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'Non-existent' by Natalka Worożbyt at the German Theatre in Essen

First an uncomfortable question: is this emotional blackmail? And do I have to put up with it? On the anniversary of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, three real Ukrainian women sit on the stage of the Essen theatre with a sad expression at the table and pour real soup into real plates. Later, they stand on the sidelines (of German society, of course) in cheerful scenes. And finally, the youngest of them talks about her escape, her fear and the fact that she will never make it with her soft voice and sweet accent. A review of the production appeared in Theater Heute.

It is a surprising, ironic, cleverly ambivalent comedy set in the middle of the Ukrainian war. Secondly because, working with Ukrainian extras, director Andreas Merz-Raykov attempts a completely sensitive but pleasantly open approach to the unresolved problem of representation. Finally, the German company stages a play about Ukrainians in German (with Ukrainian subtitles) that repeatedly pushes the boundaries of what can be said.

After a few minutes, these three actresses replace Ukrainian extras Oksana Zhuk, Mariia Apostolova and Lidiia Hontariuk at the dinner table, scoop up a spoonful of cabbage soup, immediately get into an argument and, thanks to their savvy, quickly blow up any stereotype of 'victim' that might haunt the minds of well-intentioned German viewers.

At the same time, there is a war going on, and the relatives and friends of the Ukrainians who are now sitting in the audience could be killed. The fact that Zhuk, Apostolova and Hontariuk are part of the ensemble, albeit deliberately poorly integrated, that they sing humorous Ukrainian songs along with the actors and tell their own stories, is a clear sign of respect - despite the obvious need for comic relief.

Internationally renowned Ukrainian playwright and screenwriter Natalka Worożbyt has placed her 'light scenes against the backdrop of war', as the subtitle suggests, right on the edge of the precipice. She has been writing about Russia's war with Ukraine for years, often in a documentary style.

Like Worożbyt herself, her characters in The Nonexistent have to reckon with terrible news from home or the front at all times. At the same time, they each struggle with their own demons, which reflect the contradictions and unacceptability of the situation in a beautiful, metaphorical way.