124: Svetlana in Slingbacks

23 Jul

Valentina Levkowicz’s funny and tragic play is a pastiche of 1960s suburban Australia, Russian refugees, eccentricity, madness and aliens.

Svetlana in Slingbacks

Svetlana in Slingbacks tells the tale of a migrant family living in Adelaide in the 1960s. Boris fled Stalin’s armies in 1942 and headed for Australia, marrying single-parent Ludmilla on the way. Ludmilla’s daughter Sonya is now a gorgeous and somewhat radical uni student and her half-sister is Svetlana, a chubby 12 year old with an active imagination.

The play opens with Ludmilla recently back from hospital. She has a mental illness and believes the KGB is trying to send messages into her brain.

LUDA: But if I count to ten over and over it blocks them out. They cannot get through. Cannot contaminate. They lose their powers.

Svetlana doesn’t want her mother home: she’s an embarrassment, what with her bloodstained nightie, taking the wrong pills and saying the wrong things at the wrong time, not to mention making Svetlana the smelliest lunches to take to school and putting her cordial in a detergent bottle.

RAY: Pwoah! Struth! How do you eat that stuff?! What’s in there?! Smells like dead rabbit.

SVETA: It’s a rissole sandwich. My mum made it for me.

RAY: Why doesn’t your mum make normal things, eh? Eh? Can you hear me? Why doesn’t your mum make normal sandwiches?

The doctors have advised Boris that the next step is a lobotomy and, tragically, this ends up being Ludmilla’s fate. Boris works long hours and when he’s around his family he tends to be overly strict and dictatorial. Svetlana is made to spend hours on her knees in the toilet for a misdemeanour and Sonya is boiling over with rebellion.

The play is seen mostly through Svetlana’s eyes: so there’s a childlike naivety to a lot of the goings on and a few visits from the aliens she is sure will come to save her. The mix of magic, make believe and harsh reality makes for a whimsical and delightful experience. I wasn’t sure about the rhyming verse that opens and closes the play, but imagine it could be made to work in production without seeming too twee.

LUDA: An old black dog that barked and bit,
Lived inside my brain.
She loved the stones I threw her,
The tender bites of pain.

My doctor said,
‘Let’s put her down,
There is no hope, no cure’.
Now all is strangely silent,
She does not live here anymore.

Publisher: Currency Press (published alongside Post Felicity by Ben Ellis)

Cast: 3M, 3F

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