On November 26, Ukraine's National Academic Drama Theatre will arrive in London with a single performance: False Note. This is a story about love and cruelty, about conformity. And also about fascism and the inevitable retribution for all crimes against humanity. Elena Frantseva tells their story.
The National Academic Drama Theatre named after one of Ukraine's foremost poets and playwrights, Lesya Ukrainka is a theatre with a 100-year history.
The theatre is located in the very centre of the capital of Ukraine, in Kyiv, and operates with a very large team—450 employees.
They were all awakened by the bombings on February 24 this year. Life stopped, the theatre stopped.
First of all, due to the fact that the actors and all backstage employees who support rehearsals and performances (including dressers, make-up artists, lighting designers and scenery constructors) simply could not get to work. The city centre was closed. Bridges across the main river—the Dnieper—did not function. There was panic and terror in the city. All the roads were clogged because people were trying to take their children to the West...
In the first ten days, only its general director Mikhailo Reznikovich, firemen and security guards remained in the huge theatre building. Their main task was to save the building. Around, sirens howled incessantly, warning that rockets were flying endlessly at the city.
Life in Kyiv
After a couple of days, the city was empty. In the centre of Kyiv, dogs ran in packs and barked loudly in the unusual silence. These were not stray dogs, but thoroughbred pets, which the owners could not take with them as they evacuated the city. Frightened people stormed trains heading west. Ten or more people rode in each small compartment, sat on the floor in the corridors of the cars, and those who could not fit in the car cried and shouted on the platforms.
At this time, food disappeared from stores in the abandoned city, and long queues lined up in front of pharmacies throughout Kyiv. There weren't enough medicines for everyone. One had to stand in line for several hours for bread. The ambulance and police telephones did not work... And at night, the explosions were especially audible.
Many theatre employees, including actors, went to the front. The rest voluntarily assisted the army and the civilian population, people who had lost their homes or relatives.
At this time, the Russian army was rampaging on the outskirts of Kyiv. Small towns near the capital (Irpen, Bucha, Borodyanka and many others) were almost completely destroyed, people were tortured and killed in basements, women were raped, children were shot. In Kyiv, almost nothing was known about this, because for a long time there was no mobile communication, and the Internet in this territory went down since mobile communication towers were damaged.
The Kyiv region was liberated in early April... And the terrible footage of what the Ukrainian army discovered there spread around the world. It is still impossible to believe that people in the 21st century are capable of such atrocities.
At this time, they began to talk in the theatre about trying to play performances for the people who remained in the city.
The Theatre Recovers
We recalled the testimonies of the prisoners of Auschwitz, who claimed those who were able to survive the horrors of the concentration camp were not necessarily the ones who believed that the war would end soon, and not those who had lost all hope. Those who continued to do their job survived. And we decided to follow this example.
In this, we were supported by the Ministry of Culture of Ukraine. We were allowed to play performances but only on the condition that during air raids all spectators would descend into a bomb shelter located nearby.
On April 9, we played the first military performance on the small stage (the large auditorium with 800 seats could not be used due to safety regulations). We started with the play Three Loves about the personal life of Lesya Ukrainka, whose name our theatre bears. We were the first theatre that dared to open in Kyiv. The audience cried with happiness, because this performance showed a light at the end of the tunnel, a promise that a peaceful, happy life will definitely return to us someday.
Then we staged a fairy tale for children, because children are the most vulnerable and frightened in this difficult time. We wanted to make sure that they had a piece of childhood with miracles and fairy tales.
At the end of May, we played the first performance on the main stage: False Note by Didier Caron. Even before the war, this production was one of the best in our repertoire, and on February 24, the play resounded in a new way. It turned out to be about us. About the situation we are in.
Invitation to London
When we received an invitation to play False Note in London at the end of the summer, we immediately agreed, but we did not even imagine how difficult it would be to organise a trip during a war. We ran into obstacles all the time. For example, we faced the problem that the British Embassy had stopped its work in Kyiv with the outbreak of the war.
So, in order to apply for a British visa, we had to spend two nights on a bus on the way to Chisinau (Moldova), where the nearest visa application centre operates. Our male actors were not allowed to cross the border of the country during wartime, so our administrators had to write a lot of petitions to various authorities in order to obtain the appropriate permits.
The airspace over Ukraine has been closed since February 24. Our airports are closed. To get to London, we are forced to travel over ground to the neighbouring country of Poland, and wait there for the next plane.
Due to so many complex logistical problems, we cannot bring the original scenery with us, so our leader is now organizing the scenery and furniture for the performance in London—renting backstage, lighting fixtures, furniture.
With a very limited budget, we cannot bring all the necessary team members with us either. Therefore, each of us on tour is responsible not only for his own work, but also for the work of those who remain in Kyiv. For example, the administrator, in addition to his duties, will also perform the duties of an assistant director, and the press representative will be a costume designer and responsible for the props at the performance.
However, all these difficulties will not stop us. It is important for us to come to London. After all, it was London that experienced brutal bombings 80 years ago. And Londoners, just like us, spent their nights and days in bomb shelters. The fact that the British survived this war and did not surrender to the enemy gives us hope.
With this tour, we want to tell the whole world that we are alive, that we will not give up. That we can't be broken.
Kyiv's Lesia Ukrainka Drama Theatre is bringing its production of Didier Caron's False Note, a contemporary French play performed in Ukrainian with English subtitles, to UCL's Logan Hall in Bloomsbury on London 26 November.
Tickets can be obtained from Event First.