Ukraine’s war-torn east is Europe’s most enigmatic, forbidding region, ravaged by sectarian strife and covert Russian invasion. At its height in 2014, the conflict there was a source of existential dread for the West, the worry it might erupt into a bigger war. Now there’s simply the dim, dull sense that it is not a safe or stable place.
‘Bad Roads’, by Ukrainian playwright Nataly’ya Vorozhbit, is a sort of nightmarish attempt to pierce the veil of the country’s east. It’s also an evocation of the nastiness of partisan conflict, and the means by which women, in particular, suffer in places in which the rule of law is wholly or part suspended.
It’s also pretty weird. At its best, Vicky Featherstone’s production – performed in Camilla Clarke’s eerie dead forest set – has a kind of ‘Heart of Darkness’ quality, a sense that taking the ‘bad roads’ to the east is a journey beyond conventional reality.
It opens strongly, with a blackly funny narrative monologue from Kate Dickie’s Woman. She may or may not represent the playwright – it transpires she is called Natalya – though one senses that her account of a complicated affair with a soldier, Sergei, who she journeys east with, is not intended to be taken literally. Like much of the play, there’s the tantalising sense that it’s passing comment on the nature of divided Ukraine on an allegorical level that a Western audience will struggle with.
Following the opener, ‘Bad Roads’ diverges into a series of short-ish vignettes that may or may not directly relate to each other. In fact, they make much more sense in isolation: pungent snapshots of a region drifting beyond the realm of sanity, performed by an excellent, versatile cast of seven who take two roles apiece. Three schoolgirls bicker idly about the separatists they have to marry, an unvoiced terror underpinning their every word; two Ukrainian soldiers stop a drunk man with an assault rifle and the wrong papers – but who has something to hide? A soldier drives a woman and her husband’s refrigerated corpse, while she receives mocking texts from the dead man’s phone; a woman tries to appeal to the humanity of a depraved separatist intent on raping her; another woman runs over an elderly couple’s chicken and finds it used as a pretext for ludicrous, sinister demands. There’s a note of the politicised power play of late Pinter to it all.
But Vorozhbit massively complicates things by loading the scenes with recurrent tropes and themes that strongly suggest it’s all a single narrative. It is heavily implied that Dickie’s character in the opening scene is in fact the protagonist of most of the other scenes. But the text is intentionally vague (she’s always called something unspecific like ‘Woman 2’ or ‘Girl’), she’s always played by a different actor, and there is deliberate, minor divergence in biographical details.
Why? I don’t know. I could venture theories, but Featherstone’s brooding production always remains opaque. The Royal Court’s dedication to international voices is important, but so is context, and I left with the sense that ‘Bad Roads’ was trying to lead me somewhere that I wasn’t able to go.