Alex Borovenskiy (Kyiv Mar 2022)

10th March 2023

DC: Why did you decide to specialise in English theatre particularly? AB: I’ve always been amazed by the language. I love the economic use of words. I love the melody of it. My first diploma was as teacher of English. I loved languages first and then I loved theatre. When I was about 30 I started as an actor and there was no question what kind of theatre I wanted to do. I love Shakespeare. If you say in Ukraine “I’m doing theatre in English” they say “That’s Shakespeare”. But I say “No, there are many other playwrights”. We started in 2014 as a theatre studio and in 2018 we achieved the status of a professional theatre. DC How proactive have theatres from the English-speaking world been in helping you during this time? AB: I would say that the response of the English-speaking theatre world has been quick and on a general scale it has been big. Never before has a war caused such an immediate response from the theatrical world. Usually theatres work in retrospect – even if you write a play, then you start rehearsing it, it can take half a year. But I’ve seen responses from Canada, US, UK, lots of responses from Europe, partly because there has been a huge wave of Ukrainian refugees. I know of projects in about 10 countries originated by Ukrainian artists or refugees - performances in Belgium, about Ukrainian teenagers bombed in Kharkhiv, there is a reading of a play by Neda Nezhdana, there are projects in Poland, even in Hungary. Another great initiative in the US is of Ukrainian plays, which have been translated by John Freedman - they do staged readings, which is much faster than a regular production, but [script in hand], not sitting round reading. I would love the scale to be even bigger. I don’t see the minister of culture for Ukraine contacting the minister of culture of Great Britain or the US. These are independent initiatives. I don’t see a general strategy. DC: Were you staging work that reflected the growing crisis from 2014 or did your focus shift suddenly at the moment of invasion? AB: I would say that it has affected every aspect of our being since they took Crimea and annexed Donetsk, Donbas. In 2020, I staged “Forgetting Othello”, based on Shakespeare. That was infused by personal monologues from refugees. I felt that there would be a huge surge of refugees coming. It felt as though it was in the air. Still, we were not talking about the Maidan or Donetsk annexation. We didn’t feel we were ready [to tackle that]. We thought it would take some years, and there were no texts. The change you’re talking about did happen. A full-scale invasion is different. Everyone likes to say that the war started nine years ago; yes, it’s true but it was still very localised. Now we saw the tanks. So the Ukrainian playwrights started writing – and there is a tremendous amount of work. We have this urgent understanding: create art or die. On day five of the invasion we recorded a poem called “Today my heartbeat is uneven”. It was written on the fourth day, The actress who wrote it sent it to us - she was hiding in a bomb shelter under shelling and she couldn’t escape - all she could do was set down the words and send them to us. We couldn’t even have a video call. We immediately recorded it because we were in a better shelter with better internet connections. A lot of people wanted to set down what they felt. Many plays that appeared at the beginning were monodramas - one person putting their thoughts on paper, a way to document the situation and keep sane. From the summer, we got plays of a different nature. DC Looking back over the year, has there been a particular mood – of defiance, despair? AB: I personally didn’t feel despair or defiance at the beginning. I saw despair in some people - when their relatives were killed. We lived on these premises - the theatre became a bomb shelter. There was a lady here who lost a son on March 9th – he was a soldier and was 21. Every day we went through this trauma with her. That was despair. At the same time, I read a lot of Ukrainian plays during those days – and there was an attempt to go deeper into the human experience, to try to understand how people react – lots of detail in terms of physical sensations, smell, vision, even the pulse-blood rate. War is surreal, it’s unthinkable when you see half a human body, and a lot of that got reflected in the first wave of the plays but the second that appeared from the summer also had a lot of humour. That’s something that shapes us – Ukrainians’ ability to react to hard times with humour. You can see on TikTok videos, Ukrainians pulling Russian tanks off the road. I’m premiering a play about Bucha. We know about the atrocities - the murders and tortures that took place in that city near Kiev. But it's about four teenagers and they are singing Beatles’ songs and they enjoy life the day before the invasion. We bring a light heart to it because if we were to take war seriously, we would die. We laugh in the face of war, and this is what I believe Ukrainians can give to the world. A sense of humour and, of course, the president is a comedian. DC The four poems you chose to mark the anniversary of the invasion with, online, have a surreal quality and a cynicism too - a feeling that language can’t sum up the horror, and that goes right back to the 19th century. AB: Poetry gives a different response to plays. Poetry goes to the heart. And the heart is bleeding. We wanted to go chronologically, take the most prominent Ukrainian poets of their generations. Then see what happens. So first comes Taras Shevchenko, he’s like William Shakespeare for Ukrainian literature. He wrote this book of poetry called Kobzar - which is like the Bible in that it’s in every family home. In the 20th century, we have Lina Kostenko – the greatest female poet of the ‘Sixtiers’ generation. She writes about the consequences of the war – we took her reflection on three kids handling a grenade left from WW2, who get blown to pieces. It has a very powerful message that war leaves traces. Then the next was Serhiy Zhadan. I wanted to keep this balance of male/ female. He is the best living poet of Ukraine and I think he should get the Nobel Prize. Then we chose a new poem by Kateryna Kalytko, in which the dead get up and ask for ammunition. So it was all an attempt to analyse the current war. In terms of the video footage – from Irpin…. It was half occupied by Russians, the other by the Ukrainian armed forces – a lot of destruction happened. Even when it got de-mined and stuff, I didn’t go there, initially, I couldn’t face it... It took me half a