First performed at gunpoint before the Soviet secret police in 1933, before being banned after just five shows and lost to the world for decades, Mykola Kulish’s Maklena has had a tumultuous history.
But even without the political pressures of the early 20th century, thanks to Maria Montague’s fresh translation and a creative portrayal by Night Train Theatre Company, this English-language premiere is still captivating, heart-wrenching and genuinely funny.
Maklena (Alona Bach) is a working class girl in 1930s Poland, trying to make ends meet while the factory she and her father work in grinds to a halt during strike action. Meanwhile, their rent collector Zbrozhek (Matthew Coulton) is obsessively counting his savings, plotting to buy the factory and the building where both he and Maklena live from Zarembsky (Eden Harbud). When the banks crash, their world is suddenly flipped upside down, and tensions ratchet up towards a climactic finale.
The last major work by Ukrainian writer Mykola Kulish before his execution by Soviet authorities, Maklena was produced during the ‘Garrotted Renaissance’, a period of creative innovation in Ukrainian culture in between the downfall of Imperial Russia and the authoritarian rise of the Soviet regime.
Maria Montague’s translation is the stand out success here, but so is the play’s genius staging and direction. Actors use synchronised movements with wooden boxes to portray everything from a factory production line to the instability of life following the financial crash. It works wonderfully, and is a smart way of representing some of the more abstract ideas at play here.
Similarly the use of puppetry, while disconcerting at first, paid off superbly. Plato the dog and Maklena’s father were both portrayed using metal wire puppets, moved and voiced by the actors.
Maklena’s father literally disintegrates as the story plays out, a subtle way of portraying the physical toll poverty takes on him. Two to three actors controlled his movements, and each took part in voicing his lines, sometimes individually and sometimes as a chorus, creating a unique fluctuation of tone.
Some of the best scenes took place between Maklena and Padur (Adam Mirsky), a successful musician fallen on hard times who takes shelter in Plato’s kennel – their conversations veer from comical, to philosophical, to wistfully tragic in quick succession, and were a joy to watch.
Emma Uden as Anelia, the privileged and precocious daughter of Zbrozhek, spearheads some hilarious scenes when her patronising ‘kindness’ clashes against Maklena’s proud political ideals.
Although some of the political rhetoric felt a bit flat (it was never made quite clear why exactly the workers were on strike, for example), the play captures the excited fervour of the Communist vision well in Maklena’s wistful hopes of joining the revolutionaries. But it also hints towards the unattainabilty of such visions – knowing what we know now about the Communist regime in the USSR creates a sharp dramatic irony to Maklena’s aspirations.
Maklena is a rich and dynamic retelling of a story that despite being very much a product of its time, is still just as powerful to a modern day audience – it’s a privilege to witness this forgotten play being performed in all its glory.