30 August 2022
TAKE THE RUBBISH OUT, SASHA and PUSSYCAT IN MEMORY OF DARKNESS (Finborough Theatre) Review
The “Two Ukranian Plays” double bill at Finborough starts with “Take the Rubbish Out, Sasha”, written by Natal’ya Vorozhbit and directed by Svetlana Dimcovic. The plot revolves around a woman and her adult daughter reminescing about Sasha, a Ukrainian Army colonel, who is their husband and stepfather, respectively. The latter takes a bit of time to click, but you realise it soon enough given that the daughter calls him by his first name rather than “dad”. They talk to him directly and about him indirectly, so it’s not immediately obvious what’s actually happening. From the conversations of other patrons overheard during intermission, it’s clear that some people realised the lay of the land quite quickly, whilst others took most of the play to figure it out. Don’t worry, I don’t give anything away.
There are 3 scenes to the play: everyone is home in the kitchen, the two ladies are out a year later, and then everyone is back in the kitchen some time later, which also seems to be about a year from context. Amanda Ryan (playing Katia, the mother) is breathtaking and completely steals the show. The way her Katia holds it together and goes through the motions whilst being absolutely shattered on the inside makes you want to run down to the stage and hug her (no one did, thankfully). At a glance, she seems to be just nattering, but it paints quite the picture over the course of the play. When Katia trips, nearly falls, and cracks up laughing in the second scene, it genuinely feels like this is the first time she has laughed in a very long time.
Issy Knowles, as Katia’s daughter Oxana, makes for an able supporting character. She delivers her monologue in the second scene with a lot of love and passion. Yet, somehow, unlike Ryan, who appears unfazed by things as a result of having gone into a stupor from everything that’s befallen her character, Knowles’ Oxana seems to be just bland personality-wise. Alan Cox, as the title Sasha, stood out in the first scene, but didn’t do it for me from there on out. In the second scene there is an opportunity for him to be cheeky and comical, which goes untapped. In the last scene he is back in uniform, but for all the talk about Sasha’s prowess and being an imposing sportsman who once single-handedly beat up three hooligans, Cox stands in the kitchen with hands curled up by his cuffs and not exactly broad-shouldered. Nothing about it aligns to how Sasha gets painstakingly painted throughout the play.
Sasha Dugdale’s translation is melodic and flows beautifully. There were a few places where I wondered if those close to Ukraine and reading the original text would get an extra layer of “something” out of it (for example when Katia talks about <someone> dying a dignified death having just said that the person was rolled up in a carpet to be taken away). Dimcovic’s direction was a bit hit and miss for me (see points above re: Sasha in the last scene). But what really put me off were the audio/visual cuts between the scenes. My eyes couldn’t roll any harder if I tried. In one scene Katia and Oxana recall some memories of Sasha, such as him beating up hooligans, pouring vodka into Katia’s ear to get some creepy-crawly out, taking Oxana to the circus, etc. Then, between the scenes, the whole lot is reenacted in pantomime for minutes on end. I’m sure Dimcovic must have had a reason for doing it, but it actually made me dislike this production a fair bit and took away some of the enjoyment I would’ve liked to hold on to.
As for Vorozhbit’s writing, although the play clearly has some serious commentary on the state of things in Ukraine (presumably at the time of writing), she never rams it down your throat. It’s almost like a subplot that’s just there for you to absorb at your own pace, and I found this extremely refreshing.
After the intermission, the second play is “Pussycat In Memory Of Darkness”, written by Neda Nezhdana and directed by Polly Creed. It is an hour-long one-woman piece about her experiences in 2014 Donbas and was inspired by a true story. In contrast to the first play, this one bombards you with the politics, the horrors, and everything else you’d expect in a piece like that: a woman selling kittens by the side of the road ends up telling the story of everything she went through before, during, and after her town was occupied by the Russian militia.
I think we must separate the messaging from the actual play/writing here. The abuse, the hardships… it’s a very important story to tell by way of raising awareness to what has been happening in Ukraine for a decade. But I am sorry, Nezhdana’s writing style is dreadful, although it’s hard to tell how much of it is the original script vs. John Farndon’s translation. Obviously there will be others who will like it; it takes all kinds. Whilst I can’t tell how much of the play is the actual true story and how much has been fictionalised, I like my plays to be reasonably realistic or absurd, not both. Here we have the main character who saw the writing on the wall long before the excrement hit the fan: she partook in a hunger strike protesting the regime, she got her family ready to leave town, etc. Yet she herself stays behind in this town (that’s clearly about to implode, by her own assessment) because her cat just had kittens, and they need looking after. I am sorry, what? She has two children, for crying out loud. Let’s leave them motherless to look after kittens? I love cats more than biggest cat lovers out there, but I’d surely try to figure out a way to hide them and take them on the bus with me long before I abandon family and stay back in a war zone… There are a couple other plot points, albeit not as radical as this one, that bump you out of the realism of the rest of the story because they are rather preposterous. That said, Nezhdana was nominated for the “new play” 2022 Offie award, so what do I know (although I do wonder whether the importance of the subject matter was the cause of this rather than the writing itself).
Additionally, the story is incredibly difficult to follow. Unless you really know your Ukraine history cold by way of what protests took place when, what each side was after, in-depth aspects of occupation, it’s not trivial to follow some of the story. To make it worse, the woman is often emotional, weeping, screaming, mumbling, all of which results in some of the text being difficult if not impossible to understand. Some of this is down to Creed’s choices, of course, but the end result is the same. Similarly, pinning a blue-and-yellow badge onto a blue jumpsuit doesn’t really stand out much visually as it would with a contrasting collar. Kristin Milward, who was nominated for the “lead performance” Offie award off the back of this production, does the best she can given the text. She got several rounds of ovation and lots of appreciative whooping at the end of the show. Her delivery wasn’t my cup of tea if I’m honest. There is a lot of pausing and word repetition at the start of sentences. The idea seems to be to show the person lost in memories or perhaps trying to collect her thoughts (and this approach pops up on stage now and again), but it ends up coming off more like the actor trying to remember the next line and failing. I have only seen this method work successfully one time and one time only: Maggie Smith in “A German Life“; everywhere else it ends up pretty awkward.
Cheapskate enjoyment value: £4 for “Sasha” + £1 for “Pussycat”.