In February 2014, Kiev’s Maidan Square was overtaken by protesters taking a stand against their corrupt president Viktor Yanukovych and his increasingly anti-EU, pro-Russian rule. What ensued was a bloody war of attrition uniting Ukranians of all ages and professions against their own army. And for months, Canadian-Ukranian theatre artists Mark and Marichka Marzczyk were in the thick of it: interviewing protesters, dishing out food and assisting those returning from the frontline. Their experience is powerfully, and sometimes frighteningly, re-imagined in Counting Sheep, a ‘guerrilla folk opera’ by Lemon Bucket Orkestra that is presented here in the UK for the first time.
Counting Sheep does not simply put the revolution on stage but makes its stage from revolution. So King’s Hall in Edinburgh has become Maidan: those sitting downstairs in the theatre tuck into steaming hot dumplings, or sing and dance to army ballads and doleful Ukranian marriage songs. Sat on benches and around long tables, everyone is a little nervous at first, like dipping toes into water, but it’s not long before the exuberance and incredible life-force of the protest sweeps us up.
Initially the audience are held from the conflict at arm’s length, with a dozen actors chanting and swaying rhythmically to create vignettes of brawling police and protesters; but then suddenly tables are smashed into shields and handed to us, gunshots fire and from the front of the hastily-assembled barricade the audience hurl bricks willy-nilly into the smoke and the chaos.
Though the action has the appearance of spontaneity, it is carefully controlled by a dozen or so actors who direct the audience via whispered instructions and nudges. Neither is there are any real sense of threat: the guns are paper aeroplanes, the bricks are foam. Even so, when fights break out and the crowd surges, our hearts pound and the adrenaline starts to run and when one of the actors plays dead, the audience fall silent in respect, throwing roses on his body. It is probably the closest many in the audience will come to taking part in a real revolution, with its concomitant excitement and tragedy. Play-acting of course, but it never once leaves you feeling foolish: Lemon Bucket Orkestra have created an exhilarating and unforgettable world that demands you fight for your life without putting it on the line.
Knowing that this is play-acting makes us quicker to respond to the situation: by the end, the audience react intuitively, stacking bricks and raising shields without instruction. The play makes soldiers of us all — and that’s probably the point. Ukraine was thrust headfirst into a conflict that no one foresaw, least of all desired, and one that rumbles on today. The actors don sheep masks for the entirety of the performance: an ironic comment perhaps on how conflict brings out the herd mentality in all of us.
Counting Sheep is playing at Summerhall @ King’s Hall until August 29.