Theater, like everything in Ukraine, has been transformed as a result of the war. At first, performances were abandoned in order to house refugees. Inevitably the artists began to create performances unique to a culture literally fighting for its existence.
The neo-gothic style was so rarely used on the ornate facades of the belle epoque Austro-Hungarian secular buildings that adorn the historic center of Lviv that – given the style’s ecclesiastical associations – one wonders if the original owners of what is now the Les Kurbas Theater were amusing themselves when they chose it for the exterior decoration of their opulent cabaret, which opened in 1912. During a tour of the theater, Oleksandra Shutova, a reddish-haired young woman, shows me a dark passageway that contains a cherished detail of the theater’s history: an area where the plaster has fallen away to reveal the words, “Grande Revue de Danse,” and announcing that “Harrita and Enrique” would be performing their “Danse Espagnole.”
Although the theater’s beautiful original electric chandeliers are missing and its sumptuous murals and gilt have been covered with white paint, its massive and soaring interior dome remains intact and retains its power to surprise and impress everyone who steps inside. This included the many hundreds of refugees who passed through here after the full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine began on Feb. 24, setting off the westward flight of millions of refugees.
“They’d walk in and say, ‘Oh, it’s a theater,’” says Shutova, recalling when her theater’s splendor succeeded, as least for an instant, in lifting the spirits of the traumatized, the hungry, the tired and the grieving who took shelter here.
While the theater that is most linked to the Ukrainian war is, tragically, the historic Donetsk Academic Regional Drama Theater in Mariupol, which was being used as an air raid shelter when it was bombed by Russian forces on March 18, almost all theaters in the non-occupied areas of Ukraine switched from performing to offering aid and shelter to refugees in the first months of the war.
The Les Kurbas Theater – named after the most important Ukrainian theater director of the 20th century – has built a national and international reputation for its highly imaginative, poetic and philosophical productions of works by Plato, Samuel Beckett, Hryhory Skovoroda, Lina Kostenko, among others.
From plays to brutal reality
When the full-scale Russian invasion began and the internal refugee crisis erupted, the theater’s staff of 44 immediately gathered to decide how to react.
“On Feb. 25 we came here and talked about what we can do,” said Shutova. “We thought about it and decided to turn the theater into a shelter for people.”
To switch from putting on its productions of Tennessee Williams and Michael McDonagh to taking care of refugees was a challenge that the theater employees were not sure they were capable of. As Shutova puts it, “We were scared.” Not possessing the necessary equipment for a shelter, they immediately put out an appeal for help.
“We put on our Facebook page that we were creating a shelter. In the next three hours, so many people came to us with mattresses, bedding, microwaves, electric kettles… It was amazing.”
The theater staff prepared the stage to receive children. “We put stairs up next to it and put beds on it. There were lots of books, toys and colored pencils.” Adults lived under the great dome with its remarkable acoustics, making even a hushed conversation or softly spoken lines clearly audible in the farthest reaches of the theater.
When the Les Kurbas resumed performances in April, a play based on Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment was dropped from the repertoire and work began on a stage adaptation of the historical novel Zakhar Berkut by the towering Ukrainian writer Ivan Franko about a 13th-century Ukrainian village defending itself against an invasion by a Mongol horde.
Another Lviv theater that opened its doors to refugees is located in a building that was also built at a time when Lviv was part of an empire, but this time Soviet empire.
The Lesya Ukrainka Academic Drama Theater occupies part of a large Catholic convent that was completed in 1909. After Lviv ceased being part of Poland in 1945 and was annexed by the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic, the Red Army spent lavishly in converting the convent into a 400-seat theater with a balcony and a rotating stage.
Dmytro Zahozhenko, the theater’s bearded 35-year old resident director, takes me on a tour of the Lesya Ukrainka, named after a revered Ukrainian poetess, playwright and activist of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, who was very important in the formation of Ukrainian national identity. The theater’s design and interior decor is in the conservative classicist style favored during the Stalinist period, a style Zahozhenko disdains as that of a colonial occupier. He shows me the high-ceiling rooms that were used for KGB meetings and as bedrooms for visiting Red Army generals.
As was typical of Ukrainian theaters after Feb. 24, the Lesya Ukrainka – which has 63 employees – decided to immediately suspend performances and to dedicate itself to receiving and helping refugees. Theater employees would go to the train station to greet refugees and bring them back to the theater, where they would live in the basement bomb shelter. The theater also arranged for buses to take them to Poland.
To alleviate the boredom suffered by refugees living in the shelter, Zahozhenko and his co-workers brought in a television and showed recordings of their theater’s performances. They were not optimistic, however, that this would attract many viewers. “We thought, ‘Well, maybe somebody will want to watch something.’” To their astonishment, the Lesya Ukrainka’s productions elicited intense interest.
“For some reason, these people from Mariupol and Kharkiv, who had just been through hell, would organize this time of day when they would all sit down and watch. And each time when it was my turn to be at the shelter for a few hours, they would come to me and ask, ‘What did you mean with this performance? Why did you do it this way and not that way?’ One older couple would even come up to me with a list of written questions.” I saw how much a performance can do even under such circumstances. It was one of the reasons why we decided to restart performances.”
