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46

[The following contains spoilers.]

The tragedy of Eastern European nationalism is that it is destined to be a cliché. However impassioned the Ukrainian struggle for democracy, it is at bottom derivative. There is naturally yet another power struggle between shiny democrats and decrepit authoritarians, all playing out before the predictable backdrop of banner-waving crowds. For its people it is so real and yet for us it is so passé. They have still not got through this stage yet! In Britain the Chartists made history and in Eastern Europe it echoes, echoes, echoes.

Hrvoje Hitrec’s “Who Wants to Kill Yulia Tymoshenko?” is presently playing at the old Roxy art house. Ines Wurth and her mostly Croatian theatre company appear initially to have assumed the duty of briefing us about a self-evident injustice. For theatregoers who are not yet clear about which post-Soviet nation the Ukraine is (the big one) or how fledgling its democracy (pretty fledgling), the show begins with an educational video. The former Ukrainian Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko (Wurth) emerges as blandly impassioned, tastefully Blairite, and generally a good egg. That she was a capitalist behemoth, and that there may be some validity to the corruption charges which have landed her in the clink, are mere details.

With all of the relevant clichés ringing in our ears, we may settle wearily into our seats for a long show. But the triumph of “Who Wants…?” is that it actually brings the fight far closer to home.

The means of this success is Lina (Katarina Arbanas in the play I saw today): the Magdalene who shares Yulia’s prison cell. Yulia initially stomps about like a prima donna, outraged at being exiled to the world of the plebs. Yet she plainly likes Lina and each character will be used to unpack the other. There is admittedly a lot of explaining to do, and the weakest aspect of this play is that each character is like a bag of information which has to be laboriously emptied before the story can get going.

It does eventually get going and the prostitute is soon being harangued with the same speeches that Yulia must have addressed to the Ukrainian parliament. It is a bit too easy for us to pigeonhole Yulia as naively idealistic, but we are equally deterred from attributing bad faith to her. The alleged corruption was no doubt just oligarchical carelessness.

However slippery her character, Lina is always beautiful. When intrigued, she encircles Yulia, cocking her head languidly like a sly crow. She flaps about, prettily dishevelled and disgruntled. She is wise but petulant; in the treacherous Ukraine, Lear cannot lean even upon the Fool. Yulia pronounces that Lina is “vulnerable, timid and tender like the Ukrainian people,” but if so, these people will not be readily reconciled with Yulia’s own virtuous paternalism. Yulia concedes that she only became a superwoman as a way of dissenting from the Soviets’ grey equality. But her idealism may seem far more Soviet in spirit than Lina’s cynicism.

Lina remains disinterested in nationalism and unimpressed by democracy; she even hopes that a celebrity boxer can enter politics and liven up public life. This is the same empty cynicism towards politicians and public institutions that we find at the heart of, say, our own Occupy movement. At the end of this play, Lina is dissuaded from treachery by Yulia’s “charisma,” but this is not enough: we have to be too.

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