This thrilling immersive show about the 2014 Ukrainian revolution is both a timely reminder that other countries have politics too, while also not-especially-subtly poking Britain in the ribs about its decision to flounce tearily out of the EU.
‘Counting Sheep’ was originally a hit at the 2017 Edinburgh Fringe, but it hasn’t so much transferred to London in 2019 as been reincarnated. Originally it featured a 15-piece ‘Balkan-klezmer-gypsy-party-punk-super band’ and was dubbed a ‘guerilla folk opera’. Now it’s redirected by Natalia Kaliada and Nicolai Khalezin of agit proppers Belarus Free Theatre. There are still Ukrainian folk songs performed a capella by the cast, but the Orkestra is gone, and the music is now pounding and bassy.
What’s been retained is the core of the show, the true story of its co-creators Mark and Marichka Marczyk. He was an affable young Canadian of Ukrainian descent who started spending time in the mother country and eventually found himself caught up in the 2014 protests against the corrupt, pro-Russian government. She was a Ukrainian concert pianist who joined the protests after all her concerts were cancelled. They hooked up. They faced down riot police (and worse). They survived. And that’s pretty much the plot.
But the magic of the production is how it both giddily sweeps you up in the optimistic surge of protest and damn well reminds you that these events happened. We start off at a big communal table, sharing borscht and vodka as Marczyk does a lighthearted intro about Ukrainian culture – massive projections on the walls and floor take us to Ukraine.
Then the tables are cleared and the protests start. Really we only receive tiny snatches of the story – most of ‘Counting Sheep’ is noise and music and communal endeavour. We’re encouraged to dance, act as protestors, heft sandbags. But it’s all quite light, about the camaraderie of revolution – nobody pretends to teargas us, thankfully.
By far the most pointed bit is a section dealing with the young people of Ukraine’s desire to be part of the EU, as opposed to falling under the sway of Russia (it’s pretty much either/or for Ukraine). Watching a succession of performers draped in EU flags stage-diving while shouting about how much they want to join the EU... I mean, I’m not saying these things didn’t happen, but the subtext is not hard to spot here.
I’m relating my experience of the show: as press I was given a pricey £41.50 ‘premium protestor’ (srsly) ticket, which included food, vodka and being part of the action. There’s another tier that doesn’t include refreshments (£36.50), or for £19.50 you can sit on the bleachers and be an ‘observer’ (ie you don’t participate).
I can’t speak for what the show is like as an observer – I suspect it’s less fun. But from where I was standing ‘Counting Sheep’ was a joy, perhaps not as profound a take on Ukraine’s recent woes as a wordier play would offer, but a more visceral one – an adrenaline-pumping monument to these events, both political and romantic.