Living in the War: the Ukrainian Theatre Since the Russian Invasion

Hanna Veselovska*


The article provides an overview of the artistic and organisational evolution of theatres in Ukraine after February 24, 2022, the date the country was invaded by Russia. The author outlines characteristic features of this evolution, e.g. the active participation of many theatre groups in the volunteer movement, their assistance to the Ukrainian army and internally displaced persons, as well as the use of theatre spaces as shelters where performances can be presented. The article focuses particularly on plays written by Ukrainian playwrights since the invasion, which reflect the horror, the shock and confusion experienced by the civilian population at the initial stage of the ensued all-out war. It also highlights significant changes that have occurred in the repertoire of Ukrainian theatres, in particular their refusal to use Russian works of all genres, including operas and ballets. In addition, a good deal of attention is paid to the fact that the repertoire has been replenished with new performances that analyze the phenomenon of war. These performances, the article concludes, could generate interest far beyond the Ukrainian borders.

Keywords: Ukraine, Russia, war, shelter theatres, repertoire changes

The Russian invasion of Ukraine has victimized the Ukrainian theatre doubly and perhaps even triply through the ongoing hostilities. The Ukrainian theatre has been losing its space, because its home, an artistic setting, is crumbling; it has been losing its creative potential, because its artists are being killed or scattered around the world; it has been deprived of the opportunity to communicate with the viewer, that is, to create art, which is a central means of preserving human civilization. 

Immediately following the Russian invasion of February 24, 2022, all theatres in Ukraine, whose total number is estimated at 150 – including national, regional, municipal and private theatres – were forced to stop performances. The whole circulatory system of the theatre ceased to function, and, approaching what the enemy may have dreamed of for centuries, a total destruction of the Ukrainian theatre seemed imminent. 

Actors, directors and theatre technicians joined the territorial defence or the Armed Forces of Ukraine, or became engaged in volunteer activities, while many women fled the country or moved to safer regions inside Ukraine. Some theatres found themselves under Russian occupation (as was the case in Kherson), while others were under siege (as in Chernihiv).

The Volunteer Theatre and Shelter

Since late February 2022, the vast majority of Ukrainian theatres have been used as volunteer centres and shelters. Formerly serving as venues for performances, the theatres have been refashioned as settings where human pain and suffering are concentrated, and a huge effort has been made to ease the pain of civilians who are terrified by the war. 

In these times of aggression, Western Ukraine has become a headquarters for volunteers from the theatre community, in cities such as Ivano-Frankivsk, Lviv and Rivne. The Maria Zankovetska National Ukrainian Drama Theatre and Les’ Kurbas Theatre, as well as other theatres in Lviv, have all been transformed into volunteer centres, collecting humanitarian aid for soldiers and civilians, while refugees sometimes sleep on the stages of the theatres. 

Elsewhere across Ukraine, a number of theatres are now functioning as shelters, for example, the Victor Afanasyev Kharkiv State Puppet Theatre, the Rivne Ukrainian Musical Drama Theatre, or a tiny Kyiv theatre called ProEnglish. A bomb shelter has even opened in one of three theatres in Mykolaiv, a city that has been subjected to the enemy’s particularly merciless bombing and missile attacks.

The direct tangible support offered by the Ukrainian theatre has taken a number of forms. For example, in early March, at perhaps the most difficult point for Ukraine in the Russian invasion, the Ivano-Frankivsk Musical and Drama Theatre, named after Ivan Franko, made the following announcement: “We will become a national theatre bunker, offering refuge, salvation, and vital assistance to all who need it during the war. We will provide not only humanitarian, medical, and financial assistance, but also morale-boosting creative support.” And almost immediately afterwards, artists from this theatre started staging performances for refugees from all parts of the country, and by offering people positive emotion and hope, they were able to support displaced populations in a highly stressful situation through art. In such a special display of artistic talent, theatrical therapy, which for years seemed completely ephemeral, provided meaningful results.

In a basement of the Frankivsk Theatre, actors performed Kotliarevsky’s Eneida, the national version of Virgil’s poem, which critics view as “a patriotic, heroic play about the unbreakable Ukrainian spirit battling an enemy.” The same basement has also hosted the modern horror opera Hamlet, directed by Rostyslav Derzhypilskyi, which is filled with longing, despair, yet also projects hope for the future. As Ukrainian theatre critic Oleh Vergelis noted about this play, Hamlet’s question ‘To be or not to be?’ now has a completely different, existential meaning, certainly not the same as it was before February 24, 2022.

