Behind-the-scenes: Writing ANIMALS WHO ATE THEIR HUMANS

The dark comedy ANIMALS WHO ATE THEIR HUMANS is performing at the Corpus Playroom in under two weeks' time. We spoke to the show's writer, EWA SUŁEK, about what has inspired her to create this play.

What inspired you to write Animals Who Ate Their Humans?

I have been travelling to Ukraine since 2014 - first to write a book, and later to continue research on my PhD. Both, the book (Chłopak z pianinem. O sztuce i wojnie na Ukrainie) and the upcoming PhD thesis focus on the impact of Russian-Ukrainian ongoing military conflict on art and culture. What I have observed during my travels is how this invisible war, which military-wise is restricted to a tiny area of the country, is really affecting everyone, even those living, let's say, in Uzhorod, 1500 km from the front line.

On the other hand I heard the stories from Ukrainian military volunteers, who described their experience as mainly boredom and infinite waiting for the raid. I kept thinking about them trapped in some distant place, waiting for the raid to come - and just bored, bored to the extent that can drive one crazy. At the same time - always exposed to the lethal danger, that can suddenly appear. This was my starting point to write a play.

I was initially thinking about the 2001 movie No Man's Land by Danic Tanović, about the Bosnian war of 1991-1992, as well as Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot. Then other personally important topics added up - the presence of animals in every human conflict. I have been thinking about it extensively since I've read the book by Antonina Żabińska, Humans and Animals (1968). Żabińska, together with her husband, Jan Żabiński, who was the director of the Warsaw zoo, saved a number of Jews during World War II, which brought them international recognition (including the 2017 movie The Zookeeper's Wife with Jessica Chastain). They had been hiding the Jews in the Warsaw zoo.

However, what I am finding most interesting and touching in the book, as well as in the whole story, is Żabińska's focus on the animals and the descriptions on how they became a part of human's tragic story, without any consent or understanding. Imagine Warsaw in 1939, air-raided almost every day, and the lions and giraffes running terrified on the streets of the city. Their stories are constantly omitted in writing the world's history. This is why I was also so touched by one of the episodes of the outstanding series Chernobyl, where the creators have finally noticed the tragedy of not only humans, but animals as well.

How have you balanced comedy with serious moments in the play?

I have always admired the theatre of absurd and writers such as Eugene Ionesco, Alfred Jarry or Polish Witold Gombrowicz, Tadeusz Różewicz, Sławomir Mrożek and Witkacy. This is where the comedy and tragedy meet, and the tragic becomes comic and vice versa. This genre is also questioning the "one and only" interpretation of the world, of so-called reality. It shakes its ontological foundations. There is no order and nothing is what it seemed at first. Nothing is logic, but the characters act, as if all was perfectly fine and normal. This is why, a scene might, at the same time, be extremely funny, and extremely sad.

The language also plays an important role here - its incompatibility with things, atrophy of speaking, defect in naming the world and emotions, and loss of the function of communication and understanding. The play was originally written in Polish, and there were two translators working on it, the Polish native speaker, and the English one, to make sure that we will be able to express all the nuances. Here I would also like to thank Cambridge Polish Studies to make the translation possible. 

Without spoiling too much, what is your favourite moment in the play?

I am very happy with the whole character of Laddie. A little boy, who, similarly to animals, have been involuntarily pulled in the conflict of "the adults", and now he can only sit and watch how the situation develops, trying to keep at least a tiny part of his lost childhood - play games or pet the animals. His story about the parrot truly makes me very emotional each time I hear it. It's a difficult short scene, a hard task for young actress, so I am very much looking forward to see, how it will work on stage. I also like the completely surrealistic character of Three Russkies and the moment when they try to explain, how did they find the radish in the middle of the Ukrainian winter?

Animals Who Ate Their Humans is performing at the Corpus Playroom from Tuesday 10 to Saturday 14 March at 9.30pm