Wednesday 24 January 2018

The revolution will be staged

Review: Counting Sheep, The Hub, Cillin Hill, Kilkenny

Counting Sheep
Counting Sheep

Katy Hayes

The Kilkenny Arts Festival this year has a significant strand that looks at the current dynamics of Europe and its future development. This folk opera telling the story of the Ukrainian popular uprising of 2014, which became know as the Maidan revolution, fits this idea perfectly. Canadian-Ukrainian theatre-makers Mark and Marichka Marczyk, along with the Lemon Bucket Orkestra, crafted this work out of their own experience - they were both participants in the protests.

The show opens with a huge dining table, which also functions as a runway type of stage. Later the table will be dismantled, its pieces used to make a barricade. It has a large red-and-white tablecloth, which is deftly incorporated into the action as a symbol of the protests. Around the table sits a big crowd, mostly audience members, with the cast scattered amongst them.

The Kilkenny venue is a huge exhibition hall, with raked seats. The storytelling involves massive video projections of events from the street protests in Kiev, some of which are mirrored on the stage. Black-and-white projected text provides some clarity. The singing is done in Ukrainian, incorporating folk songs with simple lyrics. The yellow-and-blue flag of the Ukraine is deployed, and the European Union flag also gets prominent treatment.

At the heart of the politics lies a tussle between Europe and Russia over the Ukraine. President Viktor Yanukovych signed a bailout with Russia, in preference to a deal with Europe. In response, the capital city Kiev was engulfed in protests; Yanukovych's regime collapsed in 2014 and he sought refuge in Russia.

The confusion and complexity of the improvised protests are well captured. A commandeered JCB, which is driven at the riot police, sparks a fear that the government has hired thugs to infiltrate the protest. Details of the story are intriguingly dramatised.

The Lemon Bucket Orkestra from Canada, billed as a Balkan-klezmer-punk band, provide lively folk-music energy with accordion, fiddle and brass, as well as percussion and piano. There is sweet, anthemic singing. The show has an ad hoc, street-performer feel. There are no individuals here; the emotional focus is firmly on the crowd.

Late in the show we switch from the Maidan protests in Kiev to the subsequent Russian annexation of the Crimea, and the civil war in the east of the country. The broad strokes of the storytelling style begin to feel inadequate to the geo-political complexities.

There are two types of tickets available, "immersive" or "viewing". The immersive tickets are close to the action, and the audience members who take this option get to throw bricks (made of soft stuff) and flowers, eat food, and join in a wedding dance. The objective of the show is to recreate the energy of revolution, and in this it succeeds. But as an analysis of the politics, the complexities slip out of focus.

Catharsis after Wilde frustration

For all its delightful merits, this semi-staged version of Oscar Wilde’s epic letter to his lover Bosie is a frustrating experience.

Wilde’s letter is full of recrimination, of hurt at his lover having forsaken him in prison. Emotionally, it is like a raw wound. But it is much more than a personal letter; it opens out to become a meditation on cruelty, class, anguish, family and, ultimately, the meaning of art. Then it returns to Bosie, and the sorrow of a discarded lover. This edited version, with a new score by composer Neil Martin, runs to just under 90 minutes.

Stephen Rea creates the persona of Wilde as a crumpled, broken man — losing vigour in prison, but gaining wisdom. Rea reads from the text, and the eye contact with the audience is only occasional.

It is the kernel of a stunning performance. It would be an excellent thing to see him do this material completely off book, thus inhabiting it more fully.

The sound engineering was irritating, as Rea’s voice was unnecessarily over amplified when he was unaccompanied, introducing a note of artificiality when pure emotional connection would have been so easily available — Rea has a superb voice.

Martin’s score for string orchestra creates a deeply moving backdrop, played live by the Irish Chamber Orchestra. It concentrates on the tragedy at the core of the De Profundis text, and contains no echoes of Wilde’s more flamboyant aspects.

There is no overture, the music unfolds along with the text, so follows it, rather than leads. This comes into its own as Rea finishes, and Martin’s finale takes over the storytelling, rendering in musical terms the tragedy of Wilde’s post-prison life, violins deftly picking the emotional pathways. The emotional trajectory is carefully built to climax, and then unwound so gently as to return the audience softly to the ground. Despite reservations, catharsis is achieved.

1  R.U.R. ROSSUM’S UNIVERSAL  ROBOTS 

Peacock Theatre, Dublin

August 21 – 26

Presented by the National Youth Theatre, this 1921 science-fiction dystopian work from Czechoslovakian writer Karel Capek is credited with inventing the term ‘robot’. Directed by Caitriona McLaughlin.

2 CHAROLAIS

Axis, Ballymun

August 25

Much garlanded one-woman-show from writer/performer Noni Stapleton about a woman’s rivalry with an attractive heifer on her farm. Directed by Bairbre Ní Chaoimh and presented by Fishamble: The New Play Company.

3 Beryl & Eejit

Theatre Upstairs, Dublin

August 25 – September 9

A world première from writer/performer Billie Traynor about sibling rivalry in older age. Mother left the house to – him?  Two not-so-sweet old ladies deal with a difficult family inheritance. Directed by Eamonn B Shanahan.

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