How is it possible to actually invoke another country? Despite a swift canvassing of the audience’s various nationalities revealing a scattering of other countries, the vast majority of this evening’s audience/demonstration participants are British. This throws up its own challenges: any uprising is built on the love of a cause. In this case, the uprising at the heart of Counting Sheep is fuelled by a desire for Ukraine to participate more closely with the EU, and to distance itself from the Russian Federation.
Ukrainian identity forms the irreducible core for this piece, and if it is to work then the audience has to be made, somehow, to care about what it is to be Ukrainian. How do we relate to other countries? To other ways of being? How do we remove the creeping sense of ‘us’ and ‘them’? Two of the most obvious and yet most effective answers would naturally be food and music. They bring cultures together and they bring people together, both simply and effectively. By integrating both of these from the piece’s earliest moments, the cast win their audience over with brutal efficiency. I don’t say this lightly: by the half hour mark they have people doing everything from dancing, to carrying sandbags, to waving flags and protest signs. It’s no mean feat to pull an entire room of people all the way into something like this, but they somehow manage it.
On that note, the cast are just unbelievable. It’s hard to imagine just where the creative team, led by directors Natalia Kaliada and Nicolai Khalezin, would even begin in creating something like this, but I’m certain that this couldn’t be done without an immense collaborative effort. They’re not just telling a story in this room, they’re creating a universe. A stack of pallets and cubes swings from an extended dining table into a barricade of sorts, among multiple other configurations, with these evolutions driven solely by the cast, along with help enlisted from their audience.
One issue that I’m very aware of is some of their use of found footage. The production relies heavily on real-life footage of the uprising projected onto the walls of the space, immersing us in the realities of the brutality of the conflict. This, while effective, is perhaps sometimes pushed a little too far. A funeral scene alone is uncomfortable enough. To me, the decision to broadcast footage of real funerals and bodies, with their faces clearly visible, feels somewhat tasteless. Given the delicacy with which the rest of the subject matter is treated, this moment feels like a surprising outlier.
With that said, I’d hate this to detract from the production as a whole. This is an incredible piece of theatre, underpinned by phenomenal artistic and creative direction. It takes a sensitive view of an inconceivably awful situation, putting human stories at the heart of a political conflict. Getting the balance between the personal and the social is always challenging, but Counting Sheep seems to get it just right.
Counting Sheep is playing at the VAULT Festival until 17 March. For more information and tickets, visit the VAULT Festival website.