The People Are Singing: Royal Exchange (Studio)

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‘The People Are Singing’ is loud, confusing and brutal.  Which is probably a fair reflection of the event it depicts:  the Ukranian-Russian war.

Lizzie Nunnery’s play follows the journey of a twelve-year old girl (Irina) caught up in this conflict.  We meet her as she skips and plays hopscotch, and we watch as these innocent pastimes give way to the needs of survival.  In her escape from soldiers occupying her village, she battles hunger, bereavement, humiliation and relentless fear.

The central character (played with energy and conviction by Cora Kirk) is ably assisted by an inspired piece of set design:  two bungee cords, stretched between two pillars, which constantly transmute to create the background scenery.  They provide the central visual prop and are especially effective as the tree roots and branches that tangle and impede Irina’s desperate run from a pursuing soldier.

It is a distinctive feature of Nunnery’s work that music is as important a vehicle for her ideas as the spoken word, and traditional folk songs are woven into this narrative.  They convey cultural identity and the struggle to retain it in resistance to occupation.  In a brief but powerful moment, this climaxes in a musical duel between Russian and Ukranian songs which seem to compete for Irina’s soul.

But if the music gives the piece its cultural specificity,  Ukranian director Tamara Trunova claims that the play also invokes universal themes about identity and war.  In a core scene – where the writing is at its sharpest –  Irina encounters Mikhailo, a fellow villager and fallen hero of the Ukranian resistance.  Mikhailo is wounded and disillusioned and, when Irina recalls the village’s pride at his famous appearance on TV cloaked in the Ukranian flag, the response is simple: “Wrap yourself in any flag that keeps you warm.  It means nothing.”

This suggestion of the emptiness of patriotism and futility of war is clearly at odds with the passionate defence of Ukranian rights that elsewhere animates the play… which, in turn, reflects the long-standing tension between liberal universalism and communal/religious identification.  (‘Imagine there’s no countries .. Nothing to kill or die for …’).  These are complex issues and exploring them in 70 minutes is an ambitious enterprise.

Perhaps most ambitious, however, is Nunnery’s stated hope that ‘The People are Singing’ will “be received as an optimistic piece”.   While its energy and creativity are impressive, it often feels like a confusing visual and aural assault, and the darkness of the presentation lifts only in the last minute (albeit reinforced by the beautiful Ukranian choir which provides the play’s postscript.)   This may well be an appropriate reflection of the subject matter but it left me strangely unmoved, and certainly not hopeful.

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