Following the initiative of the Ivano-Frankivsk theatre, theatrical performances in shelters began to proliferate throughout the country. In early April 2022, as soon as the Ukrainian army averted the threat of the capital Kyiv being seized by the enemy, the Kyiv Puppet Theatre, directed by Ruslan Neupokoev, performed The Mouse and the Pink Ribbon in the lobby of the Kyiv metro station, which functioned as a shelter at the time. Mini-performances and concerts have also become common events in the Kharkiv metro.

A particularly committed group of artists from the Lviv Regional Puppet Theatre opened a sheltered stage, where performances are not interrupted even during air raids; among the key performances presented there this season is a unique stand-up show, Shmata (Rag), directed by Andriy Bondarenko and Yana Tytarenko. For another example, the Kyiv Municipal Opera has a shelter specially adapted for showing performances to 90 spectators; in the theatre basement, concerts such as Romance in Shelter and Jazz in Shelter have been performed. In late May, the Vasyl’kо Odesa Ukrainian Theatre used a bomb shelter to premiere their performance of Sasha Take Out the Garbage, based on the play by Natalya Vorozhbyt and directed by Maksym Golenko.

Voices of the Theatre

On February 24, the Ukrainian theatre fell silent, numb with fear, like most other civilians of the nation frightened by the brutality of the war. The first to break the silence were playwrights, particularly those who had previously not gained much recognition with mainstream academic theatres because of their uncensored vocabulary, unbiased critical thinking or provocative underground tendencies. 

One such playwright, Iryna Harets, organized a collection of recent dramatic texts and made them available on the portal of modern Ukrainian drama. This collection of plays, entitled Russian ship, go to hell! embodied the authentic voice of the Ukrainian theatre, the theatre whose creative potential was scattered around the world as it was forced to move to shelters.

Soon the whole world would hear these texts. Some of them were immediately translated into English by John Freedman’s Worldwide Ukrainian Play Reading Project. The Kyiv ProEnglish Theatre, together with the National Union of Theatre Artists of Ukraine, organised bilingual readings of Ukraine. War. Texts; some foreign directors also joined this effort in an online format. The plays of Olena Astasyeva, Ihor Bilyc, Andriy Bondarenko, Iryna Harets, Oksana Hrytsenko, Nina Zakhozhenko, Lena Lyagushonkova, Maryna Smilianets, Lyudmila Tymoshenko, and Vitaliy Chenskyi all projected the significant message to the world that Ukrainians were alive, both under bombs and under occupation, and on the frontlines of the war.

On May 7, theatrical readings were also held at the Lesya Ukrainka National Theatre. The highlight presentations included, among others, plays such as Blockpost by the young Ukrainian author Anton Nesmianov, and Prayer for Elvis, by Maryna Smilianets.

Not surprisingly, on November 20, Lena Lyagushonkova, whose play was also presented in the project Ukraine. War. Texts, received the Best Young Playwright of Europe award in Stuttgart. Lyagushonkova is originally from a small Donbas town near Luhansk, having fled from this city after it fell under the control of Russian-backed separatists in 2014. She began her drama career in 2017, and has recently become a repertoire writer as well as a screenwriter. 

Ukraine. War. Texts. Reading in the Kyiv ProEnglish Theatre. Photo: Artem Galkin

The award was given after the performance of Lyagushonkova’s play Mother Not According to Gorky, directed by Maksym Golenko, which chronicles her post-Soviet childhood years in a depressing town where she still has many living relatives. The very title of the play, Mother Not According to Gorky, is ironic and sarcastic, as Maxim Gorky, the pillar of Soviet drama, created a body of work considered to be an exemplary commentary on pressing social issues.

Since the Russian invasion, the Ukrainian theatre itself has taken a number of decisive steps to speak more actively in the voice of hyper-modern drama. Plays written after February 24 have been performed on various stages. Thus, the play called Cat Stories (original title Refugee Cats), written by Lyudmila Tymoshenko and Maryna Smilyanets and directed by Kateryna Bohdanova, is already on the bill of the Mykolaiv Art Drama Theatre. The play called I, the Norm is currently being staged by Oksana Dmitrieva at the Victor Afanasyev Kharkiv State Puppet Theatre, while the dramatic poem Survivor’s Syndrome by Andriy Bondarenko has been performed at a private theatre in Lutsk bearing the name GaRmYdEr (A Mess). Another local success is the play called VPO (or IDP in the English abbreviation, deciphered as Internally displaced persons), written by Iryna Feofanova, which is currently being staged at the Taras Shevchenko Chernihiv Ukrainian Musical and Drama Theatre.

