We are all protestors in this piece. Toronto-based, Ukrainian-born musicians Lemon Bucket Orkestra’s show Counting Sheep places the audience within a theatrical reworking of the 2014 Maidan Square protests in which people demanded closer European integration and spoke out against Ukraine’s pro-Russian president, Viktor Yanukovych.
The company has taken over the whole of King’s Hall to do so, daubed the walls with Cyrillic graffiti and erected three large screens around the room onto which news footage is broadcast.
Counting Sheep can be experienced in two ways: from the balcony, where audience members can sit and watch, or on the main floor of the hall. The latter option is more involved. Downstairs there are benches and a large table in the middle of the room, on top of which the performers stand and sing folk songs, choral music and church music. They reach out to the audience and invite us to dance with them, and to dance with each other – one or two people at first, but soon the whole room. We are fed bread and beetroot salad, and everyone is encouraged to eat. The set-up feels a bit like a wedding.
Then things begin to shift. A barricade of tables and chairs is erected and we are invited to hurl foam bricks. More food arrives and the doling out of pierogi reflects the way protestors looked out for and fed one another. But there are also men with guns roaming around and the performers all wear sheep masks.
The multi-layered nature of group protest is in this way evoked. It is both volatile and celebratory, a communal act, an exercise in togetherness, but also an exercise in following, in mob behaviour. Throughout we are aware of the juxtaposition of what we are being asked to do and the news footage of the events themselves, how events of this kind are perceived from the outside and from within. We are aware, in a small way, of what it is like to be part of something (even if that thing is a Fringe show, not a protest).
Then the mood shifts. The protests become more violent. People begin to die and we are invited to join in with the rituals of public mourning.
Counting Sheep is in some ways more akin to Ontroerend Goed’s Smile Off Your Face than most other immersive theatre. It takes its audience by the hand and feeds them, in every sense. It whispers and sings to them. This mixture of the passive and the active ends up being the show’s most tricky element. As an experience it’s undeniably powerful and affecting, but it has its own narrative arc, too. It’s a potent and thought-provoking, if at times difficult, piece. The skill with which it’s been created is clear though; the way it fills the space, the way it uses music, and the way it imparts an understanding that this story is part of something larger and far from over.