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King Stakh’s Wild Hunt

  • Theatre, Experimental
  • 3 out of 5 stars
  • Recommended
King Stakh’s Wild Hunt, Barbican, 2023
Photo: Linda Nylind

Time Out says

3 out of 5 stars

Musically and visually stunning if somewhat incomprehensible delve into the world of opera from the mighty Belarus Free theatre

Belarus Free Theatre’s story is so extraordinary – an underground theatre company, forced to to flee its home country on pain of imprisonment or worse – that it can sometimes detract from what a dizzyingly varied body of work it has.

Though subject-wise its plays tend to focus on human rights abuses and the erasure of Belarusian history and culture by its own government, formally I’ve seen everything from immersive dinner theatre to a take on Shakespeare’s ‘King Lear’, to last year’s monumental ‘Dogs of Europe’, which married a cacophonous collage of reflection on the war in Ukraine to a noir-ish dystopian detective story.

All this preamble is a way of saying that ‘King Stakh’s Wild Hunt’ is an opera, and I suppose it’s a matter of some debate whether it was really a good idea inviting theatre critics rather than opera critics to it, but here we are.

It is a reasonably literal adaptation of Belarusian author Uladzimir Karatkievich’s 1964 novel about Andrey Belaretsky (Andrei Bondarenko), a young folklorist who in 1888 stumbles across a mysterious castle named Swamp Firs, inhabited by a young woman named Nadzeya Yanouskaya (Tamara Kalinkina). It is also haunted by various supernatural beings, from the ghostly Blue Lady to the titular spectral Hunt, a group of murderous silent horsemen who stop Andrey from leaving (this story was allegedly recounted to Karatkievich by the real Belaretski, who the author encountered as a 96-year-old). 

To be clear, I’m partly basing this off a Wikipedia synopsis, as the basic problem with ‘King Stakh’s Wild Hunt’ is that it’s borderline incomprehensible. The overall shape of the story is discernible – man goes to spooky castle, ghosts occur – but Belrusian poet Andrei Khadanovich’s libretto jumps around madly, abruptly throwing in new characters and confusingly expanding the scope of the action well beyond the initial ‘lonely mansion in a bog’ set up. Further adding to the fun, the surtitles are often impossible to see in the fog of haze that constantly billows across the stage.

BFT bosses Nicolai Khalezin and Natalia Kaliada are prodigiously talented theatre makers, but they’ve never been big on deep characterisation or naturalistic plotting. Though there are political dimensions to ‘King Stakh’s Wild Hunt’, it feels like the least political thing I’ve seen by the company, and it’s not always well served by Khalezin and Kaliada’s penchant for leaping madly between striking images – it would probably have benefitted from more conventional dramaturgy and structure.

That all accepted, Olga Podgaiskaya’s score is absolutely phenomenal, a half-nightmare, half-dream soundscape of muffled pianos and distorted strings, simultaneously urgent and haunting. I am the last person qualified to judge operatic singing, but soprano Kalinkina and baritone Bondarenko sounded pretty spot on, I can confirm. And it looks astounding, a mix of beautifully eerie tableaux and ravishing projections from video designer Dmytro Guk: the scene where Andrey and Nadzeya dance behind a scrim carrying the image of a slowly spinning carousel is astounding: it could have gone on for half an hour and I wouldn’t have cared. 

In fact it looks so amazing the fact it’s borderline incomprehensible can often be forgiven: a scene in which Andrey and a malicious local nobleman are chucking the toxic contents of mugs at each other whilst blindfolded is baffling, but visually ravishing. 

Part of the issue, I think, is that where previous shows have been honed on tour or in Belarus, ‘King Stakh’s Wild Hunt’ is too big to tour and Belarus is no longer an option. In that regard it’s incredible that such a technically complex show works so well after just a single preview. But it would clearly benefit from time and revision and I hope it gets it, because there’s something truly extraordinary trying to get out of its haunted passages.

Andrzej Lukowski
Written by
Andrzej Lukowski


£15-£55. Runs 2hr 30min
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