Camden Fringe 2023
You’ve probably heard of whataboutism: if someone expresses an opinion on X, some idiot will instantly question their right to be upset/angry/outraged about it because Y is so much worse. It’s very much what you see constantly on social media, with people quick to take offence or be outraged because ‘X is surely so trivial in comparison to Y?’ Except who are we to judge who is suffering enough to have the right to express their distress?
Whataboutism comes to mind whilst watching London-based Ukrainian Valery Reva‘s incredibly moving, funny and well-considered show In|secure. It raises a similar concept; that people are offended by one person’s take on the Ukraine conflict, because how can someone be upset about how it has affected them personally when there are others for whom the war has caused much greater hardship? It’s a fascinating way to approach a difficult subject, allowing Reva to share some moving stories, gathered from both social media and her own life. But more than simply a reflection on the conflict in Ukraine, it is also a poignant examination of how we try to rate people’s grief and upset; as if there should be a scoring system so we can say whose is more worthy than others.
If this makes the show sound a misery-fest, that couldn’t be further from the truth. It is delivered with remarkable humour, a surprising burst of beautiful song, and even a touch of sleight of hand magic. It does leave me wondering if Reva does this to force home another of her points; the idiotic argument of ‘how can you feel pleasure when something bad is happening in the world?’
The evening begins with Reva in full compère mode, springing onto stage, geeing the audience up as she pits one half of the auditorium against the other in a quick quiz. It’s a clever opening that draws the audience in, making us much more willing in the participation that follows. The quiz itself seems random but as she writes the answers on the blackboard it’s obvious where they are leading: ‘death’, ‘gun’, ‘missile’, ‘displacement’ and ‘Russia’. She returns to her compère mode regularly, using this larger-than-life persona to counter the quieter, more thoughtful moments where she tells her story and also those of others from her homeland. Some are light in nature, others truly horrific and heartbreaking. But all are from people whose lives have been affected by this war in their country. Which returns her to her whataboutism: should we be judging who has suffered more? Is it acceptable to criticise someone because their loss is not as severe as someone else’s? Does someone whose dream job has vanished have a right to complain when others in their country have lost loved ones?
Things get highly personal when Reva talks of her mother, still in Ukraine, and how whenever the phone app that warns of missile strikes pings, she instantly looks to see if it is in her mother’s location. She talks of how when her mother says “I love you” it’s as if she’s saying goodbye for the last time, and you want desperately to comfort her.
In|secure really provides what fringe theatre does best; it educates whilst entertaining. It allows Reva to tell her story and express her fears in a way that is deeply moving, leaving us thinking of those affected by the war, whilst also challenging who we are to judge who has suffered more. Instead, we should be thinking of everyone affected, in whatever way, and pray that we will see an end to this conflict soon.
Written by Valery Reva
Directed and produced by: Rachael Gavin Stott
In|Secure plays at Lion and Unicorn Theatre as part of Camden Fringe until 19 August. Further information and bookings can be found here.