Donbas War Reality Takes Center Stage at This British Theater
15 August, 2019
‘All That Remains’ might be personal, but politics is also never far from the story. Anna Morgan
Molodyi Teatr London, a Ukrainian-British theater group, is rapidly earning a name for itself as the migrant cabaret par excellence in the United Kingdom. Intending to deliver migrants’ voices – and Ukrainian stories – to the stage, Olesya Khromeychuk, theater member and teaching fellow in Modern European History at King’s College London, spoke with Hromadske about their productions and movements.

All cabaret aside, it was a small bag that unwrapped the story of the theater’s current show, ‘All That Remains’. 

For two years, Khromeychuk’s brother Volodya had fought with the Ukrainian Armed Forces. 

In 2017, he was killed on the frontline. 

All that remained of his possessions, from papers to drawings produced on the frontline, could fit into one solitary, meagre bag.

“I realized that what remained of his life in our lives was so much more than this small pile of objects,” Khromeychuk says. “I also realized that much of what remained were gaps that could never be filled. It’s something we explore in the play.”

Certainly up until the last few years, this state of affairs could also have stood for an awareness of Ukrainian culture and politics in the U.K. The country is hardly bulging with tangible Ukrainian culture or awareness of current developments, with news of the war in Donbas and the illegal annexation of Crimea having gradually dissipated from television screens and news channels after 2014. 

But recently, the situation has begun to change. On a political level, the U.K. supported Ukraine at the recent PACE voting against Russia’s return. The media is publishing a number of special reports on the day-to-day of Ukrainian citizens living in Donbas.

"All That Remains" . Photo: Liliya Romanyshyn

And on the cultural front? The Molodyi Teatr London is leading the charge. Their hard-hitting new production is a far cry from their cabaret-esque performances of old, but still illuminates the same, much-needed material on contemporary Ukraine.

“I never thought I’d write a play about it,” admits Khromeychuk. “But there came a moment when I started writing about my experiences to try and make sense of what happened.”

‘All That Remains’ might be personal, but politics is also never far from the story. Khromeychuk herself focused both on humanizing and individualizing the dead – bringing them back to life, as it were – whilst also acknowledging that they are considered, in a variety of contexts from Ukraine to the U.K., mere political fodder.

“I also wrote this play,” she says, “because while this was a private tragedy, a life lost in a war is, of course, political.”

“Funerals of war dead have become a normality, but they are anything but normal. We talk about universal issues such as losing your loved one, but through that also explain some things about this specific war which gets very little attention in the West.”

With their penchant for small venues and post-show discussions, Molodyi Teatr London is well-suited to breach the borders between Ukraine and the U.K., illuminating oft-forgotten issues – but it is also a pioneer in conveying Ukrainian tradition to Western audiences. 

Photo: Slavko Tsyhan

Ukrainian theater – and Ukrainian culture as a whole – has been striving for at least a century towards a sense of national identity. This, too, is identifiable with Khromeychuk’s own enterprise: their name, as she points out, echoes that of the Molodyi Teatr ("Young Theater"),  a company established in Kyiv a century ago by the ground-breaking Ukrainian director Les Kurbas. And though Khromeychuk is eager to point out Molodyi Teatr London steer away from his legacy, another U.K. theater group immersed in Ukrainian culture, the Night Train Theater Company, is certainly trying to keep Kurbas’s flame alive.  

At its heart is Maria Montague’s first ever English translation of the folksy, goose-riddled theatrical incantation ‘Maklena’, by Mykola Kulish. His work was also prioritized a Ukrainian national culture – that is, until a fraught dress rehearsal of Les Kurbas’s production of ‘Maklena’, which took place under the eyes of secret service agents and the Politburo of Soviet Ukraine, prompted the Kulish and Kurbas’s arrests and executions in 1937. From spotlight to gunpoint, and aside from having limited international recognition until now, ‘Maklena’ was also banned in Ukraine, and is only recently being rediscovered. In June, the Night Train Theater Company took the play back to its roots in Ukraine, performing to standing ovations across Kharkiv and Kyiv, with their last show at Kurbas’s own Molodyi Teatr.

Molodyi Teatr London are also trying to resurrect Ukrainian classics in the U.K., with some of their first performances including adaptations of Taras Shevchenko’s poetry. Khromeychuk also notes that it was his works which were so frequently recited during the Euromaidan protests, incidentally the year which marked Shevchenko’s bicentennial.

Photo: Anna Morgan

They are also raising awareness of the current plight of Oleg Sentsov, the Crimean filmmaker and writer, who is one of over 100 Ukrainian political prisoners in Russia. Their short film ‘Testament’ includes a recitation of one of his texts of the same name, translated into English by theater member Uilleam Blacker, and they hand out Sentsov’s stories to people who come to their shows.

And it is this multinational collaboration that runs through the very veins of Molodyi Teatr London: members of their team originate from a range of countries, with some speaking only few words of another’s language. 

But, for Khromeychuk, this is vital.

“It meant that we could share our different perspectives on the issues we raised in our shows and could learn from each other,” she says – a task they are also bringing to theater stages across the UK.

The company’s first show, ‘Bloody East Europeans’, was welcomed with a sell-out run at the 2015 Edinburgh Fringe Festival – following this came their TV Talent Show cum theatrical extravaganza, ‘Penetrating Europe or Migrants Have Talent’:

“After both of these shows, we had people come up to us and say: ‘you showed exactly what my life looked like’,” Khromeychuk says.

Translating this to international audiences is another story, and to tackle this, Molodyi Teatr London also imbue each show with dashes of the universal language of music, in particular Ukrainian folk songs.

“It’s an opportunity to share our culture in an organic way,” she explains.

“A Ukrainian lullaby is still a lullaby; you don’t need to know what it’s about to appreciate its emotional appeal.”

Khromeychuk adds that they also used well-recognized, famous hits with a twist.

“In one of our shows, instead of singing ‘YMCA’ we sang ‘UKBA’ (UK Border Agency). It was funny and it worked. We find that humor in general is an excellent tool for conveying difficult serious messages.”

These messages begin with establishing new narratives around Ukrainian culture. There may be Ukrainian Institutes and academic centers, Khromeychuk says, but stereotypes remain rife – and these begin with a disregard, in U.K. cultural circles, of much Ukrainian artistic output.

Drawings were not the only examples of creativity by Khromeychuk’s brother Volodya which were saved after his death in 2017.

“I found videos he made at the frontline in his phone,” she says. “One of them he started by saying: ‘Ladies and gentlemen, I present you with a sunrise through a hole in a dugout wall.’”

“I have no idea why he made these videos. He didn’t seem to have sent them to anyone. They look like they were meant for this play,” she adds.

Photo: Anna Morgan

For Molodyi Teatr London, it is these real people’s lives behind flat stereotypes which matter – those small bags, those lungs of life. Being able to pass on the stories was a future Volodya – and so many others – never had. 

“If we can give voice to any of them, we’ll feel that what we do is worthy of people’s attention,” Khromeychuk says.

/By Juliette Bretan