year. When they filmed this footage in the summer, I went there with the team. Some of the team had post-traumatic syndrome – they had seen piles of bodies during the occupation. The funny thing was that I said we needed to use the destroyed buildings but we couldn’t find any at first because the centre has been restored. The Ukrainians are like ants in putting things back to normal. I was like “What are we going to film?” But then we saw the buildings you see in the video. In these buildings you can still sense the people who lived there - the curtain moving in the wind, the toy on the floor. It’s like a zombie apocalypse. It’s very raw. DC: Is there a sense of wrestling with the value of what you’re doing? AB: What I’m wrestling with on an hour to hour basis is the constant feeling of guilt. I feel very guilty that I’m not in the trenches fighting the Russians. Maybe I’m not brave enough. I’m not enough. That’s what I feel. Some of my best friends are. Some of my actors are. These are the people that I admire the most. To me they are superheroes. My biggest goal this year is to put out a performance about Ukrainian soldiers. Because they are worth talking about and nobody is talking about them. Who are they, what do they feel, what is the gap between the soldier and the civilian, what is the gap when they come back? You’ve all seen the Rambo films – it’s going to be much worse when they come back. I see the gap becoming bigger. In Ukraine, we are putting out performances, mostly about civilian experience. I don’t care anymore. I want to write about the soldiers. DC: Theatre can uphold a civilised facet about humanity, that we can respond not just with violence but with art.. Do you feel that? AB: That’s what keeps me going. The play I’m premiering is my first production in Ukrainian. I’ve staged 12 productions in English before now. It’s “I’m OK” and it is about Bucha. My idea right now is that if you say the word “Bucha” to a Ukrainian they get this thing in their throat – they choke, it has a tremendous impact. You say it and every Ukrainian has tears in their eyes. The idea of the performance is that it will make it easier to talk about. It doesn’t talk about the atrocities. It’s four teenagers, flirting with each other, singing Beatles songs. Everyone is talking about the invasion, “We may not go to school, yay!”. It’s the attitude of Ukraine before the war. I admit that we were careless and we didn’t listen to the world trying to tell us what is going to happen. We are very young and naïve as a nation, and this performance is the story of Ukrainian teenagers growing up quickly. DC: Did you feel on the frontline in Kyiv in the early part of the war? AB: On the first night, February 24th, we were standing on the porch with the actors. Maybe six of us, discussing what we would do. We didn’t have the slightest idea. Then the neighbours started coming down and saying “Is that a bomb shelter?” and we said “No it’s the theatre.. but you can come” and by the night it was packed. There were so many people. I wish I had that many audience, really! There were the old ladies, the kids running around taking the props, the men arranging the beds, everyone was bringing food. Ukrainians are very resourceful. And the first couple of days you didn’t have time to understand what’s happening to the country. You just take in local news, you hear the gunshots, probably they are very close. You think about your own life. On day five we started to discuss our perspective in the theatre - what do we take out of this? One of our guys said: This is history, no matter what happens, we should stay. And we did stay. At that time, we didn’t know if they were going to take Kyiv or not. They were attacking the whole of March, I remember day 7, we started making Molotov cocktails. We googled the recipes. I’m still running on adrenalin. I feel like I have trouble sleeping every night. The war didn’t stop. In those days things were totally disrupted – air sirens all the time, explosions in the city, gunshots. We were staying in a bomb shelter - no street lights, you didn’t know what time of day or night it is. I know people who never woke up, they spent the whole month in hibernation, wrapped in their sleeping bags. When the Russians were moved out, they unwrapped and went out. Some of my friends and I got super-active. I started rehearsals on March 3rd of a new play we decided to put out while being in a bomb shelter. We could rehearse only at night because there are so many people and we had to wait for them to fall asleep – only rehearsing after 11pm or even 1am. Then you got a theatrical adrenaline which took away some of the horror. DC: Is there a feeling, awful as it might be, that the war has created a radical energy? AB: The war opened up what was already in us. I had already done productions with little finance, which meant you had to be creative with your choices. That proved to be a great plus. In this shelter, with 40 different people, with different levels of anxiety, that experience saved us. All of it was preparing us for knowing what to do. DC: What else can you say about the mood at the moment? AB: In terms of the general atmosphere there is much more empathy and sympathy. I saw a lot of men crying. I cry a lot every day, but I wouldn’t call it sadness. I saw grief, despair, people screaming in pain or desperation, but its never lasted long. We simply can’t afford it. There is a lot of humour as a defence mechanism - and there is anger. We are very angry. If I saw a Russian artist there will be a fight, it’s that simple. Kyiv right now is not like Berlin, but it’s quite safe. It’s not the south of Ukraine. Here the chances of being hit by a car are the same as the chance of being struck by a missile. I am having a festival round independence day in Ukraine which is 24th August - we are going to have the 10 days of a Ukrainian fringe – the first fringe festival. My ambition is to make it “Edinburgh number 2”. We have the logistics sorted - we know where you could find a decent hotel, where you could eat and perform. The performances will be in small basements - we will give preference to English-speaking performances – but it’s very open, classic theatre.. cabaret. People who are interested can get in touch. Alex Borovenskiy (Kyiv Mar 2022)

Alex Borovenskiy (Kyiv Mar 2022)

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Dominic Cavendish - Theatre Critic & Journalist

Dominic Cavendish is the lead theatre critic for The Daily Telegraph. He is the founding editor of the audio archive Theatrevoice

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