Bad Roads

Ukrainian playwright, Natal’ya Vorozhbit may be one of the few global voices for a conflict many of us seem to have ‘forgotten’, as though the Russian intervention happened way before 2014. She claims a dislike for verbatim theatre, but has been documenting the true stories of soldiers and civilians in order to show the human impact of the political actions. Yet even from such a deeply intimate starting place, the six seemingly separate, though teasingly interlinked, stories in her new play, Bad Roads have little more than the names of people and places that is specific to the Ukraine itself and could be set in any such (sadly too common) conflict of our times. A sad truth and an interesting topic maybe. But disappointing in its lack of originality.

Powerful without power....moving without emotion....reminding rather than revealing

What could have been a stark reminder to many of this particular fighting, becomes a less unique “search for humanity when humanity doesn’t want to be found” theme. It doesn’t stop it being powerful, but – hard as it feels to say given the topics – without this specific insight or point of difference, it feels that we’ve seen theatre highlight such atrocious abuse, violence, rape... so many times before that being powerful alone has little more use than as a word for the poster.

That’s not to say we have become morbidly fascinated rubberneckers, slowing down in our cars to see the human impact of the motorway pile-up as we pass. (At least I hope we haven’t) Rather that in order to maintain some form of sanity, we have had to raise our defences to protect against the horrors we now know exist in this world. Entertain us, amuse us, teach us – just don’t rely on sympathy without empathy if you want to move us. Here we have very personal emotions and acts on display but without the personal foundations to support them.

In each story or chapter – the ‘Bad Roads’ of the title being both the impact of the fighting on the environment and the allusion to the choices we make to get on with our lives – women and girls (primarily) are searching for the humanity and misappropriating the intimacy of a sexual act as a display of the intimacy of a human. So we see teenage girls ‘giving themselves’ to the opposing soldiers, swapping their virginity for social status. We listen in blackout to a kidnapped female journalist being ‘face-fucked’ and ‘pissed on’ by a fighter who calls himself The Phoenix. We watch as a female soldier - in the midst of transporting her murdered lover’s body - says to her fellow officer that to keep warm, it would “be better if (they) fucked ...not to...give me any satisfaction, I froze my clit off in the dugout”. It’s tough stuff to watch. And yet it just doesn’t really permeate.

Perhaps in translating the original script, the aim to make it more ‘everyone’ has gone too far and resulted in it being too ‘anyone-else’. They’re almost at pains to make it clear that the actors aren’t characters but playing representations of ‘Girl’ ‘Woman’ ‘Soldier’ as the cast list states. The opening half hour (mainly) monologue is intensely personal, delivered in a Scottish accent (the actor's own, not the character's) and dancing between first, second and third person so we can’t be sure if she’s telling us, or telling him, or reading someone else’s words. At times, others stand at a mic behind her reading more verbatims in a variety of guises – the Scouse and Irish Russians, the Played-by-Female male soldier, the Essex girl Ukrainian teenager. But it’s not disarming enough to be didactic, or cohesive enough to be resonant.

There are some very strong performances that hold up under the intimacy of the Upstairs thrust staging which is barely dressed with just a number of tree trunks to convey the cold empty roads on which they find themselves (and only blocked vision during the opening for around 1/3rd of the monologue from some seats). Notably, Ria Zmitrovicz as the kidnapped journalist ‘She’, shows a rawness to a barely concealed control of her fear – and is able to really demonstrate the talent that was obviously there, but unable to be set free, in last year’s X. And Mike Noble as the Commander/Soldier 1, who may not have the ‘on paper’ most dramatic of the scenes but who I find immensely watchable so strong does his belief in the moment come across (his role in The Curious Incident... may be a few years back now, but the learnings are still showing).

So... It’s powerful without power... Moving without emotion... It reminds us rather than reveals to us... There’s nothing wrong with that but I can’t help shake the feeling that it’s a lost opportunity. I would like to think it’s not that we are cold and immune to such stories – it’s positive that awareness of such things is much more commonplace so don’t stop telling the stories and don’t look to shock for the sake of it. But without anything new or a way for us to understand the personal rather than just be shown, these Bad Roads end up becoming Roads to Nowhere. 

Reviews by Simon Ximenez

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The Blurb

“I spend the night in an officer’s barracks, where no woman has ever set foot.”

In the darkest recesses of Ukraine, a war is raging.

A journalist takes a research trip to the front line.

Teenage girls wait for soldiers on benches.

A medic mourns her lover killed in action.

Heart-breaking, powerful and bitterly comic accounts of what it is to be a woman in wartime.

“A body without a head in a body bag just doesn’t turn me on.”

Natal’ya Vorozhbit is the leading Ukrainian playwright of her generation and has worked with the Royal Court since 2004. Her work includes The Khomenko Family Chronicles, Maidan (Royal Court) and The Grain Store (RSC). Bad Roads will be directed by Royal Court Artistic Director Vicky Featherstone.

Image credit: Helen Murray.

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