Overall, dramatic works about demoralised civilians, the hopelessness and meaninglessness of life under occupation and the pain of military losses are now increasingly present in the repertoire of theatres across Ukraine.

Ukraine. War. Texts. Reading in the Kyiv ProEnglish Theatre. Photo: Artem Galkin
The Losses: Some are Recoverable, Some are Not

During the course of the war so far, the Ukrainian theatre has suffered numerous irrecoverable losses, most crucially, the lives of Ukrainian artists – the bright Pasha Li, who died defending Kyiv, Oksana Shvets from the Kyiv Young Theatre, who was killed in a rocket strike on the capital, the dancer of the Kyiv National Opera Oleksandr Shapoval, who was killed in battle on the frontlines of the war, and many others. Other actors, such as Yevhen Nishchuk and Oleksandr Pecherytsia from the Ivan Franko National Drama Theatre, have returned from the front lines of war to perform in plays. As they themselves say, they are emotionally and mentally charged when performing for the Ukrainian public. 

In mid-March 2022, an intensely powerful Russian bomb completely destroyed the Mariupol drama theatre, which had functioned as a living symbol of Ukrainian culture: in recent years, plays staged at the Mariupol theatre were performed in the Ukrainian language. This theatre with its beautiful building was completely annihilated, and is now a pile of ruins on the site where it used to thrive. People who had worked in the Mariupol theatre have either died or been forced to flee, mostly to other parts of the country.

The same fate befell the theatre in Severodonetsk, where a newly constructed playhouse was inaugurated in 2016. Among the theatres in the capital city of Kyiv, the building of the Lukyaniv People’s House, which housed the Kyiv Small Opera House, suffered the greatest damage: as a result of a rocket attack in the morning of March 15, almost all the window panes were broken.

All these acts of violence against Ukrainian theatre are part of a coordinated effort by Russian aggressors to destroy and even erase Ukraine’s creative potential as a nation. The Russian desire to destroy Ukrainian artistic expression can explain why Russians abducted Oleksandr Knyha, a prominent Ukrainian theatre manager who created and headed for many years the International Theatre Festival, Melpomena Tavrii, in Kherson. In early March 2022, he was taken from his home near the city of Kherson by the Russian military, and only recently has been set free in exchange for several Russian soldiers.

Unlike the thousands of human lives lost forever, physical buildings can be restored. Even the completely destroyed theatre in Mariupol can be brought back to life, along with the playhouse of the Severodonetsk theatre, where the displaced Luhansk Musical Drama Theatre had been performing in the renovated complex since 2016. There is no doubt that there will be enough strength and zeal to renew the Severodonetsk festival SvitOglyad (Worldview) and resume, in a full pre-war scale, the grandiose Melpomena Tavrii in Kherson.

Changes in the Repertory

In the immediate aftermath of the Russian invasion, works by authors from the aggressor country have been disappearing from local theatrical productions. One Kyiv theatre had to remove a third of all the authors that usually occupied a privileged position there. Perhaps most remarkably in this regard, Tchaikovsky’s ballets and operas are no longer on the bill of our musical theatres, so Ukrainians will now celebrate the New Year without seeing a performance of The Nutcracker.

The repertory revision that has swept through theatres in Ukraine is especially evident in the case of Russian-language theatre, for example the Lesya Ukrainka National Theatre: before February 24, 2022, this theatre had staged only three Ukrainian-language performances. The Kyiv Theatre on Pechersk, which featured performances primarily in Russian, removed from its current repertoire plays based on the texts of Russian authors such as Chekhov, Dostoevsky, Pushkin and Pelevin.

I, War and a Plastic Grenade. Kyiv Theatre on Pechersk. Photo: Solomiya Kozolup

In their place, the theatre premiered Nina Zakhozhenko’s play I, War and a Plastic Grenade. This play, directed by Oleksandr Kryzhanovskyi and Ihor Rubashkin, depicts, in six episodes, how people live through the war while suffering from many unhealed wounds. The performance also shows how traumas of war enable authentic acting, with each scene proving more painful than the previous. Throughout the play, the focus is on separation, loss, despair and fear, yet each of the scenes also helps the viewer to envision the future. Because most people in Ukraine believe in themselves, in their country, in victory, and will not be stopped by the enemy’s armoured vehicle, there is a naive but firm conviction that the current forms of violence and barbarity used by the invaders will not prevail.

