NS reviews

Reviews of theatre and art in Nova Scotia and beyond

Ballad of the Motherland powerful, insightful, chilling

Hannah Wayne-Philips and Nikolai Afanasev in Annie Valentina’s Ballad of the Motherland wrapping up its premiere at Neptune Theatre today. (Stoo Metz)

Writer-director Annie Valentina’s 70-minute drama, Ballad of the Motherland, is a chilling, darkly funny and very powerful play about a Canadian blogger kidnapped by a Russian separatist in the Ukraine in 2014.

Based on a true story, Valentina, who is Bulgarian/Canadian, explores little-known international politics, what it takes to survive under extreme circumstances and the pursuit of identity for Canadians whose parents are from different cultures but have told their kids little about them.

Kate is an extremely likeable, naive, Canadian blogger for Vogue on an internship in the Ukraine. When she decides to visit ancestral territory in the militarized Donbas she is kidnapped and imprisoned by a young, hot-headed Russian separatist who thinks she is a Western operative.

Volodya, as played by Nikolai Afanasev, is totally convincing as a scary, close-minded, violent (sometimes latent, sometimes not) skinhead angrily spouting a foreign language that Kate can understand in parts and that we the audience largely cannot.

Hannah Wayne-Phillips creates a very affecting character in Kate who is telling a TV interviewer in 2022 about her struggles in 2014. Kate is a feisty, mouthy, liberal and queer young woman struggling to understand her captor and the intense, hatred-fueled Russia/Ukrainian divide that she and we know nothing about. Even each culture’s dark strain of humour is different.

Ballad of the Motherland, premiering at Neptune and wrapping up its run today, is a play of complexities which is unusual – and welcome – in a North American entertainment landscape of largely white and black, good and evil stories.

While the hunger, filth and horrors of captivity are present, Valentina focuses on the relationship between Kate and Volodya, a lonely orphan who comes to care about Kate but spews hatred for everything Kate believes in. She believes in the value of individual life; he believes in death as a fitting sacrifice for the motherland.

As a director Valentina gets superb acting out of her actors; their interactions are intense and convincing and the movement and physical struggles are well done.

The design is stunning and like another character in this piece with set designer Wes Babcock’s grim, stone-walled cell out of fabric with floating fragments above it. Kate sits under these shards when she is doing the TV interview and they become screens for Jordan Palmer’s projections. Palmer also creates an excellent sound design with the frequent, clanking open of the cell door which, in fact, is represented by an open panel that slowly descends after Volodya leaves.

The lighting design by Jess Lewis is also very powerful; bars of light from an invisible window move and change as the day passes. Three hanging upper lights sway with the central one flickering on and off. Costume designer Kaelen MacDonald’s clothing choices are excellent in particular the faded Blockbuster Video T-shirt Volodya gives Kate.

In a press release Neptune’s artistic director Jeremy Webb explains why he was so keen to premiere Valentina’s work.

“It was coincidentally as Russia invaded Ukraine a year ago that Annie Valentina’s new play, Ballad of the Motherland, was having a workshop week, culminating in a reading. Knowing what was brewing in Ukraine and knowing Annie’s work, I invited myself to the zoom playreading. I texted Annie immediately after the reading and declared my hope of seeing her play premiere at Neptune the following year. It was a rare opportunity for a theatre to program a play that is so very relevant and reflective of the current world situation and I did not want to miss that chance.”

Categories: Uncategorized

1 reply

  1. A fantastic review! Seems like a very timely and powerful play!

    Liked by 1 person

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