Pussycat in Memory of Darkness is a vital commission by the Finborough Theatre, who have not only produced this twice in the last year as a response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, but also took the play to Ukraine last December, making it the first performance by a foreign company there since the invasion. Neda Nezhdana, an acclaimed writer in Ukraine though little known in the UK, remains in Ukraine and continues to write, saying that all of her work now feels like it must relate to the inhumanity of the Russian invasion. Pussycat is no exception; set in the 2014 invasion of Crimea, the torture of the protagonist is even more harrowing in the audience’s knowledge of what is to come.

Credit: Kristin Milward

With that said, a strong political point is not necessarily indicative of a strong artwork, and in this case the play felt hampered by several factors that impeded the full emotional punch that the story merits. Kristin Milward holds the stage solo for an hour – no easy feat – but a one-woman play requires real dynamism. It is unclear whether the trouble lay in the text or the translation, but throughout, the prose feels much more like the narration of a short story or novel than it does a play, and the constant narrativising creates an element of distance between Milward and the audience, where I wanted immediacy. The moments that shine are when Milward plays dialogue between two characters, shifting into clearly defined people with separate physicalities and voices for each line. Even more emotive is when she goes to hold her husband, but is only holding an empty chair – these moments are not only visually evocative; they are dramatic. That drama is unfortunately inconsistent, but when it works, it shines. 

Credit: Kristin Milward

Without dramatic focus, the harrowing nature of the conflict felt separated from us. This is through the distancing of the narrative voice, but also the lack of immediacy of character. The audience is aware of the magnitude of suffering in Ukraine; what is really difficult, for the privileged majority of us, is comprehending it, and that is where art can help in its immediacy and its conversion of statistics into human terms. That humanity came to us in flashes, but perhaps greater time spent on the dramaturgy of the text would help to illuminate it further. Moreover, the choices made feel conventional throughout, so the audience is never truly shocked by the immediate pain of what they saw.

Credit: Kristin Milward

It is a testament to everyone involved that this play was staged (now for the third time, counting the run in Ukraine) in such a short time as a response to the Russian invasion, and art is a vital response to the inhumanity we see around us. Maybe it’s not possible to get across the absolutely harrowing hardship faced by those still in Ukraine, but this certainly merits further development to see.

Rating: 2 out of 5.

{🎟 AD – PR invite – Tickets were gifted in exchange for an honest review}

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