Kyiv, Ukraine – At a well-known theatre in Kyiv, dress rehearsal begins on a small stage, and two veteran Ukrainian performers run through their scenes.
Memorising the dialogue has been easy. Maintaining focus has not.
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“In one moment,” actor Mykhailo Kryshtal tells me, “a rocket could land near you and everything could come to an end. These factors aren’t helping.”
But for all involved, mounting this production of The Emigrants, a 1970s Polish drama by playwright Sławomir Mrożek, has become about much more than simply putting on a play.
“The fact that we are still performing for our audience is resistance itself,” says Kryshtal. “Because we are not afraid. We didn’t run away.”
Theatre is typically a place where people escape the realities of everyday life.
But seeking solace in art is much harder to accomplish in a city where reminders of the conflict are all around.
As director Volodymyr Kudlinsky gives notes to the cast, he recounts how the Theatre on Podil – a well-known cultural institution – closed down after Russia’s invasion, only reopening in June.
“We were surprised that the audiences who stayed in Kyiv started to buy tickets and came to the performances for the same prices as before the war,” he says.
“People were ready. Through buying tickets, they supported us and theatre itself, the city and the country.”
Audiences may have been ready to return, but preparing for them was no easy feat.
“First of all,” says Kudlinsky, “we tried to protect the theatre from bombs, fragments from explosions. All these sandbags, this is the work of our colleagues.”
The sandbags he refers to are piled high at the entrance of this landmark theatre, which is an example of modernist architecture in one of the city’s most historic neighbourhoods.
They are yet another reminder of the toll this conflict is taking. And then there are the air raid sirens.
Kudlinsky then tells me about the air sirens, and how when they ring out – a frequent occurrence throughout Ukraine – everyone must go to the lobby and wait until given the all-clear.
“We don’t have anybody who doesn’t understand the situation or who gets offended by it,” he says. “Everybody is on the same page.”
A few hours later, another play is performed at the same theatre but on a larger stage and in a room that seats about 250 people.
Members of the audience buy their tickets, file in, and begin taking their seats.
Then, the performance is interrupted before it even begins and the sequence of events Kudlinsky just described plays out before my eyes.
First, the air raid siren. Then a voice on the loudspeakers directing attendees to the lobby. Patrons, determined not to let this disturbance ruin a much-needed outing, wait calmly, even as some grow slightly concerned.
“It’s a mixture of feelings,” says Maria, who was ready to watch the performance.
“We’ll be enjoying the show, but worried too. Unfortunately, you can’t fully relax.”
Another theatregoer, Iryna Yarmulkivska, tells me the air raid sirens make her nervous but that she is determined to keep attending performances like this.
“It’s important because it is a distraction from the danger, from the constant anxiety,” she says.
“When you are surrounded by other people, you feel like you are in another life – it’s comforting. Music, people, and tranquillity make me feel like I did before the war.”
A short while later, the all-clear is given, and everyone makes their way to their seats once more.
When the show begins, it is brimming with music and colour and promises to transport everyone sitting in the dark, hoping for enjoyment. Within minutes, though, another siren.
For the actors and their audience, the spell may temporarily be broken, but a round of applause breaks out nonetheless.
And while no one in attendance knows for sure if they will actually find out how this play ends, that is not really the point.
Because on this evening and at this theatre, one thing is perfectly clear: in Ukraine, the spirit of defiance is as apparent in fiction as it is in fact.