The Canadian-Ukrainian Lemon Bucket Orkestra have brought their show Counting Sheep, a so-called “guerrilla folk opera”, to the Edinburgh Fringe this year, and it does not disappoint. An exploration of the Euromaidan (or Revolution of Dignity) and the conflict which followed in Ukraine during 2013 and 2014, Lemon Bucket invite you to dance, eat, fight, grieve and commemorate with them in this immersive theatre piece. The audience either sit downstairs for the full experience or in the balcony as observers – either way, you are guaranteed to be part of something big.
News and mobile phone footage of the Euromaidan protests are projected overhead as the actors and musicians play out their story with music, including glorious traditional Ukrainian a capella hymns and folk songs rich with harmonies, and physical interpretations of life in the Maidan world, the riots and the resistance to police, including some very sinister and well-delivered freeze frames and blackouts during one fight between police and protestors. As part of the immersive experience, the audience end up involved behind shields, constructing barricades, and throwing weapons as well as sharing food. All of this of is completely safe and “fake” (for example, the guns are made of paper airplanes), though the fast pace and urgency with which the actors get the audience to help them makes it all feel much more real, exciting, and sometimes terrifying.
Unfortunately, Counting Sheep loses some points for accessibility. Although audience instructions are given out in English, a lot of the general shouts and chants are only in Ukrainian, meaning that those unfamiliar with the language may lose out on part of the action. And while you are mostly allowed to choose how and if you do get involved with the audience immersion, there was an occasional lack of flexibility from actors who demanded audience members stood up when they preferred not to. It is difficult to mitigate between accessibility and the demands of being part of a “revolution” (however pretend), which by nature is not accessible, but there could have been more consideration about language and participants’ needs nonetheless.
Counting Sheep is a unique and powerful experience, and a very inventive way of dealing with such tumultuous, confusing and difficult historical events. Perhaps it is the sharing of food or the invitation to get involved directly with this depiction of “revolution” which makes the more tender scenes of mourning and fear later in the play even more heartbreaking to watch. Perhaps this is the Lemon Bucket Orkestra’s way of trying to process events which were close to their hearts, and of commemorating those who have died in the conflict. It may also be an attempt to encourage people to understand just what Ukraine and Ukrainian people were going through during the Euromaidan and the subsequent conflict. And it is definitely an important reminder that, as their final projections show in the play, the war is not over. It works.
Image: courtesy of production