And back to plays to transcend reality
The city government, which funds the Lesya Ukrainka, urged it after operating as a shelter for three months to start putting on performances again.
The theater began performing the same plays that it had before the Feb. 24 invasion, but their relevancy had been destroyed by the war.
“After one of the performances, I asked one of our actors, Viktor Chuk – he was playing the main role – what it was like for him, because that was the first time that he was back on stage. He said that it was kind of strange and unsettling for him because people were dying and his father was at the front in a very dangerous place, and here he was acting in that performance that didn’t mean anything. It felt completely senseless. So we decided to see if together we could find a way to speak about war during wartime in a theater performance.”
Zahozhenko says that his theater had previously put on plays about war and about the Russian occupation of Crimea in 2014, “but this was a completely new experience for us. We just started to rehearse anything. We sang some songs and read some poems and shared our stories about this war.”
The result of their effort was Imperium delendum est (The Empire Must Fall), which Zahozhenko describes as “something between a concert and a theater performance.”
“At first, we just tried to make this into therapy – for ourselves, for our actors, for our audience – and there was a lot of hate and anger. We didn’t want to be victims but rather fighters, so there was a lot of screaming. The actors were screaming and cursing and crying and laughing. It was very, very concentrated. And our audience was doing just the same. It was absolutely… I can’t compare it to any other experience.”
Imperium delendum est appeared at the international theater festival in Avignon, where it was greatly acclaimed, and has also been performed to great interest in Poland, Germany, and, most recently, Romania. The Lesya Ukrainka is in the process of organizing a major French tour for next spring, but its current concern is continuing to put on performances at home despite frequent electricity outages in Lviv due to the Russian attacks on infrastructure. So far the Lesya Ukrainka has not cancelled a single performance.
Zahozhenko says that the war has changed his views of the function of theater.
“We were always trying to find this understanding of the bigger picture, but after Feb. 24, I have come to think that the role of theater is now simpler: to bring people together to share experiences.”
Maiia Harbuziuk, a theater scholar and acting dean of the Faculty of Culture and Art at Ivan Franko University in Lviv, says that productions like Imperium are typical of the direction that Ukrainian productions have taken since the Russian attack of Feb. 24, one that differs greatly from the plays written and produced after the occupation of Crimea by Russia in 2014.
“From 2014, when the war began in the east, we built a narrative of acceptance, accepting differences and suppressing the language of hatred. In my view, up until the beginning of full-scale war, Ukrainian theater had reached its highest point of tolerance.
“Then the full-scale war started and that was the instant when theater acquired a new function and language. I would call that language the language of hatred because that is the emotion that lives in Ukrainians at this time of war and which destroys them from within. Theater must find a way to channel this great force of hatred.”
Harbuziuk describes wartime theater productions as highly hybrid forms that combine music, satire, grotesque, docu-drama and sometimes humor. She says that Imperium, which alternates harrowing accounts by people who lost their closest relatives during the Russian occupation of Hostomel, near Kyiv, with musical interludes, is typical of the new Ukrainian theater.
It is not only author-actors who are creating Ukrainian wartime theater, however, but also Ukrainian playwrights such as Natalya Vorozhbyt, Nina Zahozhenko (Dmytro’s wife), Irina Garets, Natalya Blok, Lena Lagushonkova, Anastasiia Kosodii, Dmytro Levytsky, Den Humenny, Liudmila Tymoshenko, Julita Ran, Jana Zelenska and Ana Halas.
Among the younger generation of Ukrainian playwrights is Olha Matsiupa, a student of Serbo-Croatian literature at Ivan Franko University who in 2011 completed her doctoral thesis on Serbian contemporary drama. She wrote about the dramas of Milena Marković, Milena Bogavac, Maja Pelević, Filip Vujošević and Biljana Srbljanović. These playwrights wrote about the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s and their aftermath.
“I was interested in war, in how war and the postwar period are presented in Serbian dramaturgy.”
Now Matsiupa is writing powerful dramas about war in her own country and about the arrogance, prejudice and imperial ambitions that led to it. In her play Fragments and Puzzles, commissioned by an American foundation for international theater, the narrator describes the ridicule and criticism she and three other Ukrainian girls endured from Russians while holidaying in Crimea prior to 2014, including from a Russian female nightclub singer who overheard them speaking Ukrainian.
AGGRESSIVE NIGHT CLUB SINGER: What language is that you’re squawking in? Polish? Are you from some backwoods village?
MARICHKA: We’re speaking Ukrainian.
AGGRESSIVE NIGHT CLUB SINGER: That’s no language. Just empty squawking. How horrible your language is. Half-baked Westerners. There is only Russia and the Russian language. Russia will be everywhere.
Later in the play, the narrator states:
My dream is for the empire to disintegrate, for a state like Russia to cease to exist. No wonder it is called the prison of nations. This text is strange. It’s a non-text. I would never have written this before. I seem to feel hatred. I want to resist this feeling, but something is happening to my body, my mind, and my consciousness. I’m assuming it’s bad. Everything has been returned to ground zero. Or is some medieval person being born inside of me?
Milovan Mracevich is a Canadian journalist and playwright based in Belgrade
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