It’s easy to feel disconnected from the atrocities occurring in Ukraine, learning about the tragedies separated by a TV or phone screen. Directed by Yurii Radionov and performed by Shorena Shoniia, ‘UKRLAND’ diminishes this disconnect. It’s the perfect example of the power of theatre and the arts in conveying difficult subject matters movingly and creatively.
Personally, I cried several times, to the point where my contact lenses nearly fell out, and I mustn’t have been the only one deeply affected as ‘UKRLAND’ earned a standing ovation.
The hour-long one-woman show is an adaptation of eight short stories centred around the current war, penned by Ukrainian writers. Half were spoken in English with Ukrainian subtitles projected behind the actress, while the other half were spoken in Ukrainian with English subtitles.
As a slow reader, sometimes I found the pacing of the subtitles slightly too fast. However, the genius of the marriage between the two languages, making the production accessible to the collective Ukrainian and English audience cannot be ignored.
I also found that the use of projection amplified the impact of the words as sentences would linger, making the audience sit with the powerful messages conveyed by the short story writers:
“russia is evil… Inhumane. Degenerates. Freaks. Everything is a lie: church, politics, language, culture; there is no culture in russia… They came to kill us.”
Making the production a one-woman show is an obvious indication of Yurii Radionov’s talent as a director. By spending time with only one actress, the audience develops a bond and an extra layer of empathy, which may not have occurred to such an intense extent had there been multiple actors.
Shorena Shoniia herself showcased immense skill. Her ability to switch between multiple characters seamlessly is faultless and impressive. The emotions depicted in each character are so raw and full of feeling that one cannot take their eyes off of her. The audience is compelled to stare at the heart-breaking subject matter in the eyes, even through their tears.
For me, the most moving section was the story of the woman who got an email from a past associate, in which the Shoniia’s skill came to the forefront. The email spoke of the associate’s abuse by the russian army. The woman in question, alongside her family, previously supported russia, however, the russians did not care. They invaded their home and shot the woman’s mother. They continued to tie up the associate and sexually abused her for multiple days alongside five other women.
Shoniia juxtaposes this gut-wrenching narrative by donning an overly-cheery persona, creating an eeriness that amplifies the horror of this anecdote and creates room to peer into the broken mind of the character she plays. The audience’s empathy intensifies as she twirls around the stage, holding a ripped binbag up to her waist to mimic a tutu, like a child playing dress-up. Pretending. The same way that she and her family pretended that they would be safe if they supported russia, until russia finally came.
Viewed as being the ‘home’ of ballet, the tutu cleverly references russia. However, using a binbag echoes the message peppered throughout ‘UKRLAND’ of ‘Everything is a lie: church, politics, language, culture’.
The clever use of staging and props are woven throughout all eight of the short story adaptations. A leather jacket becomes a baby in arms, hung up onto a microphone to replicate the shoulders and torso of a dead mother. A branch transforms from devil horns onto a platform to sit on.
The set is equally as minimalistic and meaningful. The stage, littered with torn bin bags, gives the impression of shrapnel, and the stripped-back décor hints at a loss of possessions. The war has stripped away belongings, homes, and families, and continues to.
Further, the minimalism of the set gives space to focus on the powerful use of lighting. Utilised to incite temporal and spatial changes, the lighting changes multiple times in metaphorical ways, such as when Shoniia sits in a rectangle of light, listening to air strike announcements as if trapped by the confines of the rectangle.
A particularly metaphorical moment is the motif of the red backlighting, throwing Shoniia’s face into shadow as she transforms herself into the devil. This happens multiple times throughout the show so that the audience cannot escape the ever-invading presence of russia of whom the horned creature the actress transforms herself into represents.
The actress makes this transformation through the use of a curved branch. One moment, it acts as her horns, the next it is a seat to sit upon, once again showing the duality of the setting and props.
These hellish moments are accompanied by deep, unsettling music that I felt in the pit of my stomach. Somehow, the score here reminded me of the moment in a dream where you realise that you’re asleep and unable to escape.
Emotive, techno-esque music is a key signature throughout ‘UKRLAND’. For example, alongside the devil’s motif music, feelings of discomfort are created through the use of sound effects and vocalisation to mimic the falling bombs in an unsettlingly soft manner. Another example of the use of sound effects to create discomfort is the sound of guns clocking and shooting in a musical way that indicated that, like how music is an everyday part of human life, guns have now become an everyday part of life in Ukraine due to the russian occupation.
Further, during the section previously mentioned with the letter and the associate being a ballerina, the emotions are amplified by a melancholic classical underscore often heard in ballet – the Swan Theme by Tchaikovsky, if my memory proves correct.
This isn’t the only time where the music is partnered with dance. Showcasing her talents, Shoniia moves her body throughout ‘UKRLAND’, twisting and jerking in time to the score. This amplifies the theme of how the body reacts and remembers war, a message that is highlighted during the last half of the show through one of the short stories.
Contrasting the idea of russian culture that is pinned to ballet, these movements are the opposite of smooth. They are strong and quick, without the gentleness and elegance associated with the bourgeoisie-catered form of entertainment.
Alongside the theme of the body remembering and reacting to violence, another main theme is that of family and community. Juxtaposing love against the brutality of war, many of the tales include maternal love and friendship. Despite the heart-breaking tales that are told throughout ‘UKRLAND’, the ultimate story ends with a message of hope:
“One needs love and humanity in these days of rage and hatred,” says Shorena Shoniia, powerfully in Ukrainian, playing the part of a wise old woman. Ending by conveying the power of the Ukrainian people:
“…If you take a deep breath and exhale, your strength returns. Your power returns. And it feels like you can plant a tree even in a bomb crater”.
*For the purpose of this article, we have not capitalised russia as to show solidarity for Ukraine.*