Bunker Cabaret – Ukrainian theatre from the civilian frontline
12th February 2023
“There was a feeling that people all around me turned from fear to ‘We will win’”
The first anniversary of the Russian invasion of Ukraine affords a rare opportunity to get an indelible theatrical sense of what it feels like to be living in the country at a time of indiscriminate shelling, slaughter, danger and fear. The Kyiv-based Hooligan Art Community are reprising their critically adulated show Bunker Cabaret at London’s Somerset House on February 24th and 25th, with further performances planned for elsewhere in the country as its key members contend with life away from their homeland, and attempt to connect audiences at a profound level with their experiences in ways that go far beyond headlines and sound-bites.
I caught up with two of the performers, Sam Kyslyi and Danylo Shramenko, together with the show’s director and the company’s artistic director Peter Cant (a co-founder with Kyslyi, Shramenko and third performer Mirra Zhuchkova), on a Zoom call on January 7th 2023 to discuss the company’s genesis, ethos and this show, presented in English and billed as an “exploration of love versus totalitarianism, and the personal conflicts of making art in time of war”. Edited transcript of our conversation. Full booking info below.
Dominic Cavendish: Can you explain the genesis of Hooligan Art Community?
Sam Kyslyi: We founded Hooligan Art Community in 2019 but we started to work together from 2016 after meeting Peter. We started to make projects together, to create experimental work. Our first meeting happened just after university – me, Danya, Mirra [Zhuchkova]. We met Peter at the Gogolfest residency. And after that we started to work together. During our time together, I shared with Peter a part of my life, which was that I was a teenage football hooligan. He said: “That’s interesting, let’s do something”. 2019 was the year we found a way to tell that story, and how to share ideas that emerged from the story…. questions about masculinity and identity. After that, we realised that when I told my story of being a hooligan, people found they had the same issues when they were teenagers. We decided that all of us are hooligans! So, in 2019, we realised that we are ‘art hooligans’. We are always doing something “unacceptable” for ourselves and audiences. And we decided to found the company with participants we were friends with.
DC: Peter, from your side, how did these relationships emerge?
Peter Cant: I’m a decade older than the main actors of the company. I’d had 10 years searching for the kind of theatre I wanted to make. I travelled a lot, and collaborated with a lot of artists and musicians. I ended up at Gogolfest in Kyiv. The [Ukrainian] cultural and intellectual life is one thing the empire of Russia has always targeted, attacked, vandalised – murdering artists, writers and theatre companies throughout the last century. I understood that in this moment after the revolution, with all these artists born in independent Ukraine, there was a developing culture. I realised there was a space for people to work together. They had invited young directors to Gogolfest – it was one of the most important meeting-points, it focuses a lot on independent culture. We were given 10 days to make something together – everyone could work in whatever space they wanted in this big former old factory. It was all the things I was missing from the British theatre scene. I could work with 20 actors, endless space: we created a party at the end of the world. It was called The World Doesn’t End. It was extraordinary to see these young individuals coming through university, how passionate they were, how curious they were. They were looking for more than they were being taught. They knew more about European directors than anyone I knew in the UK and even my own knowledge of what was happening – having not seen any of it – they had watched it on YouTube. Their knowledge of music was extraordinary.
There was a particular group – Danya, Sam ..- their group had been through university but what I came to understand was that the whole scene in Kyiv had the same thing. So, they would tell their friends who were photographers or film-makers, and those people would come and document the work to the highest level. It was extraordinary. These young people made wonderful things. A friend of Sam who’s a fashion designer saw us working on this piece about his hooligan years – and in five days he dressed the whole piece immaculately. It was possible to do things there, to do things fast and have a level of commitment. It came together around that show, which we did in the centre of Kyiv at Mystetskyi Arsenal. I knew we had to establish the rules and try to build the company together. I understood that they were international artists – and they needed some international space, because within the independent culture of Ukraine it was a challenge to secure funding. These artists’ taste and imagination is so surreal and funny, it extends outside of Ukraine, it has something to say beyond the country.
DC: Was there a feeling of it being a transient moment or unstable moment even then in 2019 ? Was there always a backdrop of military threat, a sense perhaps there wasn’t necessarily going to be lots of time?
Danylo Shramenko: We had the war for eight years already. When I was young, at university, it was somewhere far away, the war. After Maidan we had an explosion in Ukraine in business, culture, of everything. But the war was all the time there. We knew people’s stories – then, from the time I met Peter, we knew that we would have this big war. I travelled the Azov area in 2020. I wanted to explore it. Of course last year it was very clear for me it would happen. We did the last project with Peter in December 2021, and I knew the war would happen. But the war wasn’t stopping people from creating projects.
