In the Donbass region of east Ukraine, fighting began in 2014 and has smouldered on to this day. The towns all contain temporary military populations, made up of young men and women living in close proximity to death, far from routine and families. These “heroes” have followings on Facebook. Women want their babies. Underage girls go with the garrisoned soldiers, although in these areas allegiances are mixed and some get in trouble for befriending Ukrainian soldiers.
This is territory few writers have covered, particularly from a woman’s point of view. In Natal’ya Vorozhbit’s new play, Bad Roads, teenagers sleep with the garrisoned soldiers because it makes their drab, war-torn lives more glamorous. A paramedic drives the body of her soldier-lover along wild, bad roads to his wife. The most harrowing of all is the portrayal of the relationship between a hostage-taker and his female victim, which moves unnervingly between sadism, abuse and something approaching human warmth.An acquaintance of the playwright was held hostage in Donbass by separatists. In the first years of war this happened frequently: journalists and a theatre director were among those who stumbled into imprisonment and torture and were released after months of suffering. Natal’ya uses records of kidnappings to fashion a scene of such horror and abuse it was both terrible to translate and even more terrible to think of her writing it. A threat of violence hangs over the scene, but in the end it is the power relationship between the young woman and the separatist soldier that shocks: the hostage’s instinctive attempts to humanise, to befriend, to reach out to a man brutalised by war without herself being brutalised. The dialogue is written with such force and nuance that we can instantly imagine ourselves in that situation. The potential of Stockholm syndrome is extended to all of us.
Bad Roads is composed of such documentary stories about the war, carefully wound into a fictional, episodic and impressionistic study. The play tells the story of the inhabitants of the region and the combatants on both sides. It opens with the monologue of a young woman who has fallen in love with a soldier and travels to the front line with him. It’s a poignant and vulnerable monologue: after desiring the soldier for days, she finds that PTSD has left him impotent and sex is impossible, but she reflects ironically that she earns her medal, the patriotic Ukrainian pendant he fastens around her neck, by performing oral sex on him: “Conviction is contagious, did you know – you can catch it through oral sex?”
The war began in Donbass soon after the 2013 pro-European, anti-government, Maidan uprising in the Ukrainian capital Kiev. Natal’ya, along with her fellow Kievans, spent days on Maidan Square, helping feed, clothe and arm protesters. She took recordings of testimony from protesters, together with other theatre practitioners, and edited the material into a verbatim-style piece of theatre, which the Royal Court produced as a reading in 2014.
Already clear in this earlier work was her commitment to real stories, told by the real protagonists, and from the start this documentary approach has had political importance: as relations between Ukraine and Russia soured, Russia’s use of propaganda and fake news to shape opinion and recast history has been monolithic and constant. Natal’ya’s commitment to oral history as drama has, as a result, become a political act of vital importance in the information war.
Over the last couple of years Natal’ya has worked on various cultural projects in the ATO (the “anti-terrorist operation zone”), the area re-taken by the Ukrainian army during the war. These include a project with local teenagers and a script for a film about the siege of Donetsk airport. Much of the material for Bad Roads comes from these documentary projects, including harrowing accounts by Ukrainian soldiers under siege at Donetsk airport. One of the characters retells how a group of Ukrainian soldiers sat out the night and waited for the separatists to begin their final bombardment at dawn. There was a rumour they were going to use the powerful Soviet Buratino multiple rocket launcher, and the Ukrainians under siege knew that they had no hope of surviving the attack if they did: the Buratino is a weapon of mass destruction, laying waste to everything in the area. So they sat and waited, washing with wet wipes and phoning their wives and families. One soldier sat on the phone to his daughter on the other side of Ukraine, helping her with her homework. When dawn came the separatists attacked in tanks and without Buratino and the men were ecstatic; their lives were saved.
Natal’ya travelled to towns in the area to work on theatre projects with schools. She asked teenagers to write and deliver short monologues about their lives and many of these voices have found their way into Bad Roads, including the poignant tale of a child in a basement during the bombardment of a town in the Donbass region: the family spent a lot of time in the basement during air raids, and to calm their little girl they told her the explosions were fireworks. Every time the little girl heard an explosion she would shout “Yay!”.
Donbass is a modern war: Ukrainians crowdfunded for uniforms and Kevlar helmets for their sons and relatives, military heroes reported back on Facebook to their large followings of admirers, soldiers watch TV on plasma screens in their temporary barracks. But it is an ancient war, too: bloody and cruel, affecting no one more than the communities in the east who have endured bombs, rockets and weeks hiding in basements, whose basic desire is to survive and to have some form of human life again: children, vegetable gardens, community. For whom politics is a baleful word and all governments are now hateful.
By stressing the sexual and the female in her study of war, Natal’ya haunts us all with the power of conflict to warp modern society. War, as she explained in the rehearsal room, returns us to the most intense feelings of hate and love. Love in war happens against a backdrop of bombs falling, deaths and mutilations, and desire comes inappropriately, when the pity of war is supposed to be uppermost in the mind. Sex in war cares nothing for the taste, the niceties of civilisation, it makes us feel sick to hear of body fluids spilled in sex in such close proximity to body fluids spilled in death. As the central character in the play says of her soldier love, “You’re all jealous, but at the same time you’re cringing”. It’s raw and dark, like the grief of a woman who has lost her man and who drinks and propositions another male comrade “just as a man might”. It reverses sexual roles and takes strange expression in the brutalised mind, which relieves itself in sexual force, but also longs for solace. The extremes of desire in war are equal only to the extremes of bloodlust and depravity.
What is unique about this play is that it is written by a woman, from the point of view of the sexual “object”, and it unflinchingly describes the situation of women at war. It charts a careful line round notions of victimhood and complicity. Hardly anyone writes from this point of view. In its combination of documentary and fiction and its point of view it reminds me of the work of Nobel prize winner Svetlana Alexievich. The writings of women from this region should be attended to, because they are carefully documenting a terrible reality in the face of increasingly artful fakery.
Translating the play has brought home just how little separates us from these people at war, just how frail our civilisation is. I’ve been working on the play with Natal’ya and with the Royal Court for more than a year and in that time in the UK we have lived through a referendum and an increase in hate crime and violence. While translating a rewrite of the hostage scene, I found the kidnapper’s voice coming more fluently to me, I could feel him in English in a way I hadn’t done previously: “Democracy is a cunning God, those f@cking snowflakes thought it up.”
By Sasha Dugdale, The Guardian