The American public radio network NPR recently produced a new podcast called Rough Translation, which transplants familiar discussions within the United States – gender, race, family, media – into different international contexts. Its sophomore episode wrestled with the pro-Russian machinery of fake news in Ukraine, where former journalist and Kiev resident Ruslan Denychenko discusses a chilling discovery he made in 2014: that Russia was pre-emptively backing an information war that would both precipitate and prepare for a real war in Ukraine, a polarising conflict that continues across a bitter divide.
This information war looms large in the background of Ukrainian playwright Natal’ya Vorozhbit’s harrowing new play, Bad Roads. She brings a documentarian’s eye to the conflict, and the play opens in the vein of verbatim theatre with a confiding monologue by a female journalist (Kate Dickie), a writer straining for the truth against a shape-shifting reality and her own sexual interest in her subject, a grizzled military veteran. It’s a 21st-century war, where social media celebrities and battlefield heroes are one and the same. The journalist describes a particularly savvy soldier who “put up a clip of himself coolly addressing the enemy from the airport under siege. He’s got 50,000 followers on Facebook. Women leave comments like ‘my hero’ and ‘I want your babies’.” But for all this war’s technological turf, it’s also a war set in the difficult, freezing terrain of a very real winter. Camilla Clarke’s design in the Royal Court’s Upstairs studio space recreates a forested wilderness, a thicket of bare trees often shrouded in darkness and mist, as characters emerge and recede into shadow.
The crucial power dynamic in Vorozhbit’s shattering piece isn’t between the pro-Kiev forces and the pro-Russia separatists. It’s between men and women on both sides of the line, where the enemy can be coaxed into becoming a friend and a friend can quickly become the enemy. Vorozhbit’s series of loosely interconnected vignettes starts off slowly, almost gently, but grows into an unflinching examination of the personal and the sexual, of the horrific intimacy of war where romance is giddy and fleeting (often cut short by death) and rape is a weapon of mass destruction. Each of the excellent ensemble of seven take on multiple roles, both soldier and civilian, but it’s fair to say that they are all collateral damage in the end. War produces an ecosystem of lust and love under extreme circumstances, where teen girls compare their crushes on soldiers and gain a terrifyingly premature sexual awakening, and where lovers’ heads may be blown off by IEDs.
The male currency of war may be toxic masculinity and unspeakable brutality. But Vorozhbit is more interested in the female currency of war – wielded as a desperate Hail Mary in response to this savagery – one that is chilling in its manipulation and complicity. The women in this war find themselves perpetuating their own victimhood as much as they try to escape it. One is torn between her desire for a man who accumulates lovers and discards them just as quickly – and her fears of loneliness and mortality. Another, in an exceptionally disturbing scene, arms herself with a pathological altruism in the face of her captor’s violent sadism. These women all have different names, but they feel like different facets of the same person, and an item of jewellery she holds dear recurs as an idee fixe throughout the piece.
Director Vicky Featherstone keeps every encounter and stand-off so taut that any gasp of dark humour feels like an absolute relief. Most of the violence is never seen, but the air of violence hangs so heavy and pungent over the stage that I sometimes found it difficult to breathe in the play’s tensest moments. Featherstone’s decision to remove gratuitous visuals from the stage but have them communicated by implication or through sound is a particularly effective one. One of the play’s most haunting scenes unfolds in complete darkness, where every slap, grunt and cry feels magnified and exponentially discomfiting. When the lights go up, a pink splash of soup spilled on the ground from a previous scene begins to look a lot like a pool of blood. The cover of darkness also makes sure that the sexual humiliation of a woman isn’t the focus of the scene, nor is her naked body an object. (There’s no nudity in the play.)
Actresses Ronke Adekoluejo and Ria Zmitrowicz are tasked with carrying some of the most shattering scenes as their characters walk that thin, slippery line between ‘victim’ and ‘perpetrator’, the survivors of an unforgiving war who have had to sacrifice every last shred of dignity to make it through alive. Their motives are a delicate cocktail of self-interest, self-flagellation and self-sacrifice, leavened with morbid humour – as they wade through an endless moral twilight, making their scenes as difficult to watch as it is to look away. From impassioned teenage schoolgirl to war-weary medic, Adekoluejo and Zmitrowicz are standout performers in their roles, and well-matched by Mike Noble and Tadhg Murphy playing a range of military men, from the guilt-ridden to the utterly remorseless.
At one point in the play, a separatist soldier (Murphy) declares, among other racist and homophobic statements, that ‘everything bad comes from the Jews’ and ‘Jews, Americans and Ukrainians are evil, and Maidan is evil, and Ukraine doesn’t exist’. This is a region so divided by the flow of information and how history is interpreted and conveyed that Vorozhbit opts to hint at the complex political circumstances of the war rather than make it the divisive focal point of the play. She acknowledges the diverging nationalisms and convictions that have brought the region to its tipping point, but her work moves on to take a clear-eyed view of the characters’ personal traumas instead. It’s another war she’s fighting on the stage: is oral history the final stronghold against fake news? What happens when we can no longer trust the testimonies of others? For now, Bad Roads ensures that this isn’t the case. Vorozhbit incorporated the real-life accounts of her friends and acquaintances in creating this urgent, visceral piece, and perhaps part of the reason why the pain of these characters feels so real is because they are.
Bad Roads is on at the Royal Court until 23rd December. Book tickets here.
Review: Bad Roads at the Royal Court Show Info
Directed by Vicky Featherstone
Written by Natal’ya Vorozhbit. Translated by Sasha Dugdale
Cast includes Ronke Adekoluejo, Kate Dickie, Vincent Ebrahim, Anne Lacey, Tadhg Murphy, Mike Noble, Ria Zmitrowicz
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