Peter Cant: I met the guys in 2016. In 2017 the visa border got brought down between the EU and Ukraine. Our research was how do we be together, what is collectivity? In 2017, there was this shift, where we could travel more freely. I think the building sense was that Danya and Sam’s generation were looking in a European direction, in terms of values, but there were certainly other positions in the country – there was a mix of people more pro Russia than pro Europe. But we found that by devising and researching together, we would not look at these questions directly, it would always be indirect. That was a way a lot of information came into the piece. What is interesting – looking back – because we made Hooligan, then Radiation, based on the moment of the Chernobyl catastrophe – looking back at the documentation, it’s all about the war.
Danylo Shramenko: A lot of my friends said “I don’t believe it will happen”, because every few years Russia would put troops on the border. But for me personally I knew that this time it would happen. I talked to Peter. It was clear that from December. I said ‘Something will happen’…
Peter Cant: We hadn’t seen each other during the pandemic. Danya encouraged us to get together to make the performance of the show we had researched in May 2021. We used the gap in December 2021 with some urgency. Danya found us an old cloth factory in the Podil district of Kyiv. That was freezing cold. We were working right on the edge… The show was an expression of that. That show, Radiation, was with Danya and Mirra, along with Olesia Onykiienko making a live electronic score, and an amazing lighting design by Natalka Perchyshena, with all these broken lights on the floor, like an abandoned room in a club. I couldn’t logically know that would be the last time we would be there. But the work had a different quality. The way that everyone performed that winter in Kyiv was a little bit like Artaud describes: signalling through the fires. We played to small local audiences, it was like playing on the biggest stages… There was always an extraordinary sense of freedom, we never had the sense that we were restricted.
Danylo Shramenko: In the Ukrainian scene, artists are free. Artists, writers and the media can criticise the government openly, and people can say what they want and not be punished. Even now.
Peter Cant: The underground nature of our work was that we actually genuinely found space that we wanted to research. The process we built together was to go into these factories or old hotel buildings, abandoned spaces. It was about how we could create dramaturgy, with the natural light, with the authentic physical history of each space. In Kyiv, before 24th February 2022, we really could develop our art in those years. Because everyone would find a way to make stuff, there was no barrier. If we needed to, we as a group we can do all the lighting – Danya’s granny can do the cooking, friends would come in and help… it was a powerful situation, we weren’t dependent on anyone. We made our first show as a company – Hooligan – for something like 500 quid in 2019. It was 20 people in a huge space, we had a 16-day residency. We were free in ways that I hadn’t experienced before – it was an extraordinary time.
DC: Turning to the war, and the invasion, there were rocket/missile attacks on civilian areas. We were all appalled by that. You were at the epicentre. When the missiles were landing, how often were you forced into shelters?
Sam Kyslyi: When Danya was saying he was expecting the war, actually, right until the end, I was thinking it was not going to happen. That it was a provocation. You could feel that atmosphere in the last week – there was more and more tension. When it happened, I was completely in shock. I went to my hometown, Kharkiv, because when the invasion started, I was on the western part of Ukraine. The first day I went to my hometown through Kyiv then to Kharkiv on the bus, then the train. It was crazy. On the streets a lot of people were panicking. When I got to my place, they tried to surround our city. And our army was protecting the city as much as it could. There were a lot of explosions and rockets flying about the house. For me, it was shocking. I was in my house with my parents – the place where I grew up. I saw my city being destroyed on TV. I saw how all these landscapes which had looked quiet and peaceful [had] suddenly become dangerous, and full of death. Death was very close. It was very tough. In the basement, we created a kind of bunker – we were hiding there. Every time there was a siren, we went with my parents in this basement. In the beginning I couldn’t believe it. It took a couple of days – ‘it’s a nightmare’, ‘it’s a dream’. I didn’t want to believe it was happening. But I accepted it. In the first week, it was a real horror, and then after one week news started to come about my former Hooligan friends, the news came in that some of them had died, because they were protecting the city. They took guns – the first days it was very random. They were just giving weapons on the street to people. It was very crazy.
DC: The narrative then was that in a matter of days the Russians would take control. Was there a period when you were preparing for defeat?
