Friday, 5 May 2017

REVIEW: Voices from Chernobyl at Brockley Jack Theatre

There are many kinds of disasters. Some come from nature, like earthquakes and droughts, others from war, where civilians die unjustly, and some are man-made creations that end up hurting those who created them. 

The disaster of Chernobyl on 26 April 1986 was one of those: the town of Pripyat, then part of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic, and its surrounding areas, were infected by radioactivity due to the core of a nuclear power plant exploding and contaminating everything around it. Not only did nature suffer, but people did too, and thirty years later, they still do: the radiation levels hurt children, adults, their food and their clothes without them even truly realising it at first. What is more, thousands of people from all around the Soviet Union were called up to deal with the consequences of the explosion, putting themselves in danger. While these people probably saved the rest of Europe from a similar disaster, one could say that their pain is not acknowledged enough or too often subject to people looking away. 

Until 13th May, the Brockley Jack Theatre is hosting Ténéré Arte, a theatre company dedicated to producing political art projects. They have adapted Nobel Prize winning author Svetlana Alexievich’s interviews of victims of Chernobyl into a 60-minute play containing speeches that will give you goosebumps. The theatre’s small space may also give you a sense of claustrophobia. What stands out is the courage but also the helplessness of the disaster’s victims.

The stage is quite dark, save for spotlights alternating with a general light, thanks to the lighting design by Rory Fairbairn. The actors are wearing grey clothes, which they accessorise to fit with their various characters. We start by meeting these characters played by a multinational company of six actors in their everyday lives, until a feeling happens: they feel a spasm, and we almost do too. I kept expecting a loud explosion, but it didn’t happen, and my anticipation made it worse. Instead, a jumpiness and strange fear was overwhelming the characters until they started sharing their stories. 

These characters are wives of firemen, government officials or innocent citizens.
They don’t quite know what to do, they try to stay positive, as is expressed by the short night club scene, and to live together as if everything is fine. We humans often choose to look the other way, don’t we? Why would we remind ourselves on a regular basis that we could be in grave danger? The explosion, as they say, even started by being pretty, emitting a beautiful red glow, they say. The reality however is that pregnant women are scared their children will be born without legs, and that workers have been buried under the destruction.

In the midst of this, others start to feel apprehensive and restless, and want to know the truth. Actor Oleg Sidorchik performs almost all his lines in Russian, plays the guitar and shows his impatience at the government’s next moves about the disaster. I think he brings a great energy to the piece as a whole, through the language and his strong presence. Karina Knapinska is also intriguing as a young woman recounting what has happened but never answers her own questions. There was a line I enjoyed which questioned what, in a communist state focused on its people and devoid of religion, happens when the strength of those people is compromised? 

One limitation of this show, adapted for stage and directed by German D’Jesus, is the dialogue – I thought there wasn’t enough of it. There are many monologues, and people looking out at the audience. When they do interact, something electric, as it were, happens, and I wanted to see more of that. The
monologues are of course very important, but I wish there had been more innocent exchanges between neighbours, normal people being brave. In particular, in the last quarter of the show, actress Kim Christie, a strong performer, appears and tells us her story. Why does she not appear earlier, and intertwine her story with others’? I found her story too isolated, which may, come to think of it, have been the point. 

In addition, the majority of the actors are on stage the whole time, retreating to the sides of the stage to change and get ready for their next scenes. I liked this element, but in this sense, I thought everyone should be present the whole time instead of sometimes retreating backstage. Again, Christie’s appearance could have started sooner, even if it was silent at first.

I do think this is a strong show talking about a disaster that is so close to us and uncomfortable but I was craving more connection between the characters. 

Review by Sophie Tergeist 

Rating: ★★
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