BWW Review: VOICES FROM CHERNOBYL, Jack Studio Theatre
The name carries a heft attached to few others - perhaps Bhopal or Aberfan? - but what does it actually mean beyond underlining big bogey words like "fallout" "meltdown" and "radiation"? Most of all, where are the people, the human beings, the victims caught up in the terrifying science?
Svetlana Alexievich seeks to take back the narrative from its mythologies and reclaim it for the people who were there, foregrounding the tragedies of those who died and, arguably, the even greater tragedies of those who lived. To do so, she interviewed hundreds of those men and women caught up in the disaster and wove that material into the book Voices from Chernobyl, first published in 1997 in Russian and translated into English in 2005. A specialist in the field of exploring traumatic events, it is part of a body of work that earned the writer the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2015. German D'Jesus has adapted the book and now directs a stage version for Ténéré Arte.
Laudable, probably necessary, work but does it lose anything en route from Russian text to London stage?
The stories are heartrending. The locals spectate as the night sky crimsons with the red of the fire, almost in celebratory mood, unaware of the deadly poison seeping into their bodies. They are still unaware as they leap into action, firefighting at the reactor's ground zero, dousing other outbreaks. The women, ignoring instructions to wash all clothes daily - again, the invisibility of the radiation and its impenetrable language (doses of 300 Roentgens anyone?) did not help - their combination of a common sense approach to life and a longstanding wariness of the a Soviet state reluctant to speak the truth, ensured that exposure was far greater than it needed to be. Most shocking of all, we hear of the horrors of the maternity wards, as babies are born half-formed, organs failing, dead barely before they were alive, as the radiation in their mother's bodies hollowed out the life force in theirs. We glimpse the psychological torment, especially as the dead babies are whisked away for "scientific analysis", and can only imagine the indescribable pain and guilt.
But, for all the strength of these narratives, it's not really theatre. D'Jesus's structure of short vignettes (the piece is only 60 minutes in total and the ensemble cast go through many roles) never allows us to get to know the characters, only hear their voices. A mosaic builds, but no one protagonist guides us, no one personality becomes a focus, so the picture remains a little vague, too abstract to resolve into a coherent tale of... what exactly? Corruption? Ignorance? Secrecy? Courage? Cowardice? Mismanagement? All those things - and more - but not one thing sufficiently to anchor the disparate viewpoints, the cacophony of voices.
The play is reduced to something more in the style of a reading - still powerful - but much diminished compared to something like Alecky Blythe's "London Road", the component parts of drama largely set aside in favour of discrete testimonies. Such witnesses deserve our attention and, for many, the suffering continues in a barren and largely forgotten part of the world.
And if that isn't reason enough for this flawed but useful play, it could all happen again - and this time, the locals may not be so recklessly brave and the wind may blow in a different direction. We have been warned.