Scene 0 – A definition of war porn
How did you decide to flee the country? How does a person make that decision?
Are your parents still in Ukraine? How are they? Are they afraid?
Where are your friends now? Are you still in touch with them?
How has the Russian war against Ukraine influenced your work?
(he wrote ‘the war in Ukraine’ of course)
you have to tell people about it because
you’re here to put words together and pronounce them
dig words out of the soil where Russian rockets land and place them in the ears of people who live on soil where not a single rocket has landed since 1945 if you pick good enough words
these people will say
you are a good storyteller
and as a token of their gratitude
they’ll give you
weapons heavy enough
to wipe the country of Pushkins and Dostoevskys from the face of the earth
to protect you and your parents and your friends and your lovers from their great culture
to leave their ‘confused’ boys lying in the green grass with jaws blown apart guts hanging out
brains spilling out
as they deserve
now we’ll do a trial blood-letting and as a foreword
I’ll tell you about
the waves of sirens in the Kyiv sky in the second month of winter
the sound rises up and falls
danger above low-hanging clouds
fighter planes cruise missiles aerial bombs and
you go downstairs
using the stairs
the lift is too dangerous
from the ninth floor to the first you go into the yard and ask the bewildered parents of small children where the shelter is
they point to the basement
in the basement
small children stamp on concrete dust it’s hard for them to sit still for long in the shelter the grown-ups discuss how to build a toilet
you read the news
you scroll through social media feeds
that you’re late
what are you planning to do writes a man who
I don’t know
a man who
a man that
what are you planning to do
I think I’ll go to Lviv you answer
and how do you feel right now what do you feel right now
you feel like
that you’re late
Scene 1 – I really envy you all
holidays by the sea
planning to have kids
no heart palpitations when an unknown number calls you early in the morning or late at night
or even a number you do know
choosing a new sofa
your own flat
your own rented flat
pictures on the walls
flowers in pots you’ve grown from seed
being able to get a dog
the freedom to not message your relatives and not feel guilty about it
the freedom to travel
the freedom to not read the news
the freedom to get your nails done and not hate yourself for it
not hate yourself for everything
Scene 2 – The balcony equation
I’m standing at the Fizkultura stop waiting for the trolleybus
in Kyiv it’s mid-December freezing cold -15 degrees
the time 11pm on the app the little triangle of the trolleybus moves from Olimpiiska station to Palats Sportu station (terminus), the driver will take a cigarette break there then start to drive in my direction
if he can get past all the snow heaped
on the roads
I’m waiting for the trolleybus I
don’t value myself enough to call a taxi I
look at the snow
think about summer last year
when I got off the metro at Palats Sportu walked to the synagogue went into the courtyards to look for the balcony of an old woman
who was evacuated from Kyiv in 1942 with her aunt the rest of the family stayed they were all shot at Babyn Yar
she wanted to come to Kyiv one last time to see the flat
in the building next to the synagogue
she couldn’t because of COVID
she asked me to take a photo
‘go into the inner courtyard there’s a small balcony there the first balcony in Kyiv’
so I did
not because of that woman let’s be honest I didn’t go for her rather
was helping others with telling their story
it was a typical Ukrainian summer unbearable 34 degrees
(I’m inventing all this I don’t remember anything)
I went into the courtyard and asked a local woman if she knew of a balcony here that was the first in Kyiv the woman looked at me wearily
but she pointed at something and I took a photo of something
a balcony that looked like it might be the oldest and the first
it was actually the right one
but maybe that’s just what Rachel wanted to believe
(does she remember her balcony would she recognise it nowadays?)
when her father put her on the evacuation train he knew it would be the last time they
saw each other
I waited until the trolleybus came
it took me up one of Kyiv’s hills covered in snow to a flat with
two balconies this whole story is about the fact that
those were my balconies in the flat I rented and I’m not there
and I know that I did everything right
and I know that I was afraid
and I know that I carry with me the sum of two balconies which have changed in my absence
reality minus your presence plus time equals
a different reality
for the balconies
you’re the one who’s missing
Your driver Roman is arriving.
