As 1927 continues its epic world tour, Eleanor Buchan reports from Ukraine
1927 on tour – Ukraine
The audiences and crew we encounter in Ukraine rank among our very best. Kiev awes us. Solid, durable buildings rising high above us as we walk the pavements, the long complicated system of crossing roads via the metro underpasses, past elderly women who sell plastic cups filled with raspberries. It is colder than we have had room to pack for and we huddle as we pace along the streets.
We are to play at The Molody Theatre where we find the foyer proudly lined with photographic portraits of every actor, director, technical crewman and staff member in the building – testimony to the strength of the working family here. The dressing rooms are clearly second homes to the actors: disgarded shoes, postcards pinned to walls and scattered tubes of lipstick. As an itinerant player touring 21 countries in a year, I feel a sharp sense of yearning for this kind of belonging. I am told that some people spend their entire working careers in one theatre company. Our tradition of permanent companies in Britain has declined. The pros and cons of each system are complicated, but, touched by homesickness, I am envious.
"I feel a sharp sense of yearning for this kind of belonging..."
The building is full of soul and the ghosts of productions long past. In order to get to the stage from the dressing room, we must clamber up a staircase piled high with Ancient Roman replica pillars, stuffed sheep, giant pentacles, rope, wood and velvet. The stage is filled with young men who fling themselves up rigging with effortless agility and veer from grumpy resentment to cheery acquiescence in a heartbeat. One of the sound technicians is a small, slim chap in a leather jacket who sits down to play Debussy's 'Clair de Lune' on the keyboard. Everyone becomes quiet as they move about their work. I go over to him to tell him how much he's moved me with his playing. There is an openheartedness about the people here that releases me from my British reserve.
Anna, our British Council contact, exquisite and kind, takes us to lunch at a local canteen. The food is good, hearty and warming, served by stocky women in caps and checked aprons, who slap the food on our plates with a sort of brusque maternal tenderness. We are thrilled by servings of "Herring in a Fur Coat" layered in potato and beetroot, and with the fried quark pancakes called syrniki which will look you in the eye and give you a heart attack. Heavy from lunch, the day passes and our technical manager, Steve, toils into the night on the tricky projectors while Maksim Ilyashenko, the British Council's Art Manager, works loyally by his side and hands him slices of takeaway pizza to keep him going.
We join Natasha Vasylyuk and Martin Dowle from the British Council for dinner in a warm restaurant that features a sleeping piglet in a pen in the corner. Both Martin and Natasha are excellent company and I get to taste my first authentic borsht, followed by delicious sweet varenyky. We are joined at dinner by Caroline Steinbeiss, a British/German director here on placement from the Royal Court to direct Take. Love. Run. by the Ukrainian playwright Oksana Savchenko. The production opens soon and Caroline is tired, delighted and frustrated by the clash of working processes. She has five weeks to mount a production with a company used to having up to 18 months of rehearsal. Again I see the stark difference between the way our two countries make work. Animals and Children took 19 months to make, largely unfunded, and stands as a rare example of a British company which uses the long working process considered normal in Ukraine. I read in the newspaper that prominent members of the British theatre scene are arguing to adapt our working methods to reflect more closely the kind we see here.
"I see the stark difference between the way our two countries make work..."
Once the show is open, the audiences bowl us over with their enthusiasm and warmth. We tumble joyfully off stage at the end of each show and would happily play here for weeks. The show, part animation, part performance and part live music, charts the attempts of the downtrodden to change their lives. In it, a teenager from the slums seeks to start a revolution against the dominating powers and sings of drinking vodka and borscht. At the post-show Q&A, we are asked whether we had added these lyrics for the Ukrainian audience. We haven't, we say, we always sing about borscht, saluting the vocabulary of uprising. I write this as Ukraine finds itself in crisis. I see pictures on the news of a Kiev I don't recognise and understand that revolution is not simply an intellectual concept for this country.
Anna, with huge generosity, gives up her Saturday morning to take us sightseeing before we leave. She takes us to see Mother Motherland who, flanked by bronze reliefs depicting the suffering and endurance of the Ukrainian people, has her arms held high. She is 560 tonnes of determination and controversy. At Mykhailiv Square we look around St. Michael's Golden-Domed Monastery, the church pulled down by the Soviets then rebuilt in 1999 in an endeavour to soothe the destruction of the past and reclaim what was lost. We wander down Andreevskiy Spusk and shop for old Soviet memorabilia at the market stalls. The irony of this is not lost on me as I write.
We are loath to leave this country, somewhere so obviously devoted to theatre for its humanity, its political potential and its ability to tell the story of who are and what we have experienced. Long may that flourish. I wonder what will burst out of her theatres now?
With thanks to all British Council Ukraine for their care of us during our visit.