CW: Sexual Assault
A lengthy, humorous monologue opens Bad Roads: a Ukrainian journalist talks of the civil war that has ravaged the country for three years and the soldier she fell in love with whilst reporting. She is a conflicted character: “how crass it is to talk about love in war!” she jokes, the guilt of finding happiness amongst the sadness of others weighing heavily upon her. Against the bleak set of cracked concrete and dead pines, and the bleaker still topic of the deadly war, the comedy sits ashamedly. How crass it feels to laugh at a tragedy.
Natal’ya Vorozhbit has precisely engineered this discomfort, which will evolve and grow over the next hour as the play becomes less comic, and increasingly visceral in its tragedy. At the heart of the play lies one fragmented story, told repeatedly and in confused fragments, but nonetheless always returning to one set of ideas, and one core relationship. It is a story of a woman and a man; of misogyny and crumbing masculinity; of pendants and tinned pork and abuse and strange devotion. Each fragment told may have slightly different characters, or a minorly altered setting, but they all return to the same place at their core, each with a new, growing unpleasantness.
No scene is more difficult to stomach than the penultimate. We are introduced to a Russian soldier and his captive – a female Ukranian reporter he has abducted to use as a sex slave. The scene begins as he takes her to the basement; he locks the door; he turns off the lights, leaving us and them in total blackness. And in the darkness, he abuses her – physically, verbally, and sexually. Her only response to his hatred and anger is love and humanity – and maybe it’s the alcohol, or the shell-shock, or the PTSD, or maybe it’s this horribly uncomfortable, out-of-place affection, but he can’t get it up. So he leaves, emasculated.
Those pieces, like the best moments of Bad Roads, were so gripping because, not in spite, of how terribly difficult they were to watch
For the rest of the scene, consisting of more of his visits to the (now lit) basement prison, she attempts to erode his aggression and inhumanity. “I’m an animal” he declares – but she probes for something human beneath that. He talks, about war and killing, about gays and Jews; but also about his grandmother, and his morals, and his fight for goodness. Slowly we begin to recognise a human – a twisted, damaged, disturbed human, but human nonetheless. He kisses her, and they sit there “like lovers… on their first date”. But this hope only heightens the woman’s palpable fear, and we know it cannot hold.
Bad Roads is shocking, and painful, and at moments, profoundly difficult to watch – even in the pitch black. It’s impossible not to draw fleeting comparisons to Sarah Kane’s work in the same building two decades ago, especially given the history of work between her and director Victoria Featherstone. Those pieces, like the best moments of Bad Roads, were so gripping because, not in spite, of how terribly difficult they were to watch.
This also makes it a very difficult play to recommend. There is no doubt as to the talent of the actors, the deftness of the direction, or the harsh and naked truth of the writing, but it is nonetheless a play most people will struggle to enjoy. It’s key failing – if it can be called a failing – is its lack of catharsis at the end. The humour feels hollow and empty in juxtaposition to the brutality of the preceding scenes. I didn’t leave sad or happy, laughing or crying, instead equal parts numb and distressed.
Bad Roads is playing at the Royal Courts Theatre until 23rd December, more information and tickets here.
Image: Hellen Murray