I just spent 45 minutes sitting in a bunker in central Exeter listening to sirens and bombs. This was Four Of Swords Theatre’s performance To Refuge, based around a work by Ukrainian playwright Elena Hapieieva: In the Bowels of the Earth. It was immersive theatre at its most intense.
The performance takes place under The Mermaid bar on Gandy St in a basement used as a bomb shelter by Exeter residents during the Second World War. Once seated around the edge of the room it becomes apparent that some of the other occupants are cast members. Four Of Swords specialise in site specific performance and dark material which means you are never quite sure who the person next to you might turn out to be and what you might get drawn into. Very different from the safety of a numbered seat facing the stage in a West End theatre.
The performance consists of series of vignettes and monologues taken from different pieces of writing about real Ukrainian experiences.
In one scene, a mother has a video call with her young son who asks why the Russians want to kill them. In another a man muses about the date he had arranged for February 24, a rendezvous which never happened because the world changed that morning. A third has a man recall the horses he and his daughter used to visit, now starved and mistreated by Russian soldiers, and then chastises himself for worrying about horses when children are dying.
In between, another cast member recalls childhood experiences in the Exeter Blitz which happened 80 years ago this month. This brings the story much closer to home – there are familiar street names, some of which I recall have stretches of 60s housing which presumably filled the gaps left when Victorian terraces were bombed.
We have watched numerous interviews with Ukrainians since the invasion on February 24 which have made us sympathise or weep or rage at Putin, but being in this small room watching these same testimonies unfold is far more alarming and visceral. I feel I have experienced a little taster of the fear, anger and stress and it’s not something people should be forced to endure.
The play runs until Thursday as part of the Worldwide Ukrainian Play Readings Project, an initiative which aims to raise awareness of the current situation in Ukraine as interpreted by dramatic artists and also to raise funds – the proceeds from the Exeter shows go to the Devon Ukrainian Association.
Art is an important tool for documenting war. In a brutal world where we feel fairly powerless to help, it is a small but valuable action to help Hapieiva and other Ukrainian writers’ testimonies be heard.
Tickets from Exeter Phoenix https://exeterphoenix.org.uk/events/to-refuge/ with availability for Thursday 12.