Edinburgh Fringe shows explores stories of Anna Politkovskaya and Yulia Tymoshenko
Ines Wurth and Badac Theatre present shows dealing with prominent women in Eastern Europe
This article is from 2013.
Yulia Tymoshenko and Anna Politkovskaya both stood up to Eastern European male power and paid a heavy price. Mark Fisher hears from the Fringe companies bringing their stories to Edinburgh
Every year, Amnesty International gives an award to a play on the Fringe that presses the right artistic buttons and spreads the word about human rights. When the judges come to consider this year’s Freedom of Expression Award, two shows in particular will leap to their attention. Both of them focus on recent examples of political abuse against prominent women in Eastern Europe.
At Assembly Roxy, Ines Wurth is presenting Who Wants to Kill Yulia Tymoshenko?, a two-hander about the former Ukrainian prime minister imprisoned for an alleged abuse of office. Over at Summerhall, Badac Theatre Company’s Anna dramatises the case of Anna Politkovskaya, the campaigning journalist who was shot dead in the lift of her Moscow apartment in 2006: an unsolved murder featuring all the hallmarks of a contract killing.
With her long braided blonde hair, Yulia Tymoshenko does not fit the typical image of a political prisoner. This leader of 2004’s Orange Revolution is both uncommonly beautiful and, being president of a major Ukrainian gas company, uncommonly rich. Neither of those details justifies the indefinite pre-trial detention in 2011 which the European Court of Human Rights recently called ‘arbitrary and unlawful’. The court is still considering whether the Ukraine authorities were right to prosecute her for signing a ten-year contract for the supply of Russian gas, allegedly without proper cabinet approval.
It is true that opinion is divided over Tymoshenko. Some think she is a profiteering businesswoman who brought her country to its knees for her own financial gain. Others see her as a victim of a vengeful political adversary in the form of the president Viktor Yanukovych. Either side, of course, could be right. ‘The big issue is that nobody really knows yet,’ says Ines Wurth, who portrays Tymoshenko.
The point made forcibly by Tymoshenko’s supporters, however, is that her imprisonment is politically motivated. In 2011, Amnesty’s John Dalhuisen said: ‘The charges against her are not internationally recognisable offences, they are attempts to criminalise decisions that she made in the course of her work. Poor political decisions of this kind – if that is what they were – should be punished by voters, not through courts.’
Having watched footage, Wurth believes the hearing was ‘extremely manipulated’. In a hot and overcrowded courtroom, the prosecution appeared to make things unreasonably difficult for Tymoshenko’s defence attorney. ‘He was supposed to read a 500-page document and prepare for the court hearing in two days,’ she says. ‘Yulia wasn’t allowed to be in the hearing, which is also something you don’t do.’
Who Wants to Kill Yulia Tymoshenko? grew from a documentary made by director Jakov Sedlar before Tymoshenko was imprisoned. A US-Croatian co-production, the play imagines the politician not in solitary confinement but finding common ground with a fictional cellmate imprisoned for prostitution. Rather than take sides about the Tymoshenko case, Hrvoje Hitrec’s new play raises questions about human rights, particularly the treatment of women.
‘These kind of mafia cronies came from the Communist regime and it’s just a big boys’ club,’ says Wurth who grew up in Croatia and has witnessed male chauvinism first hand. ‘She’s a very attractive woman who’s very refined; she’s not a peasant. That’s why she’s really fascinating.’
Giving the play its world premiere at the Fringe is a way of reminding audiences how close to home all this is. ‘How can it be in the 21st century that people can treat each other this way and within Europe?’ Wurth says. ‘People talk about “Eastern Europe”, but Ukraine is a developed European country and this sort of stuff should not be happening.’
Badac’s Steve Lambert has similar ambitions by raising awareness of the murdered Anna Politkovskaya and campaigning reporters like her. It may be unfashionable to stick up for journalists in this post-Leveson era, but Lambert is full of praise for the job so many of them do. ‘What Politkovskaya did was just incredible,’ he says. ‘She went backwards and forwards to Chechnya, knowing all the dangers, but thinking these people needed to be helped and their stories needed to be told. There are some things that happen in the world that we must be informed about and these people put themselves in positions of great danger. There are journalists all over the world who every day are doing this sort of thing; and really, do we listen to them?’
His company, which caused a major stir at the 2008 Fringe with uncompromising Holocaust drama The Factory, is committed to exploring what ‘human rights abuses mean to the individual’. For the audience, that means not just watching but taking action. ‘Politkovskaya was angry that, although the stories of Chechnya and Russia were there, people weren’t doing anything,’ says Lambert, who has met the journalist’s sister and colleagues. ‘It’s not just about someone putting themselves in danger, there’s a responsibility on behalf of the public to listen and do something.’
As a human rights campaigner, the US-born Politkovskaya was a vocal opponent of Russia’s invasion of Chechnya in 1999 and a stern critic of Vladimir Putin. Brought up in Russia, she wrote books and articles that highlighted what she saw as ‘the death of Russian parliamentary democracy’. Having been subject to repeated death threats and surviving an apparent poisoning attempt, she was shot four times by an unknown assailant.
Playing Politkovskaya is the Shetland-born Marnie Baxter, who cut her teeth at Edinburgh’s Theatre Workshop. She has been closely involved in the script development and takes seriously the responsibility of portraying such a sensitive true-life case. ‘The more I read about her, the more in awe I am of her,’ Baxter says. ‘She was killed because she was so determined to tell the truth and determined beyond all reason to carry on with her work. She wouldn’t calm down and she wouldn’t back off and that’s why she’s not with us now.’
Anna, Summerhall, 0845 874 3001, 2–25 Aug (not 12), 8.30pm, £10 (£8);
Who Wants to Kill Yulia Tymoshenko?, Assembly Roxy, Roxburgh Place, 0131 623 3030, 3–25 Aug, 11am, £10–£12 (£8–£10). Previews 1 & 2 Aug, £8.