I, War and a Plastic Grenade. Kyiv Theatre on Pechersk. Photo: Solomiya Kozolup

In another example, a performance called Contrary to was staged by Anton Mezhenin in a Dnipro Drama and Comedy Theatre that also used to be completely Russian-speaking. In this work, Kharkiv playwright Yulita Ran combined excerpts from the plays Planting Apple Trees by Iryna Harets, Russian Militar by Ihor Bilyc, Refugee Cats by Lyudmila Tymoshenko and Maryna Smilyanets and I, the Norm by Nina Zakhozhenko. The director of the performance resorted to sublime symbolisation of the realities of war through movement, colours, silhouettes, light, individual rhythmic scenes and the stylistics of archaic and folklore rituals.

Contrary to. Dnipro Drama and Comedy Theatre. Photo: Oleksandra Kovalchuk

Elsewhere, Kyiv director Andriy Bilous invented a worthy replacement for the fairy tales of the Soviet era, staging Tsap-Ka-Tsap by Iryna Malolita in the Young Theatre. This performance, based on a Ukrainian folk story and presented in the form of a parody, shows how the impudent Nibbly-Quibbly the Goat is being chased out of the hut belonging to a defenceless Bunny by a brave creature named Cancer, the latter dressed in the pixel-dotted uniform that is used today by soldiers of the Ukrainian army.

Contrary to. Dnipro Drama and Comedy Theatre. Photo: Oleksandra Kovalchuk

Reflecting another noteworthy new trend, playwrights have also begun to compose documentary performances using firsthand memories of key participants in crucial events, Facebook posts and journalistic interviews. This technique of creating compelling testimonial performances was first attempted in Ukrainian theatres in 2014, and has now been successfully implemented.

Tsap-Ka-Tsap. Kyiv Young Theatre. Photo: Sonieta Sanina

Displaced theatre professionals from Mariupol and Kherson have already presented their performances in many other Ukrainian cities and towns. The documentary Mariupol Drama, directed by Yevhen Tyschuk, has been performed by former Mariupol-based actors who settled in Uzhgorod, while other artists from Mariupol staged the play Faces of the Colour of War by Oleksiy Hnatyuk. Director Yevhen Reznichenko and the cast of artists from the Mykola Kulish Kherson Ukrainian Musical and Drama Theatre, all of whom escaped Russian occupation, have prepared and staged the documentary play You Can (Not) Stay… which iscurrently showing in the capital at the Lesya Ukrainka National Theatre.

Tsap-Ka-Tsap. Kyiv Young Theatre. Photo: Sonieta Sanina

Having recovered from the horrors of the months-long siege, the Chernihiv Regional Youth Theatre released its testimony of survival in the form of a performance called Body What? Diary, directed by Roman Khudyashov. The Varta theatre in Lviv, recreated during the war by Kharkiv resident Artem Vusyk, staged a post-documentary play featuring women’s voices with the self-explanatory title She is War, directed by Kostiantyn Vasyukov.

Stories embedded in the latter performance relate the common experience of numerous citizens from cities across Ukraine, so that overlapping themes and imagery begin to emerge. Sometimes the performances relay the experience of colleagues through a sequence of videos; other times, they depict authentic experience with non-theatrical interventions, such as the video narration of the Mariupol artist Dina Chmyzh, which evokes trust, emotion and empathy from the audience.

However, authentic documentary performances still require skillful acting and nuanced direction. Sketch-like formats of theatrical readings of contemporary Ukrainian dramas have already been transformed into full-fledged performances that feature competent acting and successful directorial decisions. Among the most successful are the recent premieres of the Ivan Franko National Drama Theatre, all of which took place in the summer of 2022.

Caligula. Ivan Franko National Drama Theatre. Photo: Julia Weber

The well-known play, Caligula, by Albert Camus, staged at the Ivan Franko National Drama Theatre by Ivan Uryvskyi, does not directly address the question of the war in Ukraine. But the face of tyranny is skillfully presented as the play shows how despots use intimidation against weak people who are incapable of resistance. In essence, the performance presents a portrait of modern Russia, with a brutal leader at the helm and the subjects who obey at the tow.

Caligula. Ivan Franko National Drama Theatre. Photo: Julia Weber
What Next?

