Review: Bad Roads (Royal Court)

A new play about the dehumanising effect of the Ukrainian war on human relationships

There are two plays crafted within the Royal Court’s formidable international arm running at the theatre this winter. The first to open is Natal’ya Vorozhbit’s drama Bad Roads, which focuses on the Ukrainian war in Donbass. It’s still raging: the war has, since 2014, continued to displace and dehumanise the locals and armed forces alike, swamping the region with soldiers and military bases.

Vorozhbit has recorded first-hand accounts from people involved in the conflict, taken some of the more shocking stories and turned them into vignettes for this piece. Each story revolves around a relationship – consensual, sexual, non-consensual and platonic – and highlights how war warps the connections between men and women. Each vignette bleeds a little into the other – there’s mention of a necklace that appears in several, a teenage student who appears in more than one, dead bodies in a freezer which appear in three: each story contains echoes of the others.

Perhaps the most striking, and the clearest, is the first, where a woman (a commanding Kate Dickie) tells us her story standing among the towering tree trunks onstage, which are part of Camilla Clarke’s sparse winter forest designs. Her red coat is a stark contrast to Natasha Chivers' pale, dirty lighting – a splash of blood on snow. She explains to the audience that she is a journalist who followed a soldier to the front for a piece on the war. Along the way she experiences some of the truths of the war, while also falling for the man who is her guide. Later we watch as another woman journalist is abused having been kidnapped by a separatist insurgent. In another moment teenagers wait for their soldier beaus to call them, after which they are led into dark bunkers by men who don’t care that they are under the age of consent.

It all adds to a disturbing, darkly violent portrait of a war which we hear surprisingly little about in the UK. Perhaps this is one of the problems with Bad Roads: it helps to know more than the basics about this conflict before coming to watch it. The show’s more surreal and impressionistic scenes are oblique, often a little confounding, so that often we’re not sure what the relationships between the characters are. It adds to a sense of the madness of war in general, but misses an opportunity to focus in on this battle in particular.

Vicky Featherstone’s staging is purposeful and direct, which goes some way to supporting the more confusing moments within the piece. Nick Powell’s sound design is a remarkable, rumbling, foreboding presence which evokes a constant sense of dread.

But ultimately Bad Roads is too slippery a play to land with its full weight. Its impressionistic nature works against what should be its direct message against the brutality of war.

Bad Roads runs at the Royal Court until 23 December.