Counting Sheep

Mark and Marichka Marczyk
Selfconscious Productions & Wild Yak, in association with Hot Feat
Forge – The Vaults, Launcelot Street
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Counting Sheep is an electrifying production in the form of an immersive protest that will have you up on your feet, dancing with strangers, swigging vodka shots (if you buy into premium seats), shifting sandbags and stamping in collaborative force for freedom before you even fully comprehend what you are fighting for.

The setting is the Ukraine where two musicians, Mark and Marichka Marczyk, met and fell in love on the barricades of Maidan Square in Kiev in 2014. Political events are navigated through couple’s story as they are swept into the same stratosphere in love and war.

The performance draws on hypnotic polyphonic singing to draw people in, while TV news footage projected onto giant screens either side of the space place us in the centre of the Maidan Square protests, triggered by President Yanukovych’s refusal to sign an association of agreement with the EU.

This may not sound like a fun night out, but it’s party all the way at first. The top price ticket holders are ushered around a long central table, slurping down borsht in no time. We are side bench protesters, the second tier tickets, perfectly decent, with beetroot sandwiches brought on trays and the opportunity to be up close and personal with immersive action.

The cheapest seats, the observers, are situated off the main space. If it’s the immersive experience you are after, then it will be deeply frustrating to be consigned to a seat here without the chance of being thrown into the action. I’m also not entirely sure how the show will resonate without the physical involvement that so drives the piece emotively.

One by one, the actors reveal themselves and peel away from the punters, moving into character. A violinist strums an achingly melodious Ukrainian folk music accompanied by a pianist and soon enough the audience are dancing round the table, embracing strangers like long-lost comrades and joining together in celebration. The energy is sky high and performers totally convincing.

The music is what really sets the scale for protest. From the opening pounding drumbeats, we are swept into the party spirit as we dance, sing and waltz together. Then the energy is redirected with physical urgency in a call to arms that drives events forward. As my friend whispers to me, “it can only go downhill from here.”

And she was right. The performers round us up like sheep, while the central table is disbanded and turned into a mountain of boxes and sandbags to create a barricade where scene of protest is set. We are met with a barrage of instructions. “Pass the sandbags... make a chain… wear a crash helmet…protect yourself with this metal shield… take this Euro flag… take care,” and the fight is upon us.

We are herded into a circle in the middle of the space, while the cast run full speed around us several times. I’m dizzy with sensory overload. The screens are awash with flames, the drumbeat increasing in volume from a clubbing night to a cry for war, tragedy feels afoot. We witness a wedding, death, a mourning ceremony and sleeping lovers lying on top of the rubble, weirdly oblivious to the crumbling mess around them and yet so very much image is emblematic of the situation. The protestors are not soldiers but peace-loving individuals who are dragged into the political situation by proximity.

It’s not until the very end of the show that the political context is factually laid out for us. Like an end of feature film, words are projected onto the screens, telling us that over 700 lives were lost in this uprising. It’s devastating to think, given our current political climate with Brexit, that in the Ukraine, people fought and are still fighting for a more democratic, pro-European government.

All of this just adds to the overwhelming poignancy of the piece. As a parting shot, Marczyk walks amongst the audience, fixing a blue-eyed gaze directly onto to a selected few. One or two avert their eyes, as if direct confrontation with deeply felt emotion is just a little too intense. Yet intensity is what the performance is all about.

Tonight, there is a spirit of optimism, tragedy and the love for a country, a people, that perhaps we had no connection to before tonight’s performance. It’s a sweepingly powerful, poetic journey that will leave the most cynical in awe of the power and strength of people to collaborate and fight for what they believe in.

Rachel Nouchi