Counting Sheep at the VAULT Festival: ‘A Dynamic and Emotive Staged Revolution’
As the headline show of the VAULT Festival 2019, Counting Sheep offers much more entertainment than its sleepy title suggests. Marnie Howlett reviews this dynamic, interactive production.
While it takes great skill to successfully execute an immersive theatre production, it takes raw talent to bring together strangers from the audience in such a way that they hug one another before leaving the theatre. Counting Sheep’s electric depiction of humanity in the midst of political violence and repression excels on both fronts through its one and a half hour running time. Under the crafty co-direction of Belarus Free Theatre’s Natalia Kaliada and Nicolai Khalezin, this interactive show follows the true story of its creators, Mark and Marichka Marczyk, who met and fell in love during the Euromaidan protests on Kyiv’s Maidan (Independence Square) in 2014. A critically-acclaimed hit when it premiered at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in 2016—winning both a Scotsman Fringe First and the Amnesty International Freedom of Expression award—there is no question that Counting Sheep continues to stun international audiences as it plays at the Vaults in London.
As an interactive performance, audience members are directly involved in the entirety of the show. Though the less expensive ‘Observer’ tickets get a nice seat overlooking the events on the ground, the immersion that comes with a ‘Protester’ ticket is well worth the difference in price (about £10). The ‘Protester Premium’ offers the most exciting view as these audience members are seated at a long table (which doubles as the stage) and are served borsch, beetroot sandwiches, and vodka shots at the beginning of the show. While the regular ‘Protester’ ticket still offers an interactive experience with a seat behind the table and beetroot sandwiches, sitting amongst the actors and musicians at the table definitely adds to the immersion.
Regardless of the ticket type, those seated on the ground are quickly swept up in the excitement of the show. Beginning with live Ukrainian music that is sure to get every audience member dancing on their feet (if you do not voluntarily, members of the cast will be sure to give you a hand), the party-like atmosphere distracts the audience from the news clips of Ukraine’s past president, Viktor Yanukovych, being played simultaneously on the walls of the theatre. As the music gets livelier, the events unfolding on the screens equally increase in intensity as Yanukovych decides not to sign an Association Agreement with the European Union and, instead, strengthens ties with Russia’s Vladimir Putin. It was in response to these political decision that thousands of students took to the street in Kyiv in 2013-14 during what was called the ‘Euromaidan.’ It is this revolution that is currently being staged at the VAULT Festival 2019.
Following the timeline of real events, Counting Sheep takes the audience from the start of the peaceful protests in November 2013 through to the eruptions of violence that ended in February 2014. Together with the cast, the audience helps carry sandbags, bricks, and tires to build the barricades and holds shields to protect one another during sniper attacks, all while brightly adorned in Ukrainian and European Union flags and hard hats, like the Euromaidan protesters. The set design is very simple, including tables, benches, and a mix of random props likely found backstage of any theatre, but a complex set is not required for a show like this as the directorial team’s creativity ensures the continuous movement and re-organization of the props to portray a variety of protest scenes.
Running through the show, and adding a touch more humanity to the unfolding events (as though this was needed), are also two love stories: one of a young Canadian man who finds himself in the midst of the revolution and falls in love with a classically-trained Ukrainian pianist, and another of a young couple who gets married and is celebrated during the show.
A review of this production would not be complete without a mention of the incredible talent of the musicians and vocalists. While the actors execute their roles well, the live and interactive nature of the music aids considerably in setting the show’s tone—from lively and merry to sad and somber. In one particular scene, the combination of the musicians and vocalists, and the actress’ raw grief as she wraps the lifeless body of her husband in a white sheet, is almost uncomfortable for the audience as it is so real that you can feel her excruciating pain radiated within yourself. It is moments like these that remind the audience that Counting Sheepis not just another theatre show: it is meant to tell the story of the Euromaidan, both the good and the bad. As the audience and cast represent a range of nationalities (the cast included Ukrainians, Canadians, Belarussians, and Brits), this production also resembles the revolution in its inherent interactive nature—both in terms of audience involvement and the coming together of people, and in this case strangers, from around the world.
Taking the audience on an emotional rollercoaster as it explores the real-life events which occurred, and are still occurring, in Ukraine, Counting Sheepwill leave you in awe and more than willing to hug the cast as they move through the crowd after the show thanking every attendee personally—a gesture which is not only nice but feels almost needed after such a dynamic and emotive performance. Playing at the Vaults until March 17, 2019, this show is not for the light-hearted: it is real, it is raw, and it is reveling. Equally a staged revolution as a representation of humanity’s perseverance, Counting Sheep is a show not to be missed.
Counting Sheep is at the Vault Festival until the 17th March, 2019.
Photographs: Nicolai Khalezin