History lessons

HERITAGE: A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian, adapted by Tanika Gupta. Picture: andrew billington
HERITAGE: A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian, adapted by Tanika Gupta. Picture: andrew billington
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Hull Truck’s latest production is a timely adaptation of a bestselling novel. Theatre correspondent Nick Ahad reports.

“If you know your history, then you would know where you’re coming from,” sang Bob Marley.

It’s become increasingly clear this year, that a lot of people don’t really know their history.

With the stories of the Partition of India being given their full weight and due by several BBC documentaries, the response heard over and again is ‘why didn’t we know about this?’. With the rise of what is increasingly clearly a far-right extremist in the White House, the response by rational people is to ask how have we not learnt from history?

Mark Babych knows not only his history, but the significance of that past.

“Both my parents were born in the Ukraine, born into a family of what were called kulaks, landed peasants,” says the artistic director of Hull Truck Theatre.

“They bore the brunt of Stalin’s collectivisation. When the Germans invaded, they were at first thought of as liberators and the kulaks were offered the chance to go to Germany to work. Of course what we know now is that they were taken to labour camps and became essentially slave labour.

“When those camps were being liberated by the Russian and British soldiers, a British officer asked my grandparents for their papers. My grandfather made a brave decision to tell a lie and said he had lost his papers but that his place of birth was a place that was under Polish control and under the agreement that had been made between the countries, Poles were allowed to come to England. That single act of deception means that I am here.”

If you know your history, then you know where you’re coming from.

It’s obvious to see, then, why Babych was excited to find that he shared an agent with Marina Lewycka the author of A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian.

“I said to my agent ‘the very minute the rights to the book become available, you let me know’,” says Babych.

The 2005 novel is one of the most acclaimed of the last decade. The million-selling story was shortlisted for the Orange Prize for Fiction and won a stackload of other awards. A film adaptation has been on the cards ever since it was first published and lots of theatres have clamoured for and coveted the rights to put the story on stage.

It was Hull Truck what won it, to borrow a phrase, and specifically Babych’s leadership of that theatre that made him the right person in the right place at the right time – a phrase that can be used as cliche, but in this instance is entirely apposite.

“The rights coming up coincided with Hull being City of Culture for 2017. It was a perfect moment,” says Babych, still just a couple of years into the job of Hull Truck theatre artistic director.

“It is a story that tells the experience of migrants through this lens of these different communities. The strand of the season we are currently in at the theatre is called Tell the World and here we are making a piece that has this extraordinary European story at its heart. In Hull we have a big Eastern European population and this is a story that talks to as well as about them, and it is talking to audiences on a national scale too.”

Interestingly, that is what Hull has spent the whole year doing: talking to the country nationally and having the country listen back. It’s become such a part of any article about Hull as to almost feel like cliche to say it, but back at the start of the city’s year in the spotlight, there was huge negativity, with one newspaper setting out on New Year’s Eve to try and spoil the party before it had even begun. Hull has responded by bringing world-class quality with every new event to the city.

With A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian, the impressive pedigree continues. Not only do you have the name of the original author of the much praised book, but also the name of the adapter Tanika Gupta.

“This whole year was about wanting to reflect our ambition and the global scale of our work,” says Babych.

“So having a writer like Tanika is a wonderful thing. We’ve worked together before and she is simply a great writer and person who really understands human behaviour. When I suggested the project to her she already knew and loved the book. We talked about how this could be an Indian story, or a Welsh story and about how really it could be everybody’s story. I’ve always thought it ridiculous that Tanika has sometimes been considered an ‘Asian writer’ when actually she is just a great writer, but there is something about our shared heritage that allows us to connect quite deeply with the subject matter of this story.”

While the book is a sometimes comic tale, it does attempt to find a way to discuss the inhumanity man visits upon man, something which Babych sees as an increasingly urgent story to tell.

“What’s interesting is that in an age where there is so much division this a story of division and fascism and it is horribly relevant to what we see happening today. The way that Tanika has written this, it has become a story that moves from farce to joy to absurdity, all the while dealing with horrific atrocities.

“It is a story about people fleeing persecution, something which it takes enormous courage to do.

“One of the lessons of this story is that when people are still being brutalised, when food is being politicised, as it was in the famines that affected my family, then it makes you realise what a cracked pot humanity is still is and that we have a long way to go.”


A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian by Sheffield-based author Marina Lewycka was first published in 2005 and tells the story of Nikolai, an old Ukrainian man living in England, who falls in love with a glamorous young woman, Valentina, also Ukrainian, who has come to the UK to make a better life for herself. His grown up daughters are horrified and try to see her off. Gupta has also added the dead wife of Nikolai into the story as a narrator.

A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian is at Hull Truck Theatre, to October 14. Tickets from the box office on 01482 323638 or www.hulltruck.co.uk