Counting Sheep, an immersive show about the 2014 Ukrainian revolution, is the headline production at this year’s Vault Festival. Its changed shape since it was first seen in the UK, at the 2017 Edinburgh Fringe. That earlier production, billed as a ‘guerrilla folk opera’, boasted a 15-piece band, the Lemon Bucket Orkestra, and was more intensely experiential.
Now it’s been redirected by Belarus Free Theatre’s Natalia Kaliada and Nicolai Khalezin and given a more personal, reflective edge. The Balkan/klezmer brass band vibe has been ditched (along with the animal masks) in favour of a mixture of Ukrainian folk songs and pounding beats.
The basic frame of the show is still the same but now it trains its lens on the true story of its co-creators Mark and Marichka Marczyk. He, a young Canadian of Ukrainian descent, is visiting his motherland when he meets a Ukrainian pianist and they both get swept up in the Maidan protests in Kiev.
Where both versions succeed is in making participants feel the camaraderie, optimism, and borderline party atmosphere that initially fuels the protests, before illustrating how alarmingly quickly that morphed into violence and bloodshed.
Most of the audience sit on benches around a central wooden table. At the start of the show, vodka and borscht is dealt out to those with the pricier ‘premium protestor’ tickets (though presumably intended ironically, this strikes a weird note). Those not keen on participatory theatre can pay less and sit in seats at either side of the space, though you’d be missing out on a vital aspect of the show if you choose this option.
The way in which people are moved around the space is a fundamental part of the experience. The audience is tasked with hauling sandbags and car tyres around the room, as news footage of the protests is projected on the walls. The show doesn’t attempt to give its audience a complete political and social picture of events, rather it focuses on the power of the crowd, and the way excitement rapidly gives way to panic as snipers start picking off protesters and people start dying. A sense of chaos and terror is conveyed by strobe lighting and the sound of one of the performers keening in grief.
Of course the production can’t actually make you feel what it was like to be there, but it seems aware of the paradox of making entertainment out of another country’s political upheaval and, crucially, it’s probably more effective in making its audience think about the ongoing situation in Ukraine than any news report. Experiencing it in 2019 is also, inevitably, a different experience. The sight of the performers draped in EU flags is more resonant now, the images of mobilised young people, hope and despair, a lot closer to home.