Thursday 11 August 2016

Counting Sheep – Kings Hall, Edinburgh

[seen 10/08/16]

As I write, my colleague Matt Trueman is in the room down the hall bashing out an n-star rave about Counting Sheep, which we just happened to catch together.

I disagree.

The (largely/mainly) student protests in Maidan Square in Kyiv, Ukraine, in 2013/14 are incredibly difficult to write about, since there are so many conflicting accounts. It is perhaps worth having a quick look at my review of Maidan Diaries – the Ukrainian verbatim show on the subject, which I saw in Bratislava last year – if you want a quick refresh of the “facts”.

Counting Sheep is a very different piece to Maidan Diaries. It is possible to “watch” it as immersive theatre, in the main body of this deconsecrated church, or to watch it, Brechtian-ly from the balcony. Matt took part, I did the detached German thing. This might well be why we had such differing opinions upon leaving. I mean, I don’t think I *disliked* it. After all, it had given me the opportunity to think about the subject, and actually, had presented its one-sided viewpoint with such force, that from the detached standpoint of the gallery, you could see all the holes in it.

I will say this, where Maidan Diaries was sober and reflective, Counting Sheep is not-sober, gung-ho, macho, militarist, and seemingly pro-violence. I’ll leave you to decide where you stand with that. And, unlike Maidan Diaries, it doesn’t duck the de facto war with Russia(/annexation of the Crimea/invasion) which broke out precisely two weeks after Ukrainian prime minister Viktor Yanukovych fled the country.

This is something I’d never quite appreciated before: the protests nominally/apparently started because Yanukovych refused to sign an EU trade agreement, apparently preferring a Russian loan. The protests happen. Yanukovych is hounded from power, after the Ukrainian police and army have killed hundreds of student protesters (the number of dead given in this show is four times higher than that of Maidan Diaries, and ten times higher than Wikipedia’s estimate). The Russians then “invade”, and many of the student protestors join the army or volunteer forces to go and help repel them in Eastern Ukraine (according to this piece).

I’m sure they’ve missed a bit out somewhere, because otherwise that has to rank as one of the most catastrophic and ironic own goals in history. It makes poor Britons voting for Brexit look positively sane. They didn’t want too much to do with the Russians, so they started a riot that led to the Russians invading. I mean, *really*???

This is what you see when you sit in the balcony.

You also see the coercive power of camaraderie; how everyone just joins in, fuelled by pierogi, folk music, beautiful Orthodox church music and just physical contact and play-fighting. You get a pretty good sense of how a protest becomes a movement becomes a pile of the glorious dead.

So what to do with that?

Well (here’s the Billington bit), I can’t help wishing we’d heard a bit more from *any other side at all*. I realise it’s ludicrously fresh, but... I mean, look at Lola Arias’s Minefield (we can all agree that’s the best piece of theatre about real/recent conflict we’ve seen in quite some time, right?) Well, imagine if that had been made just by the Argentinians or just the British only two years after the war. And it was really just about joining in with technique, and feeling *at one* with your comrades. I mean, it’s cheap to say it, but I bet the Wehrmacht would have put on a hell of a show too. (And, yes, let’s not forget that unsavory aspect of Ukrainian nationalism either, which doesn’t even get a mention here. Yes, I’m sure it’s mostly smear tactics by the pro-Russians, but that doesn’t make it completely untrue either.)

I think we can all agree that Ukraine is complicated. And I think we can probably agree that the police action against the protestors was disgusting too. But I’d really like to see something much more thoughtful and analytical and much less about *really feeling it*. That is precisely the sort of theatre that Brecht fought against during the rise of national socialism, and with good reason. You (could) come out of Counting Sheep with the unstoppable view that the protestors were heroic and absolutely right to be protesting (so young! So Valiant! So passionate!), but you are given absolutely no idea what they were protesting about, the ins and outs of the trade deal that Yanukovych didn’t sign, or the one he wanted instead. Yes, there are slurs about his gangsterism, but this is about the forced resignation of a a democratically elected Prime Minister which led to such destabilisation in the region that Russia (by Russia’s account) was forced to send in its own soldiers to protect ethnic Russians living in Ukraine from a wave of anti-Russian ethnic violence (think about how appalled we are by the post-Brexit “enboldened racism”. Well, Russians in Ukraine are the out-group in this scenario.)

And, well, look... On the day I saw this, I opened my Guardian news app after writing the above, and this new piece is in the top five headlines. I think it’s fair to say that in the West, we don’t begin to get even the slightest attempt at reasonable reporting on Russia. It’s presented to us as an insane monster of a country. We hear only the worst about the place, and, despite everything we know about America, we’re still encouraged to believe that it’s the lesser of two evils.

It will be interesting to see what happens if “President Trump” becomes a reality.

In the mean time, I believe we need to guard against pieces of theatre that ask to to uncritically accept protests without even beginning to give us the reasons for the protests, and asks us to take part in facile recreations of them. Yes, of course the outcome of Maidan and the behaviour of the authorities was appalling (although there is – of course – not one mention of the 18 policemen (Wiki) murdered by protestors...), but I’m not sure how I feel about it as a memorial.

Interesting, though; and thought-provoking, if you remember to think.

No comments: