Marking the one-year anniversary of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the ProEnglish Theatre of Ukraine, Kyiv and the Finborough Theatre, London have collaborated on a unique poetry project. Using examples from the past 180 years, Four Poems From Ukraine oscillates between poems performed in English (by actors in London and Toronto), and Ukrainian actors performing in their native language (with English subtitles), with filmed footage of the bombsites of Irpyn.
As paradoxical as it sounds, in almost every culture, times of war have always been fertile ground for exploring the ‘big questions’ with naked honesty, when it’s ‘acceptable’ to rally against the the ways of thinking that led to warfare in the first place. And so it is with the four poems chosen that we find parallels with these poems with other historical and literary examples of the past.
1847: It Makes No Difference To Me by Taras Shevchenko (translated by Clarence A. Manning). Performed by Bréon Rydell and Alex Borovenskiy.
Shevchenko’s poem is spoken from a place where the ego has been pummelled into submission, leaving no sense of wanting or feeling for oneself. Instead, all feeling is sublimated to ‘anger’ at what has happened to others, to one’s country. Even with Rydell’s understated delivery, what the listener picks up on is the measure of control when broaching the topic of how the war has affected everyone.
In contrast, Borovenskiy’s delivery gives even less away with his inflection, but the numbness arising from the wartime experiences is all too present on his face, as the camera pulls in ever closer.
1960s: XX Century Pastorale by Lina Kostenko (translated by Alex Borovenskiy).
Performed by Linda Thorson and Kateryna Yakymets.
Arguably the most moving of the poems, the ‘matter-of-fact’ account of an explosion – the physical damage to human flesh that it wroughts, as well as the emotional destruction to the community – is vividly conveyed. In some ways, the poem felt like The Women of Troy as retold by W. H. Auden, with the emotional aftermath of war’s atrocities more unbearable than the fighting itself. Certainly the gamut of emotions are conveyed by Thorson as young and old (but especially the women) bear the brunt of the heartache… There are also overt allusions to Classical mythology in the poem, such as Ariadne who helped Theseus find his way out of King Minos’s labyrinth. But according to some versions of Ariadne’s tale, her ‘reward’ for her service is heartache, so her fate also mirrors the lamentations of the women too.
In Yakymets’s segment, the footage of bombed out areas of Ukraine has a haunting quality – ‘mesmerising’ in its own way, but also a stark reminder of the absence of people who once lived there. Walking through the ‘ghost town’ of Irpyn, the damaged surroundings bear witness to what transpired…
2017: Three Years Now We’ve Been Talking About The War by Serhii Zhadan (translated by Virlana Tkacz and Bob Holman). Performed by Toby Stephens and Daniil Prymachov.
Part of the healing process when dealing with trauma is having the willingness to talk about it. A secondary consideration is having the vocabulary, the ‘right words’ to express the ‘unsayable’… With this in mind, Zhadan’s poem tackles the collective grieving progress and how a society defines its identity by its wartime experiences. For 30+ years after the Second World War, Britain defined itself in relation to the events of the 1940s. How much more then will any society that has suffered incalculable loss, perpetually ponder the past…
During Stephens’s performance of the poems, one notices the ‘repetition’ or variation of similar phrases, much like a mantra. But within these familiar words, through inflection, Stephens imbues them with nuanced meaning – sometimes a habitual occurence, sometimes a sense of urgency.
When we see Prymachov’s segment, it’s perfectly obvious why Ukrainians (or any other nationality) would “talk about the war”. If a people are perpetually surrounded by bombed out ruins, there’s no chance of moving on. Seeing Prymachov’s walking around what’s left of a town, there’s no getting away from the ‘ghosts’…
2022: Hey Hell, Here’s Your April Blossom by Kateryna Kalytko, translated by Alex Borovenskiy. Performed by Kristin Milward and Yulia Prylutska.
In some ways, the final poem evokes Dylan Thomas’s Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night, calling without fear on the in absentia God and archangels to recognise the worth of the dead – to restore them to life and give them aid in the coming fight. There’s also an expectation of a final reckoning for crimes and misdeeds, a day of judgment.
But while Milward’s delivery conveys a tinge of optimism, the juxtaposition of Prylutska’s matter-of-fact delivery with images of Ukraine today offers a more subdued response – the possibility of ‘restoration’ a belated consolation for the suffering endured…
© Michael Davis 2023
Four Poems From Ukraine is available to view online at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mJ5Lbxabk4I
The video is entirely free-to-view, but Finborough Theatre is asking for donations to the ProEnglish Theatre of Ukraine to support their ongoing work – http://www.proenglishtheatre.com/support-us