Mark and Marichka Marczyk, creators and writers of Counting Sheep, met and fell in love in the barricades in Maidan Square while fighting for life and freedom. The show is directed by Natalia Kaliada and Nicolai Khalezin, political refugees due to their illegal theatre company, the Belarus Free Theatre, in a country where all theatre must be state-sanctioned. From this unique artistic collaboration arises a powerful political argument for democracy, human rights and peace, without ever falling into the trap of self-pity. The events in the play are based on historical facts and the personal stories of Mark and Marichka, who also perform (though not as themselves), notably by giving life to the original soundtrack.

Arriving at the Forge, one of the venues in the VAULT Festival, we find a long table, rustic benches and makeshift seats made from concrete blocks, tyres and wooden planks. Ukranian and European flags are an important part of the set, as well as an old-looking upright piano with the internal mechanism exposed. Depending on the ticket type, we might sit in the galleries, away from the action, and play the role of Observer; in the benches closer to the wall, as Protesters, from where we are invited to join the fight; or around the table, also as Protesters, but with premium privileges that include Ukranian food and vodka.

Mark, played by Michael Edwards, is our guide: a Canadian musician with Ukranian roots, back to the ancestral land during a work trip. His job was to record local music for a new film. With him, we meet the chaos of train stations, observe the nightlife in Kiev and experience the gastronomic and touristic attractions of the city. The actors sit among us, we share a meal and make toasts to some unintelligible sentences, sing, dance and are merry together. Later, as a city of tents emerges in Ukraine’s historical Independence Square and pro-European protests unfold around us, we become part of the revolution and witnesses of police brutality, burning destruction and deadly sniper shots. We also meet Marichka, a classical pianist who was due to have the most important concerts of her life the day the revolution broke out. The gigs were cancelled, and she joined the fight. With her, and thanks to Georgina Beaty’s astonishingly bold performance, we feel the urge to care for the wounded, the despair at being unable to help, and the anguish of not knowing if the ones we love are safe.

There is an interesting phenomenon of collective compliance to the increasingly complex tasks we, as an audience, are asked to perform. We don’t really understand how we went from being comfortably seated to joining in the rhythmic section of an electrifying song, cheering as a couple of strangers gets married, playing musical chairs, holding shields and helmets among sandbags, bricks and toppled tables, helping strangers to clean the barricades in the aftermath of bloodshed and taking part, horrified, in funeral ceremonies. The transition is subtle and never forced, but the fact remains that an initially reluctant audience (including myself!) ended up as central players in the show. The adequate tone is achieved during the whole performance, now joyful and overflowing with tradition and national pride, now respectful and mournful for the hundreds of lost lives, now resilient and confident in the rebuilding of the country.

From a technical perspective, we couldn’t wish for anything more. Smartphones are encouraged and brilliantly used in the show, together with continuous projections of real footage from the uprising that bring realism and a larger dimension to the show. Lights, sound effects and choreographical stunts are all creatively employed to build a complete theatrical experience. The sets are completely transformed before our eyes, so fast that we barely notice. However, what truly takes the show to the next level is the music, brought to us by the Marczyk couple’s Balaklava Blues project. Influenced by trance and electro-pop but with an ethnic touch, this mix of recordings, live performance and electronic manipulation add continuity and unity to the play. There are some beautiful moments of singing and playing, heartwrenching emotion, powerful rhythms and amazing polyphonies, created with the expertise of classical training and ethnomusicology.

An award-winning “Guerrilla Folk Opera”, Counting Sheep is an explosive stage experience that dwells on life and death and leaves no one indifferent.

-5 stars