‘Bunker Cabaret’ by Hooligan Art Community, July 2023
25th July 2023
Bunker Cabaret, Ovada arts centre, Oxford, 09-07-2023
I caught Hooligan Art Community’s Bunker Cabaret on the final day of its run in Oxford, on July 9th. The grim milestone of 500 days since the Russian invasion of Ukraine had been reached a few days earlier. The news, as I write this a few weekends later, is of a renewed, senseless onslaught on Odesa, wrecking the orthodox Cathedral and leaving a dismal toll of casualties. On the madness goes.
You could represent the horror via conceptual art – an endlessly filling tank of ‘blood’, say. It reached a point early on, it seems, of being indescribable. Yet Bunker Cabaret attempts, in a form of calculated, trenchant semi-articulacy, to sum up a situation which, while much covered, and reported on, still seems under-discussed in the public arena – in the summer, especially, our country drowsing through it all.
What can a modest piece of ‘fringe’ theatre achieve? Devised last year, Bunker Cabaret is robustly fortified by understanding the limits of its scope; in that understanding lies its strength, its disproportionate impact. It attempts to evoke the experience of war, what it feels like – in the midst of youth, and the trappings of modern civilisation – to grapple with the shocking intrusion of an existential threat to self, and society. It counters the wrecking-ball of the aggressor with the soft-power of life-affirming song, dance, ensemble. But it also wrestles with the value of this expression. Who is this for? How on earth, really, to respond?
The tentative, makeshift quality of the work, its under-fundedness and open-endedness, is communicated not least in the actual venue it has pitched up in. Peter Cant, the show’s British director, believes beggars can be choosy – not for the Hooligans anywhere too well-heeled, or blasé bourgeois. The space itself – in this case the rundown-feeling, and thus spirit-lifting, Ovada arts centre (tucked almost magically out of sight of one of the city’s most boring through-routes) – can jolt us towards a world where, perhaps, the power doesn’t always come on, the cold bites in winter, and waifs and refugees might hunker, or bunker, down.
The lighting isn’t strung sophisticatedly on high, but splayed out on the barren floor – a trail of fairy-lights, like a memory of childhood, counterpointed later by flashlights in the dark, that point where innocent adventure meets nightmare. In such rudimentary gestures alone lies something radical, and as we lean forward in our uncomfortable seats, welcome but not too indulged, the continual sense is of something strange happening at once very close to us, and also far away.
The aesthetic is stripped back, the company thrown back on the bare essentials of their presence, their stamina, their troubadour spirit. The two men – lads, you could them, boys even – Sam Kyslyi and Danylo Shramenko are athletic, muscular, and fighting age, yet their faces carry a fresh-faced vulnerability. Kyslyi begins by limbering up to the sound of “Mr Bojangles”, collapsing the boundaries between warm-up and show commencement – half fighting an invisible enemy in some imaginary boxing ring, yet also intimating the sweat and breathy abandon of disco nights, too; solemn, balletic, playful, vigorously alone.
That quality of play carries into a subsequent sequence in which these two displaced Ukrainians casually vocalise the causal sounds of their national trauma, the rat-a-tat-tat of gunfire, the whizz and whoosh of shells and bang of bombs. This was, for Europe post the Second World War, a harmless school-boy lark; it’s almost comical here, but that’s undercut by its protracted intentness.
Insistently tapping stones against hard surfaces, Shramenko gives us a potted and inoffensively patriotic guide to Ukraine – impersonal and encyclopaedic. Kyslyi later intones a personal resume of his shaken journey home to Kharkiv amid the outbreak of hostilities, the first of the cast’s brief spoken testimonies, while the other two stomp-dance in balaclavas, swinging torchlights with an eloquent ferocity of a sort that you rarely – incredibly – see on the British stage.
Shramenko and Kyslyi form a kind of double-act: comrades in arms, hugging, holding, back-slapping, and also swinging, arms raised, fists clenched, into battle mode, drilled like soldiers, despite their informal sportswear. The movement is the message – one moment the world can be frivolous, the next the bloke next door is moving in step with the dread march of the times. The hour is rife with machismo, but Mirra Zhuchkova – belatedly taking centre-stage – ambushes us with the simplest sequence, a seemingly improvised round of physical tableaux arising in response to the statement, “I feel something like this…”. She’s variously defiant, plaintive, parodically and desperately grasping at life, wretchedly and insistently reaching out to us, with her bare hands, for help.
As a trio, they are at their most satirical when they inhabit the personae of putatively blameless Russians, singing a sardonic, seductively catchy cabaret number that has a whisper of Weill and Weimar about it (“I’m just a victim of the regime, nothing depends on me…”). If the enemy shrugs off responsibility, what about us? At the end, in a painstaking round of testing our human responses, Zhuchkova moves along the rows of spectators, holding a cardboard sign with the word ‘love’ scrawled on it, as though she’s begging for the loose change of affection.
Some clasp her hands, others embrace her, some sit in their seats, others gladly rise. So little is asked of us, and so much have they given, that as much as warmth and empathy floods the space, so too does a quiet shame. They’re finished with this show, apparently – because they need to catch up creatively with 2023, and its accumulation of sorrows. It would be nice if the show had a few further stop-offs, all the same. We’ve been lucky to have them among us; this is powerful, urgent, necessary theatre. I’m not convinced the ‘theatre sector’ as a whole really understood how lucky, but some got it, and we should be hugely grateful to them: Bunker Cabaret was able to tour the UK thanks to the commitment of small organisations, independent producers and local communities who responded quickly to the company’s needs. Hooligan Art Community co-produced the UK tour of Bunker Cabaret with Mahogany Opera in collaboration with Impossible Producing and Andrea Ferran. Bravo to them.