Counting Sheep by Belarus Free Theatre – review

Belarus Free Theatre have long established themselves as a company making engaging, innovative and educational work which never sacrifices its entertainment value while offering insights into political struggles and human rights movements.

Founded in 2005 by Nikolai Khalezin, a playwright and journalist, and Natalia Koliada, a theatre producer, the members of the company operate in exile, as art in Belarus is state-controlled and their chosen themes speak out against the authoritarian regime of President Alexander Lukashenko.

Their most recent work, Counting Sheep focuses on Belarus’s neighbour Ukraine and the Kiev uprising of 2014, in which official figures claimed 113 deaths and 1811 injuries and which set of a chain of events leading to the annexation of Crimea by the Russian Federation and the removal of the president, who fled to Russia.

While the details of what happened and why are impressionistically shown by grainy wordless camera footage, projected on the walls, the plot follows the real-life love story of musicians Mark Marczyks and his wife Marichka who perform on stage and who made the work written in collaboration with Khalezin and Koliada.

The audience are served with snacks to start – adding an initial lull before the action begins. Everyone wants to add food to a show now, but very few do it well enough to justify having it. In this case, it just added an unnecessary layer of complexity and a slow start to a well-formed show. While we nibble, we learn of Mark, a Canadian who visits Ukraine and gets pulled into the protests. I would have liked more character building here, if only to add more power to the story later as we follow him through the horror of the fallout from clashes with police.

However, we are quickly whipped up into a folk dance, and seamlessly, the space transforms from dining room to dance hall to Mariinsky Park, with tires and crates and sandbags passed from hand to hand between performers and audience and built into towers and pyres where the actors grandstand and we – the protestors – cheer and march along to their beat – quite literally – a huge drum beats the rhythm to the rioting and a violinist highlights moments of tension and pathos. as the lines between performers and audience blur, we sing, dance and yell protest slogans in Ukranian, and while it’s sometimes unclear sometimes exactly what we’re saying or even exactly what we’re protesting about – the energy and exuberance of the actors propels us through.

While factual details of the Kiev uprising are sketched rather than hammered home, the feeling of being part of a political uprising is captured with clever minimal sets and lighting. At one point we are handed blankets and sat on sandbags and told – you can sleep now, and a hush descends as smoke fills the air and the walls show images of the protestors in Ukraine laying down on top of each other on the tough ground of Instytutska Street.

Once the dust settles and the bodies have been mourned, Mark and Marichka’s tale is a touching reminder that even in the darkest, most frightening of times the human spirit is still capable of reaching out and finding love.

Until 17 March, from 7pm. Tickets: £28.50 – plus £1.50 Booking Fee, Launcelot Street, The Vaults, Waterloo, London.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *