Ukraine theatre stages actors' tales of Russian occupation
August 9, 2023 08:16 PM
On a stripped-down stage, a group of actors in T-shirts and jeans sat on chairs recounting life under the Russian occupation of Ukraine's southern city of Kherson.
Behind them, a screen showed a video of Russian military trucks entering the city, a column of black smoke rising into the sky and Russian soldiers raising their national flag.
In Ukraine, artists have turned to performance to process the trauma of Moscow's invasion and contribute to a cultural scene that is flourishing despite the war.
For the troupe from Kherson's Mykola Kulish theatre, their experience under occupation inspired their new show, "(Im)possible to Stay", which is currently touring theatres in Ukraine.
Kherson was seized by Moscow in the early stages of the war and stayed under Russian rule for eight months in 2022.
During the show, the players described taking part in rallies against Russian occupation in the city's central square and their desperate attempts to escape after troops fired on protesters.
"Thank God, many Ukrainians, many Ukrainian cities, haven't lived through all this," the theatre's director, Oleksandr Knyga, said before a performance at Kyiv's Lesya Ukrainka Theatre. "But we want to tell them our story."
With Kherson now back under Ukrainian control, the theatre is open and running classes for children.
But its actors are scattered around Ukraine and abroad, and plans to finish the tour in Kherson are only tentative, as the city continues to face regular Russian attacks.
- 'It's here' -
"Words just can't express all that we experienced on our own skin," Sergiy Mykhailovskyi told AFP ahead of the show.
He wanted Ukrainians living in less affected regions to "understand that the war exists and it's here, so no one forgets", he added.
His monologue about trying to help an elderly former costume designer in the occupied city got a round of applause and shouts of "bravo" from the audience.
On stage, there were just seven chairs and a megaphone.
During the performance, the actors shouted slogans from the demonstrations in Kherson against the Russians: "Go home while you're still alive!", "Kherson is Ukraine!"
"Every Kherson resident felt that it just wasn't possible not to go" to the protests in March 2022, said actor Rimma Kirsanova.
But later in the month, Russian forces began firing warning shots and throwing stun grenades.
While breaking up demonstrations, they even played sugary music from Soviet children's films -- something reproduced in the theatre performance.
"It was surreal," said Mykhailovskyi.
In video footage shown on stage, a demonstrator lay with his legs bleeding.
It was after seeing this that he started home, said Ruslan Vyshnyvetskyi onstage, because "going to rallies has become unsafe for life".
The actors also described efforts to escape Kherson via numerous checkpoints, where they risked their lives simply by trying to pass.
Mykhailovskyi told how he and his family had decided to leave in September, when Moscow announced a referendum on Kherson region joining Russia.
As a traffic stop on their way out, a Russian soldier put a pistol to his head.
As one drunken fighter from the Donetsk separatist regime told him: "Everything is allowed here. It's lawlessness."
- Checkpoint encounter -
Vyshnyvetskyi and his partner, fellow actor Yevgeniya Kirsanova, made four failed attempts to leave Kherson.
At one checkpoint, all was going well until a guard searched their phones and found a photo of them at a rally holding a sign saying "Kherson is Ukraine".
"I wasn't scared of what they would do to us," Kirsanova said onstage. "I was only scared for our child."
But then the guard, a pro-Russian separatist from Ukraine, offered to let them return to Kherson unpunished -- in exchange for bribes of 3,000 hryvnias ($82) apiece.
From the back seat, Kirsanova quietly cheered, but Vyshnyvetskyi said he felt powerless and humiliated. "Those bastards just wipe their feet on you."
Finally, on their fifth attempt, the couple managed to leave, after more than two months under occupation.
The show received a standing ovation.
A young woman from Kyiv, Nataliya, was one of several audience members moved to tears.
"The show is just wonderful," she said. "It's very good that people are ready to talk about this.
"You just don't want to believe that all this really happened."