accessible for a wide international audience, yet interesting and insightful for people who are familiar with the true events?
For this reason I decided early on that the story of the play would be set in a deliberately unnamed location, to allow parallels to be drawn between the events in Ukraine and related experiences in the UK, whilst also addressing issues of a more universal nature; these include the right to freedom of speech, the rights and responsibilities of government during times of unrest, and the ultimate question: “What would we do if this happened to us, on our streets?”
Ultimately this story is not about politics, violence and explosions; it’s about the transformation and psychology of people in the midst of a highly distressing situation, and the evolution of relationships in hard times. It’s about people, families and the consequences of our choices.
In approaching these challenges, I have over the last few years defined two key questions in my research: “What is the balance between artistic freedom and authenticity?” and “What are the ethical responsibilities for me as an author/editor of plays based upon and using authentic source material?”
When setting out with the intention of writing a play based upon “authentic” source material, there will always be the question of whether the material I got/have been given access to can ever be completely authentic. Are the stories I heard true, a second-hand construction, or partly propaganda? What’s the relationship between authenticity and the truth? And isn’t truth in itself a social construction?
On a personal level, who am I to represent this truth, and which “truth” I am telling? Why am I telling this story and, for whom? For my own process, I usually start by replacing the question of “why?” with “how?”, i.e. “How can I, as a London-based theatre maker, best represent a reality so far from my own on the stage?”
Of course, there are no simple answers to any of these questions, but they serve as a good starting point and they are important to have in mind throughout. Working with “real life” stories demands constant discussions, debates and further research. As artists, we “can” do what we want, but I believe we also need to be transparent in the process to uphold and represent these stories with the respect and honesty demanded by the nature of this type of work.
This play has taken the shape of a fully narrative-driven story, rather than a spectrum of different individual voices, as is often the case when theatre is based on true events. It is still completely based upon real life stories, but these stories have been reworked and fictionalised to a certain degree in order to make them work together as one narrative. To preserve the integrity of the work, the script has been developed together with academics and political experts, as well as Ukrainian actors and musicians, to reach into the heart of their reality. We hope that by doing this we will be reaching an even wider audience, both in the UK and abroad.
Ukraine is at a critical point, socially and politically. But working together with partners across borders, regions and cultures, we believe that there are many issues which theatre can help to raise, discuss and potentially solve. Theatre based on real life stories has an opportunity to tackle subjects on a human level that are hard to understand from just reading or watching the media coverage. If we can make this work and reach a wider audience, I believe that we as theatre makers can make a difference.
The Point of No Return is on at New Diorama Theatre from 28th April – 23rd May.