Reviewed – 21st February 2019
“It is highly effective in its emotional whiplash”
There’s nothing like going solo to an immersive theatre production which includes a whole lot of partner dancing, as well as a suggestion for everyone to kiss for about a minute (a suggestion, to my surprise, enthusiastically taken on by most of the audience) to make you wish the ground would literally open up beneath you, or at least make you wish you’d absolutely insisted on a plus-one.
The audience is fair warned from the opening line that their participation is expected. But how is one to know that this will entail not just happily accepting a cup of borscht and clapping along on request, but also marching around the room waving flags and placards, and chanting Ukrainian protest slogans?
We’re led in to this revolution by a very cheery Canadian, played by Michael Edwards, who tells us of his experience of the 2014 Kiev Uprising. This is also where he meets his future partner, played by Georgina Beaty. What begins as a sunny tale of rediscovering his Ukrainian roots, coupled with a bizarre but endearing meet-cute, quickly descends in to a frenzy of fire-blazing barricades, shouts of protest, and banshee wails from a widowed bride as she wraps her corpse groom in her wedding veil.
Beautifully harmonised Ukrainian folk music alternates with Bass-heavy EDM, creating a soundtrack of extreme sentiments. All of the music is arranged by ‘Balaklava Blues’, an outfit consisting only of Mark and Marichka Marczyk, who are also the co-creators and lead characters of ‘Counting Sheep’; this is their story.
Nicolai Hart-Hansen’s design is clever – a banquet table running the length of the room becomes the material for a barricade, as do tyres and sandbags stored under what were the audience’s benches, now dismantled to make room for protest. From the outset the audience is encouraged to use their phones to record and take photos, as do the cast themselves. This found footage is projected live on to surrounding walls, interspersed with scenes from the actual Kiev Uprising.
The production is full of energetic performances, particularly so from Hanna Arkipchuk and Siarhei Kvachonak, whose tragic love story is enacted almost in the background throughout, but whom we become heavily invested in nonetheless.
That being said, there is something uncomfortable about an immersive play in which the audience is pushed to participate in a political moment still ongoing. What Natalia Kaliada and Nicolai Khalezin, directors and co-writers, have created is a confusion of documentary, play and propaganda. It is highly effective in its emotional whiplash – we’re at a party, now we’re at a protest; we’re at a wedding, now we’re under siege; at one moment the audience dances to a waltz whose lulling rhythm becomes a learning tool for a protestor’s chant – we don’t know what it means but we’re beating the air and shouting along all the same. Somehow it seems irresponsible to merge personal experience, political agenda and participation, and all the more so because it is such an effective production.
Reviewed by Miriam Sallon
Part of VAULT Festival 2019