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The Theatreguide.London Review

Khojaly: A Play About Surviving
St Paul's Covent Garden and Union Theatre   Spring 2022

A war little known in the West and the mass killing of civilians on one side by irregular forces on the other, supported by the Soviet Union, is the subject of Nick Awde's new play.

There's a point in Khojaly where the characters open a bag filled with question cards and read out one that asks whether they feel hatred for those who carried out the massacre they survived three decades ago.

'If there's justice…' comes one reply, 'I’m ready to close my eyes to all that they did. But the people who led them, the people who led them... they should face justice.'

It's one of many powerful moments in a play that's a grim, timely mirror to hold up to the violence currently unleashed by Russia against Ukraine and its civilian population.

Scripted by Awde from direct interviews with civilians from the besieged town of Khojaly during the brutal Nargorno-Karabakh War in 1992, this Debunk Theatre production tells six stories of a freezing February night in 1992 as people tried to flee the gunfire and shelling of a complex post-Soviet ethnic conflict.

The accounts are harrowing, but there’s an unexpected human side to the inhumanity as characters describe their life before it was taken away.

They tell us what they did – librarian, accountant, housewife, club manager, doctor – as they play games and swap tales of growing up to paint a living portrait of a vibrant community united by weddings, picking flowers on Cosmonaut’s Day and the month-long festival of Novruz (New Year) celebrating earth, fire, water and air.

As the memories unfold it becomes crystal clear how the loss of lives of their family and friends in the massacre that they somehow survived also becomes a loss of the community.

The survivors do what they can to keep together, while stoically acknowledging the walls of personal trauma and the reality of being scattered as internally displaced people, refugees in their own land,  unable to go home.

Documentary theatre can often sacrifice drama for the weight of factual reality, something that Awde’s script resolves with a fruitful three-act approach that avoids linear storytelling or the easy option of emotional appeal (in a conflict where the authorities on both sides have overdone themselves in ruthlessly rewriting history, with their unholy neighbour Russia pulling both sets of strings).

Indeed it’s a superb, energetic cast at the Actors' Church that convinces with every word and gesture. Azzurra Caccetta, Sami Kali, Maria Karelina, Shiraz Khan, Kevin Mesiti and Behnaz Vakili are a tightly focused ensemble who bring a humanity and depth to channel these real-life stories with a dignity that transcends theatre.

Director Vicky Moran has created an insightful many-levelled palette that drive the six performers to compelling interactions in what could otherwise end up a static series of monologues, exploring the complexities of memory, identity and blame against the backdrop of unimaginable trauma.

Moran does not take the easy route of othering the survivors as simply victims. Instead she shows how the characters are empowered to tell their stories within the context of being ordinary human beings. It could happen to you, this could be your story.

Visualising this is Jon Stacey’s subtle lighting which plays over Sorcha Corcoran’s stark stone-grey set, dominated by pillars over which play projections of contemporary footage, while Hannah Williams’ greatcoats and shawls evocatively capture the style of the era and region.

The play is a testament to the reality of how the the price for the manoeuvring of superpowers is the deaths of ordinary people, and yet it also bears witness to the universality of hope in a world that still experiences violence and murder as a way of governing.

In using theatre to unflinchingly communicate this, Khojaly deserves to move on from this run to tour wherever that message can be heard.

Ted Gill

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Review of Khojaly -  Union Theatre 2022

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