The war has clearly deprived the Ukrainian theatre of comfort, security and financial stability. Generous and permanent state subsidies have disappeared and are unlikely to reappear, while theatre buildings have ceased to be a cosy home. However, most of theatres in the capital Kyiv and practically all theatres in the western city of Lviv have now resumed functioning, with regular theatrical performances offered in such big cities as Dnipro and others in the central Ukraine. The traditional theatre festival September Gems was held in the town of Kropyvnytskyi, the homeland of such legendary Ukrainian actors, playwrights and luminaries of the national theatre as Ivan Karpenko-Karyi, Mykola Sadovskyi and Panas Saksahanskyi.

The tragedy of the war has also been an impetus for the Ukrainian theatre to move beyond local settings and connect with the international community. Numerous theatre collectives have been actively touring abroad and participating in numerous festivals. The Kharkiv National Opera Theatre successfully performed in the Baltic and Central European countries for several months. In spite of the trauma of war which permeates the entire country, the national opera houses from Lviv and Odesa have prepared and implemented well received international projects, which include Borys Lyatoshinsky’s opera The Golden Hoop in a concert version at EuroVision. 

The same theatres have also actively promoted modern Ukrainian academic music. Throughout the autumn of 2022 and now on their home stages, theatre professionals have presented works of contemporary composers such as Katerina, based on Taras Shevchenko’s eponymous poem, by Oleksandr Rodin, and Terrible Revenge, based on Mykola Gogol’s novel of the same name, by Yevhen Stankovych.

Crucially, Ukrainian creative teams are now perceived as equals in Europe: a play staged by Ukrainian director Stas Zhyrkov is currently on the bill of Berlin’s Schaubühne , and the prestigious Avignon festival has set up a special Ukrainian pavilion. Numerous readings of Ukrainian plays have taken place in Germany, Great Britain, Poland, Romania and Slovakia over recent months, with many Ukrainian actors now regularly appearing on the Polish stage.

On the whole, the Ukrainian theatre is definitely very much alive and engaged in a marathon for survival. Performances in basements, documentary drama-confessions and long tours abroad reflect the persistence and imagination of theatre collectives, groups, and individual artists that have remained in their professions and have continued working, inspite of the everyday realities of war.

Today, the National Union of Theatre Artists of Ukraine hopes to reinstitute the Ukrainian Theatre Festival and Award GRA (Great Real Art), which was suspended due to the war. The team of experts have returned to work and are currently reviewing video versions of performances, submitted by theatres as applications even before the full-scale Russian invasion was launched. 

Ukrainians performance an the Avignon festival. Photo: Victor Ruban

Most likely, however, the next Festival and Award GRA will include premieres not only from the year of peace, 2021, but also from the year of war, 2022. Obviously, the so-called theatrical documentaries will occupy a special place in the festival’s entry list, as they provide clear evidence of the horrors of the Russian-Ukrainian war. But it is also obvious that documentary-based performances, which are as painful in their emotional content as fresh wounds, will have to compete for the viewer’s attention with many interesting fictional theatrical works that appeared in the fall of 2022, despite the ongoing orchestrated terrorism unleashed on Ukraine by the aggressor country.

Among the most profound are works such as The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui, directed by Dmytro Bogomazov, Oedipus Rex, by David Petrosyan, The Granary, by Maksym Golenko, as well as the opera of memory Genesis by Roman Hryhoriv and Illia Razumeiko. In essence, they focus on the country’s tragic past and present while looking forward to a peaceful future, which the majority of Ukrainians see as prosperous for the nation as well as for the entire European community. 

*Professor Hanna Veselovska is a theatre critic and scholar from Ukraine. She is the head of the Department of the Modern Art Research Institute (National Academy of Arts of Ukraine). Her research and publication interests include modern theatre theory, Ukrainian theatrical avant-garde. She also teaches and writes extensively on the history and present-day of the Ukrainian theatre. Among her recent books (all in Ukrainian) are The Twelve Productions by Les’ Kurbas (2005), The Theatrical Intersections in Kyiv: 1900-1910s. Kyiv’s Theatrical Modernism (2006), Ukrainian Theatrical Avant-garde (2010), Modern Theatrical Arts (2014), Maria Zankovetska National Academy Ukrainian Drama Theatre. Time and Fates (1917–1944). Part 1 (2016), Theatre of Mykola Sadovskyj (1907–1920) (2018), and More than a Theatre: Ivan Franko National Theatre (2001–2012) (2019).

Copyright © 2022 Hanna Veselovska
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