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Cambridge students bring human story of war and revolution in Ukraine to the stage

Co-author of verbatim play ‘The Summer before Everything’, Bohdan Tokarskyi, took part in peaceful protests during the Revolution of Dignity (pictured above). Credit: Ivan Bandura via Flickr.

The words of people caught up in the Ukrainian revolution and subsequent war are captured in a new play by Cambridge students. The verbatim play will debut at the Hotbed Theatre Festival at the Cambridge Junction on 9 July.

The Summer Before Everything, aims to be both informative and deeply human, exploring a tapestry of historical events through three characters who are trying to make sense of their lives following the upheaval.

The play has been co-written by PhD student at St John’s College, University of Cambridge, Bohdan Tokarskyi, who experienced first-hand the Revolution of Dignity, which took place in Ukraine in 2013/2014.

In the lead up to the events that severely affected the country, Ukraine had enjoyed a reasonably stable democracy, but social unrest was triggered when the Ukrainian President, Viktor Yanukovych refused to sign an association agreement with the EU.

An uprising started with a series of peaceful protests that drew up to two million people to Maidan Square in Kyiv. The situation then escalated with security forces cracking down on protesters, culminating in the shooting of around 100 people in the Square.

Following the violence, Yanukovych and other key members of the government fled to Russia and did not return. Russia refused to recognise the new interim government and began the annexation of the Crimean Peninsula. 

Bohdan, who is from Kyiv, Ukraine, said: “I was a student in Ukraine at the time of the Revolution and went to Maidan Square almost every day to take part in the protests. It was a total shock when things turned violent. The protests started out as joyful gatherings with people wearing traditional dress, singing and waving European flags - that’s why I wanted to write a play about what it means for ordinary people to face change and upheaval that they never thought was possible in their country”.

Although little reported in the news, the conflict in Ukraine between the Ukrainian army and Russia-backed fighters still smoulders. Amnesty International reports overwhelming evidence of ongoing war crimes, with brutal practices being committed on a near daily basis by both sides.

“I wanted to make people in Britain aware of what’s going on and fight the idea of Ukraine as a country in the middle of nowhere, the eternal “other” of Europe. I hope that bringing Ukrainian voices to the stage in a more tangible and immediate form will show that it’s not just an alien place with a strange language,” added Bohdan.

Bohdan, and his co-author Maria Montague, who is also a Cambridge student, conducted interviews with more than 100 people in Ukraine over a four month period in 2015. The play focuses on three of these individuals: Taras, a doctor who is used to seeing death on a daily basis, but for whom death on the frontline acquires a completely different meaning; Ksenia, a single mother who has no choice but to leave Donetsk, her hometown and start her life anew; and Larysa, a teacher and an amateur ice-hockey commentator, who becomes a soldier.

“We chose to tell the stories of these three people because they were simultaneously completely unique and representative of the experiences of so many people in Ukraine.  Their stories also show the strength of Ukrainians in how they have faced the events of recent years,” added Bohdan.

“I was amazed by how open people were to talking to us, there was something incredible about having this mandate and gaining access to such poignant memories and intimate stories. For many of the people we interviewed, it was the first time they had ever spoken about their experiences.”

After sorting through 250 hours of interviews, Bohdan and Maria won a place on the Menagerie Young Writer’s Workshop and developed their play over two months, jumping at the opportunity to share their vision with other young writers and gain feedback on their script. The play was then selected for the Hotbed Theatre Festival, which supports work by established writers and companies alongside emerging, young and first-time writers.

The pair have international aspirations for the play and are pitching it to theatres in London and Canada. They also plan to translate it into French and German for audiences in Europe.

The Summer Before Everything is directed by Patrick Morris and will be performed at the Cambridge Junction on 9 July and at the Oxford Playhouse on 16 July. For more information on tickets, click here.