Roman the driver sends a message:
Ich bin angekommen
Hinter dem Bus
ROMAN: Bist du spät dran?
ME: Sorry I don’t speak German that well.
ROMAN: Are you running late or something?
ME: No. U-Bahn is broken, so I decided to take a cab.
ROMAN: I see. Are you from the UK?
ME: And you?
ROMAN: Russian. I’m Russian.
ROMAN: (In Russian) When did you get here?
ME: (In Ukrainian) 2 March.
ME: (In Ukrainian) I came here on 2 March.
ROMAN: Sorry, probably better to speak in English. I don’t understand a word of Ukrainian.
ME: Second of March.
ROMAN: And do you like Berlin?
ME: I mean, I’ve been here a lot.
ME: And you?
ME: Been here a lot?
ROMAN: Since the first grade, almost… almost 20 years.
ME: I see.
ME: Do you consider yourself German?
ROMAN: I mean, I consider myself a human being.
ROMAN: Haha. Well, I’m Russian, of course. I’m Russian, but I’m not the government.
ROMAN: And you know, it’s good that people here see these things in a good way… I have many Ukrainian friends, we had no fights with them.
ROMAN: Do you need help with…
ME: Yes, to open the trunk. ROMAN: (In Russian) Have a good evening.
ME: (In English) Have a good evening.
Scene 4 – Obviously I wish death on all Russians
the small village where I spent the months from June to August as a child is now occupied by Russians
according to my grandmother
the witch who lived in the cottage next door on the right
cursed the village back in the 70s
it never rained there
or rather it rained very rarely
deep down the soil was salty
so the water in the wells was salty nobody watered their gardens with it and when they brewed tea it had a skin on the surface
at night you could see the entire milky way above the village
do the Russians notice the milky way
what does the water taste like to them
the fuzzy apricots hanging above the road between villages
the cherries that should be ripe by now
the plums that are still ripening
red grapes and green grapes
redcurrants and blackcurrants more than we could pick in our garden
does the lack of rain bother the Russians how deep is their tan from sunbathing
do the Russians listen to the crickets and grasshoppers in the long grass at night do they smell the scent of wild orchids
do they say to each other look there’s the big dipper overhead
fruit pits will sprout into fruit trees and berry seeds will grow into fruit-bearing bushes
a vine grown from grape seeds will embrace the walls of the buildings and the sun will warm it and the trees and the bushes
will give the trees and bushes a breather to drink the dew and Russian bones will lie in the earth which naturally will accept them even though it has no use for them because what does the earth need with composted Russian flesh on Russian bones but what can you do if those bones decided to come here from their cold, far-flung cities the land
will give the Russians the land that they wanted it will give
work to future archaeologists future historians when they come
when they dig up
the bones of Russians
Scene 5 – The Russians have stolen summer nights from us
the sun hangs in the sky for hours covers your hair exposes your legs so they match your white dress
when it finally goes down
everyone checks how long until curfew
half an hour or less
they wonder how fast they’re prepared to walk
ask their friends if they’ve been late before and what kind of checks there were
eventually they get up to say goodbye leaving their unfinished beer lighting a cigarette on the way
they walk through the old town touching the pavement with the soles of their trainers looking at the angels wrapped in protective fabric in front of the cathedrals wondering what that fabric will actually protect them from
they realise it’s probably just
to keep the debris in one place
they meet three girls one of them shouts
I never want to leave Lviv!