Sam Kyslyi: For me, it was impressive during this time. On the first day, it was total chaos. When they started to go from all sides, and come very close to Kyiv with all this death. I was thinking ‘oh my God’, I was thinking ‘We have no chance, it’s like the second army of the world’. What was very incredible and impressive was that our media, our president – from the first day they started to go on the TV, and said ‘We are fighting, we are not giving up, we are not panicking, we are strong, we will win’. It was so incredible. The first day was scary, the second day it was unclear, then after three or four days there was a feeling that people all around me turned from fear to ‘We will win’. It felt like the whole nation turned to this condition, ‘We are fighting, we are not giving up’. In the beginning there was no help from Europe. We believed in our army from the first day. We changed our mind to the idea that we will fight and not give up.
Danylo Shramenko: I was in Kyiv from the first day. Of course in the night from 23-24th Feb, I saw on the Telegram channel that troops were coming from Belarus. I went on the street, because I wanted to go to the bank machine, take some cash. In the morning, I didn’t panic. I knew that war had started. I was very practical. I organised my granny and my mother. They stayed in Kyiv and I stayed and helped, and tried to be a volunteer for the first three to four weeks. I went into a bomb shelter for the first four days. Then I found, near my house, some parking underground. It was a big space. It was unclear what was happening. In Kyiv, I heard they were fighting with rifles. It was very close, but somehow there wasn’t fear. In Kyiv I felt that the people were united. Some people left Kyiv and Ukraine, to go to a safe place. But I wasn’t influenced by the Russian propaganda. There was a lot of adrenalin. It was a time when you felt you were free from everything. You know that you have only ‘people’ – everyone understands the real value of life. I went to the shelter with my bag. You understood what is ‘real’ in life.
DC: Was there a sense of connection with the Second World War, a sense of proximity to the past?
Danylo Shramenko: Maybe you could compare it with Second World War but who knows what will happen? We Ukrainians know we will take back our territory. In Kyiv now you can go to restaurants. They don’t allow much in the night but people still want a life. When it was the Second World War, it was maybe everywhere..
Sam Kyslyi: From my perspective, that was a moment when I was sitting in a shelter with my family, I was thinking about people in the Second World War, and that it was probably kind of the same. I was asking myself what people felt in this moment in the Second World War, what were they thinking about, they were probably thinking the same as me. It felt like the same time again. Also, an important moment for me – after the full invasion started, there was no [longer any] question about who the Russians are. For me, this kind of historical context was present again. I didn’t realise for a long time the real attitude of Russia and the real influence of their propaganda on us and Ukraine. When I was growing up in Kharkiv, from my perspective as a kid, Russia was a friend. But after the full invasion started everything became so clear – all the things they did to us became clear. I realised that they were always our enemy, and always wanted to destroy us. It was like opening your eyes – everything became so present.
DC: Bunker Cabaret – could you explain the genesis of the show?
Peter Cant: We were going to be meeting in May 2022 to do our British Council supported showcase – of our two shows, Hooligan and Radiation. We were preparing that right up to the day before the invasion – Danya and I we were still meeting online and planning right up to the last minute . Everyone was saying ‘let’s keep going’. Then finally we realised we were not going to be able to get to Ukraine. First of all, we moved to fund-raising, through our networks in the UK and Germany because I’m based in Berlin. We wanted to get as much money over to the team in Ukraine as possible. Most Ukrainians were fund-raising and volunteering – there was so much work going on. In the first days of the war a couple of female members of the company made it out of Ukraine with their families and the film-maker Liuba [Liubov Sliusareva] came and stayed with us. Her parents were delayed – her father was trying to get the family across the border, men were not allowed to leave.
They managed to get through the border the day after – so we met in Berlin. That was our main focus, helping the team to safety, or supporting them with money. Then we realised we had this British Council money. Our friends Mahogany Opera, who we’ve worked with before, based in the UK, helped us to talk to the British Council to get that money.. to be able to spend it in Germany. So we could invite more artists to safety, to have somewhere for them to go, to head for. We set up an artistic residency in May in Germany. We knew we wanted to use that money to create a space of safety and see if it’s useful to have creativity at that time, to try to produce some kind of event, which we did with local non-professional refugees [who were based in Halle, Germany].
We worked with the whole team, and also brought in local refugees and German people who wanted to collaborate. We made a totally new version of our show Hooligan but this time with the emphasis on female refugees. We transformed the piece because the boys couldn’t be there. To the boys’ credit we said “We have got the money – can we pay you? Can you be part of this and work remotely?” Thank god they said yes because there was a lot of guilt in Germany about creating new material while the boys couldn’t leave and while other people were at risk and danger, so the fact that they said yes was important… It created a feeling of togetherness, a bridge between Ukraine and the outside. We’d managed to develop an online residency format during the pandemic, which we put to use again. And I wouldn’t have felt comfortable doing that unless Sam and Danya had found this relative place of safety, which was an underground rehearsal space, a makeshift bomb-shelter. The women who came were happy to have contact back to Kyiv. It was an extraordinary moment – the boys were filming themselves every day, making sketches and songs and sending them to us. We were doing the same, working with the local community. Sam would create sketches in character which we would play to the participants in Germany. There was this extraordinary dialogue between those in Kyiv and those outside. It was delightful that some of our company managed to get out of the country and be with us.
