She was ambitious: she did not wish to spend her life as a wife and mother, as the other women in her village seemed content to do; rather, Valentina Tereshkova wished to be a train driver, to see the world from the cab of her speeding engine. She certainly never imagined she would become a Cosmonaut, second only to Yuri Gagarin, and one of the most famous women in the world.
Born in March 1937, she was a child of the Second World War, the Cold War and the Space Race. “I suppose we have the Nazis to thank for all this,” she muses, the representatives of America and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics having rushed to Berlin to retrieve Wernher Von Braun and his rocket research, “not to put a man on the Moon but to build rockets to launch at Washington D.C.”
Her life explored in a new play written by Mark Westbrook and directed by Luke Kernaghan and taking its name from her callsign on her mission aboard Vostok 6 in June 1963, the Russian for “seagull,” the lead role of Chaika: First Woman in Space is played in rotation by the ensemble of Abbie Bela, Anika Lee, Cara Gheel, Elfur Gígja Hreggviðsdóttir, Eve Novak, Lorraine Monaghan and Victoria Hooper.
Many of the scenes monologues spoken directly to the audience with the rest of the ensemble either supporting as secondary characters or absent, the acting styles of the cast are as varied as their ability, and there is no attempt to develop a consistent whole or to develop a sense of structure or drama through what is in effect a lesson in a sometimes obscured history.
Not the most academically gifted of the candidates, Tereshkova fitted the necessary criteria, “young, single, reasonably attractive, politically suitable,” a key criteria in her eventual selection that she would not become a problem as Gagarin had become, a national hero whose outspoken opinions could not be silenced.
The staging limited and unimaginative, confined to an empty stage, the play rests solely on the script and the performances, but unlike the mission and the woman behind it, Chaika takes no risks and pushes no boundaries, as “average and satisfactory” as Tereshkova herself was labelled. There is a story to be told of the first woman in space, but this is not it.