Yana stop pissing around it’s nine minutes until curfew please can we go already
the city is getting ready to fall asleep
the patrols aren’t looking at passersby yet
the loudspeakers at the city hall are silent
buskers finish up their last songs
plucking their guitar strings
pushing their luck for ten or fifteen minutes more
playing songs like Imagine
I hope the stone angels wrapped up in fabric will hear them and think
there’s a certain irony to it
the stone angels have the time and
someone has to
Scene 6 – I hate waiting
some air raid alerts have no all-clear
at first the siren sounds from the phone app, half a minute later all the loudspeakers in
the city join in
you get out of bed
citizens are asked to proceed to the shelters
on messaging services the local authorities write
Warning! Air raid alert!
the sound rises up falls down and repeats
sitting in the shelter or the corridor the bathroom a room with no windows and thick walls
you open the map of air raid alerts
Kyiv region – 25 minutes
Kharkiv region – 41 minutes
Lviv region – 4 minutes
Luhansk region – 114 days 2 hours 4 minutes and counting
war is waiting an activity filled with nothing a non-existent period a duration
you just have to survive it then it will be over
if that’s hard for you to live with
you can pretend there are time limits
make predictions omit the word maybe imbue your words with the power of genuine prescience
we’re not going to buy winter clothes say a mother and daughter who escaped the occupied territories
why would we stay in Kyiv so long?
we’re not going to stay long
Ukraine will be a better place when we win says another woman
she’s travelling from Denmark to see her husband in Kyiv her daughter’s still in Europe
only the people who really want to live here and rebuild will return
lie by a wall where there’s no windows says my mum it’s an old building from the 18th century
walls half a metre thick
it’ll protect us from shrapnel as long as the rocket doesn’t land directly here of course
we’ll go and eat watermelons in Kherson
corn on the cob on the beaches of Berdyansk
cherries in Melitopol
the siren sounds again for the all-clear
a voice says
citizens you have the all-clear you may leave the shelters
be prepared for future alerts the enemy is insidious
in the shower at the shopping centre on the main square at an appointment with the urologist at breakfast again and again and again
until the waiting ends and its absence begins real time begins and it’s over
Scene 7 – Narrating the warwar is a multitude
of things that exist separately and they don’t all describe war you know them
time that’s not enough and too much
the practice of digging trenches
cowardice that’s bravery and vice versa
that phrase from Doctor Who when the Doctor tells Clara that everyone gets stuck
somewhere eventually on the planet Trenzalore i.e. death
I gaze at the list of things and think about how all together they can sum up war even though they’re equally distributed across the whole world
the morning of 25 February I thought that I’d read too many books about war to be unafraid of dying because I know how people can die I’ve been lucky a lot of people haven’t
and when I think about these people I think about the
long long train to Mariupol the grey Sea of Azov with the silhouette of the steelworks on the right
the minibus to Irpin the pine forest there the patisserie with overpriced eclairs
the Twin Peaks restaurant in Kherson
memory is the ability to tell stories
in spite of Russian rockets and Russian soldiers
a tragic ending won’t define these stories
like war Russian soldiers are a multitude
we all know that stories about the multitude don’t exist
now it doesn’t seem so important
it will become clear afterwards
time that moves as it wishes
how are you? and
everything’s calm here
even the smallest donations make a difference
all the balconies we’ve left behind
dawn at 5am
sirens that protect us
brave people who are also afraid
stories about them
that we are yet to narrate
now and when it ends
The two documentary plays, ‘Narrating the War‘ by Anastasiia Kosodii, and ‘A Marathon of Russian Roulette‘ by Kateryna Penkova were first presented on stage at the Camden People’s Theatre, London, on the 4th December 2022.
Both texts were translated by Helena Kernan.
The readings were followed by an in-person discussion with the playwrights, together with project curator Molly Flynn and writer/historian Olesya Khromeychuk. The plays were commissioned by BiGS (Birkbeck Gender & Sexuality), in conjunction with the Ukrainian Institute London and the Experimental Humanities Collaborative Network.
In the eight years between the start of Russia’s war in eastern Ukraine in 2014 and the full-scale invasion in 2022, Ukraine witnessed an impressive boom in socially engaged theatre and political playwriting. These recent documentary plays by Anastasiia Kosodii and Kateryna Penkova exemplify the remarkable culture of defiance and resistance in Ukrainian political playwriting and demonstrate how theatre-makers are using their craft to speak out against the atrocities of Russia’s ongoing war.
Image: Ola Rondiak, ‘Everybody Knows’ Acrylic collage on canvas.