Peter Cant: At the start of the war my first thought was that I wouldn’t see any of them again. But then I thought of my grandmother, and how she had survived World War Two, in the army, all of her experiences, and I thought to myself that things are never quite as bad as you expect them to be, and that I would at least see some of my friends again. That was my hope. And so it started. We made this one-off show in Germany. Then, when I heard that men were being allowed to leave for cultural purposes, I realised we had to go into production immediately on the next production. The show Bunker Cabaret was created for the necessity of survival, to find a way to bring the guys safely to the UK. And so we went into production on the show at the end of August and into September  – that’s the timeline.
We couldn’t have made Bunker Cabaret without the lessons we learnt as a company of making art during wartime. It meant that when Sam and Danya came they had already taken a huge step about how they performed and about seeing themselves as artists in wartime.
DC: What does the show express, does it encapsulate the experiences you’ve had over the past year?
Danylo Shramenko: I think we can say it represents our personal stories and experiences during the war, and it’s one of the ways of exploring our reflection of this time. But mainly Sam and I, when we were in Kyiv working on this show and sending our material to Peter, the question we asked ourselves was: what do we want to say to Europeans about this war? This question generates all the scenes, because if we created something for Ukrainians it would be extremely different.
Peter Cant: That said [displaced Ukrainian] people really enjoy feeling that the material reflects their experience too.
DC: In a review it says ‘they dance, sing songs, play guitar, with humour charm and directness’ – a real sense that you’ve created art from life and the fear of death. Is it quite difficult for you to have to confront these experiences on stage, or perhaps liberating? Because it is so personal, I wondered what your relationship with material was in performance?
Danylo Shramenko: For me, it was hard during the rehearsal process to develop this material, there were challenges. But when we play it, it is easy, we go through it.
Sam Kyslyi: I would say that actually making art was the only thing that saved me during this war. Because in the beginning I was so terrified and in shock. When the war started I thought: I will never go on the stage, dance or sing or laugh. My feelings were completely paralysed by this experience. There were moments when we started to work on this in a bunker in May, we started to make some improvisations together. I thought: finally I can feel something, finally I can make art. I found that this process helped my soul to survive and helped my feelings come back to life. I found that when I put my life experience, which is very tough, and transformed it into the art on stage, I found a way to free myself from all those crazy, tough emotions. This was the only way for me to survive and feel human and an artist, to transform all the experience into art…
When we started to think what we wanted to speak about, it was quite challenging: how can we speak about war, what kind of language can we use? We realised very fast that actually it’s almost impossible to share all of this experience, to speak about this, or to put an audience in this circumstance. We were trying to find this language, then we found that we can show pictures etc but the main thing, the core of it, it’s about humans confronting themselves with questions about their life and love. Then, I think, we found this way to be on the stage, and to present Ukraine, and speak about war, but first of all to say “We are humans, as you are. We had this horrible experience, I cannot explain to you how you feel when you hear a rocket flying over your house, I cannot share this experience, but I can share with you my thoughts, my feelings, and be present with you -and maybe suddenly you can feel it, behind the words, maybe you can feel it behind what I’m doing”. I found we did this. I feel that every time audience came in, and see it, they got more than we told them, more than we sang or danced, somehow got the whole picture.”
“We want to take over rooms, where artists and audience are on the same level. The performance itself should be a place of encounter between community, artist and audience”
Peter Cant: Our reunion happened in Aldeburgh. Britten Pears Arts and the Red House down there gave us emergency residency. Everyone flew into London, we met in Ipswich. Danya came via Poland. Sam had come through Germany – we all met up at that point and started working. It was so hard, holding it together – it was useful to have the sea to swim in and the walks to go on. Ten days later Newbury’s 101 Outdoor Arts gave us a place in this industrial site, in an old car park. We lived together in these old containers, and we had this big studio space. They were so kind, and they cooked hot-dogs for us, we started to find a way into the material. We became interested in the first songs we’d been singing – the songs we had been singing in Aldeburgh. Music became important in holding the piece together. ‘How should we entertain an audience?’, was the provocative question. We found this way of working with practically nothing. It is a return to the actor’s body as the main element – it’s a rejection of aesthetics, and the amount of money that gets spent, and the enclosed hermetic space of the theatre. We reject that. We want to take over rooms, where artists and audience are on the same level. The performance itself should be a place of encounter between community, artist and audience – that’s always been the area I’ve been most interested in and which we’ve been able to experiment with extensively over the past five years. We are trying to stay true to our artistic impulses.
