A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian is a humorous novel by Marina Lewycka, first published in 2005. As part of Hull Truck Theatre's Year of Exceptional Theatre, Artistic Director Mark Babych is directing an adaptation by Tanika Gupta. In this interview, Mark tells us what to expect from this world premiere.
Tell us about A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian.
Set in the east of England, it's the story of an elderly Ukrainian man who marries a much younger woman and the chaos that then ensues. His two daughters, not having spoken since the death of their mother, set aside their differences when they become increasingly alarmed that their father is being ripped off and abused. Through the course of the story, we learn much about the historical background of the Ukraine the family fled after the second world war-revelations that give the characters a deeper understanding of each other.
Why did you want to adapt the novel for the stage?
From the moment I read the novel many years ago, I thought this would translate well to the stage, but the rights were not available for a long time and I'd almost given up hope. Then when they became available it coincided with my move to the east of England and the growing migrant situation. I thought if ever there was a good time to look at migration through the lens of a family whose roots had only been in England since 1946, then this was it.
Why does the story resonate with you?
Both my parents came to England from the Ukraine after the end of the Second World War. Much of what Marina writes about I recognise, and as I get older I've become increasingly more interested in connecting with my roots. When I was growing up my parents were extremely generous in allowing me to have all the freedoms that they never had and really encouraged me to follow my dreams. I guess a consequence of that was that I felt a certain distance from Ukrainian culture; I didn't speak the language and during the 1970s and 1980s there was not much chance we would ever go back there, so I just cracked on with living the life I wanted to. However, there were certain times that I would feel the pull “ hearing the music, the singing, the dancing and the stories."
As a younger man I never really understood the enormity of what my grandparents went through. They never really talked about it, and when you know the terror that they lived through, you can understand why. So I feel pretty much like the character of Nadhezdha in the story, who over time learns more about what really happened and develops a deeper and more appreciative understanding of the sacrifices and bravery of these people. One moment in particular that is reflected in this story means I can be here now, doing what I am doing, living a privileged life.
How are you going to stage the play?
The story has multiple worlds and locations and we've chosen to use an ensemble approach to make it come alive in the theatre. Most of the actors play multiple roles, and Tanika Gupta's adaptation reminds us very clearly of the landscape of Ukraine, the history of these characters and where they have come from. It's a big story that requires a fluidity and dexterity of imagination, and I'm thrilled to be working alongside movement director Deborah Pugh in bringing the show to life.
Why should audiences come and see it?
It's a great story that shows a family dealing with a crazy situation which is at times hilarious and at others very moving. It's going to be told in a bold, theatrically imaginative style by a highly talented cast and it is of course a world premiere. See it here first in Hull!
Why is it a stand-out show in your 2017 programme?
Being a key part of Hull UK City of Culture 2017 has enabled us to make shows of ambition and scale, and this production continues our vision of making work that resonates with our times. It's a great human story that puts into context the driving forces behind the reasons for moving from one country to another to achieve a better life.
A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian runs from 22 September until 14 October. To book tickets, please call 01482 323638 or visit the Hull Truck Theatre website."