Ténéré Arte presents Voices from Chernobyl, a harrowing and evocative production that poignantly conveys the abject horror of one of the worst nuclear disasters in human history.
Based on the acclaimed novel by Nobel Prize winning author Svetlana Alexievich, Voices from Chernobyl intertwines true experiences of Chernobyl’s citizens uncovered by Alexievich’s extensive research and interviews after the tragedy. The excellently scripted 60-minute production (adapted by Germán D’Jesús) unfurls like a documentary, told through testimonies from scientists, firemen, and bereaved survivors. Most of the six-strong cast flit deftly between Russian and English throughout the production, and all deliver heartfelt performances that sensitively communicate the disbelief and overwhelming loss of Chernobyl’s citizens.
The audience enter the space to the disarming sound of jaunty Ukranian folk music that sinisterly belies the subject of the play to come. However, the dark set (designed by Lorena Sanchez and Kristina Petrova), sparsely furnished with table, chair and a pile of heavy boots with a hazard symbol emblazoned on the back wall, instantly establishes an ominous atmosphere.
The play opens with a powerful monologue delivered by Karina Knapinska, who retrospectively describes citizens’ gradual, painful crawl back to some semblance of normality. We then cut back to the explosion itself, and witness their surprisingly calm initial reaction: from afar it was said to have possessed the appearance of an unusually beautiful fire, and, rather than panic and flee, bemused bystanders craned their necks to inspect further. You could sense the audience’s collective flinch at anecdotes of children excitedly cycling towards the power plant to get a closer look.
Soon after, citizens are forced to return to their daily lives. Physicists frantically warn of the lasting radioactive danger, but most inhabitants are unconvinced- those not directly affected by the blast appear, on a surface level, physically well. Despite cruel stigmatisation from neighbouring cities, citizens attempt to cope with humour, with one market vendor commenting that Chernobyl apples have found a new selling point as ‘gifts for bosses and wives’. As well as documenting a great tragedy, Voices from Chernobyl celebrates human strength, warmth and our tremendous capacity for compassion.
While the play is well acted throughout, Oleg Sidorchik and Kim Christie are particularly notable for their refined yet strikingly honest performances. Christie relays the devastating story of a pregnant young woman married to a fire fighter who perishes in the explosion, while Sidorchik delivers a powerful, rousing speech on Soviet heroism. Sidorchik is the most memorable performer of the night. With the exception of a few words, he speaks entirely in Russian, which is somewhat alienating yet intensely evocative- it registers almost as an attempt to recreate the bewildered frustration of Chernobyl’s citizens.
Limiting the production to sixty minutes is an exceedingly tactful editorial move. The full scope of such an appalling tragedy can never be condensed into one play, or novel, or any piece of art. Rather than overloading the script with innumerable horrific facts and anecdotes, which can be overwhelming and even diminish each element’s emotional weight, Germán D’Jesús shares only a few voices, allowing the tragedy to speak for itself.
While the horror of the disaster is apparent, what is most striking is that it seems utterly surreal. Chernobyl was unprecedented and, for most, wholly incomprehensible: the citizens’ total lack of awareness of what had happened is palpable, and heartbreaking. The sense of the surreal is heightened by the stylized movements and speech throughout the production, and it is what sticks in the mind. As Alexievich herself comments, ‘these people have seen what for everyone else is still unknown. Sometimes, I felt that I was recording the future’.
Voices from Chernobyl is playing Jack Studio Theatre until May 13.