A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian, 12 October 2017

Hull Truck has struck gold again in securing the premiere run of Tanika Gupta’s remarkably faithful adaptation of Marina Lewycka’s bestselling novel. On the evening of October 12, over 50 alumni of the university took advantage of discounted tickets and complimentary drinks to watch this energetic tale of families, feuds, identities and cultural conflict.

An arrestingly pedestrian title belies a hilarious and, at times, touching drama that somehow manages to maintain its humour despite covering subjects as grave as elderly abuse, famine, sexual entitlement and the ravages of war.

Valentina, brashly portrayed by newcomer Ana Marija Spasojevic, is the calculating and determined 36 year-old gold-digger seeking to fund her son’s education at the expense of Nikolai, a recently widowed 84 year old Ukrainian engineer. Valentina is no ‘fly in the ointment’ though, the family has a long history of dysfunction and upheaval and, if anything, a common enemy is needed to bring them together.

In spite of this role, though, Valentina does not sit comfortably as a caricature of the feared ‘other’, which is how older sister Vera tries to portray her. She is certainly crude and expresses herself in blunt terms, but in many ways she reflects back to the family their own history, anxieties and problems. She also shares in common with the younger sister Nadezdha a total belief in the transformational power of education.

The second half of the play focuses on the fractured relationship between Vera and Nadezhda, relating this to past events and framing it within the context of ‘war baby and peace baby’. Yet to understand the play in a more rounded sense, it is the many other boundaries of experience across which the characters attempt to communicate that must be understood. Nikolai is pre-war and pre-communist and evokes this claimed golden age wistfully but with bitter regret for its loss; Valentina was born into communism and likewise associates this with stability, contrasting it with the dislocation and corruption of the post-soviet world (regardless of the material attractions that it holds for her). Underpinning both characters is a sense of loss and a desire to regain; standing between them is 48 years, misunderstandings about wealth and motive, and two naturalised daughters united in their efforts to prevent these worlds combining.

The setting, littered with abandoned trunks and suitcases, provides the perfect metaphor for the compartmentalised lives of the main characters. At times this feels like a circus of anarchy and disintegration as peripheral characters emerge from trunks to add more complexity to already chaotic lives. The busyness of the set is matched with the bustling energy and pace of Mark Babych’s production. Interspersed with the domestic strife, key events from the past are narrated by Nikolai’s late wife Ludmilla (Polly Frame) who evokes a peasant paradise, first pummeled by the iron fist and then crushed under the jackboot.  At times this feels particularly raw; Sonia’s scream when she learns of the death in custody of her husband Mitrofan is entirely visceral and this does sit rather strangely with the comic absurdity of the scenes played in contemporary Peterborough.

Ultimately, the narrative problems which carry over from the novel are quickly forgotten when Geoffrey Beevers gets into his full stride as Nikolai, bringing wisdom and naivety, stoicism and whimpering, friskiness and immobility, selfishness and generosity in equal measures. Beevers delivers an outstanding performance and Spasojevic steps up to make a truly grotesque double-act that is endlessly watchable. However, it is surely Ruth Lass as Nadezhda who delivers the performance of the evening, taking on the least archetypal and most nuanced role as the peace-time daughter of a troubled family who finds that her ethical outlook is more ambiguous than she imagined when tested in the real world.

At the end of the evening the audience went home having experienced the gamut of human emotions – laughter, terror, anger, fear and empathy, but also having been asked uncomfortable questions about the underlying tensions and problems that must be suppressed in order for a family to function.

Ben Butler / David Simpson

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