DC: The idea is to be itinerant across Europe?
Peter Cant: Across Europe. The tour is being booked up now to the end of March. We have interesting offers. We’re trying to find the right places on the road. Somerset House indicates the kind of place, it has a faded decadence, but at the same time you have windows on all sides – so it means it’s the opposite of theatre. Theatres don’t support the gaps in a show, we want the gaps to be as meaningful as the content. We want audiences to feel the void, which is the insanity of war going on while everyday life continues. We will back at Somerset House on 24-25 February to commemorate the anniversary of the full-scale invasion. The audience must complete the narrative for themselves – why have we chosen a room where you can see the buses going by? You have to ask yourself. We also played in a little derelict chapel in Cornwall… you could hear the electricity wiring fizzing, the pub next door. It’s important that art is situated in reality – it’s not a suspension of your day. It’s not ‘sit back’… It’s ‘please make this with us’, that’s what we were always able to do in Ukraine. And that’s what I’m insisting really that we need to do in the UK. We cannot just adapt to doing it in theatre spaces. We want to bring audiences into this particular relation with theatre and the art-form.
It’s what’s missing from the UK. It’s the energy these guys can bring to the UK that I want to shout about. It’s important that this work is not just talking about the war, it’s about what has been missing from our lives, the space to connect and feel something really happening. For some years I’ve talked about the talent in Ukraine, the visa restrictions, the lack of interest in the Ukrainian position, given the influence of Russian soft power. It’s frustrating that now we have to present the company at a time when we are forced to have to talk about something so huge, when they as artists always have something incredible to share with audiences. So it’s not documentary theatre – they tell their stories through the forms they want to make. To express these forms, whether dance or physicality or poetry, is an act against totalitarianism. We insist upon the art we were already starting before and community, love and togetherness is at the heart of the theatre we’re aiming to make.
DC: What are your impressions of the UK?
Sam Kyslyi: When I came to UK I was totally impressed by the support we had from the people, from the beginning in Aldeburgh – on every building there were Ukrainian flags, on buildings and churches. When we started to meet people, everyone was so open and friendly and supportive, it was very touching. I have a feeling that in the UK, people .. feel connected, or maybe we were very lucky. It was impressive, from the beginning and it’s still like this. For me as an artist it’s a great opportunity – I can speak about topics that are important. I feel this responsibility as an artist that I am Ukrainian. The impression people in the UK have about Ukraine it’s about my people, it’s our army, it’s our spirit.. this is of great value for me. I think I can be useful as well, on the arts scene. This war is not only about territory – it’s a war of cultures. At this moment it’s important we have the possibility to speak about Ukraine. I’m grateful to have this responsibility. I want to share our experience with people, I want people mentally and physically to find a way to support my country. If we can find a way through our art for people to support Ukraine I feel very happy. There are so many artists now who have talent and passion, but they don’t have this possibility. I hope we have used it 100 per cent.
Peter Cant: We want to communicate heart to heart with this show. At the moment with information overload every day in the media-scape – it’s what theatre and art can do that’s not just an information dump. We’re not telling stories from Mariupol. They are easy to find, if you want to know what’s really happening. It’s not about documentaries – it’s not coming from a position of irony or distance. It’s daring to be on the edge of all those things, and saying: “This is the feeling”. If we go back to Ukraine, we might be able to play this show but a big word for us has been reconstruction – what would it mean to be part of a moment of reconstruction as a theatre company…
Bunker Cabaret runs at Somerset House Lancaster Rooms, Lancaster Place London WC2R 1LA 24-25 Feb, 19:30 GMT
The tour of BUNKER CABARET takes place as part of the UK/Ukraine Season of Culture, designed jointly by the British Council and the Ukrainian Institute, with additional funding from Paul Hamlyn Foundation. BUNKER CABARET is produced at Somerset House by Andrea Ferran in collaboration with Mahogany Opera and imPOSSIBLE Producing.
Hooligan Art Community screenings as part of Voices of Ukraine at the Courtauld Institute of Art, Lecture Theatre, 2 Vernon Square Campus, Penton Rise London WC1X 9EW 18 Feb, 16.00 – 19.00 GMT comprises: HOOLIGAN: IN THE FIELD (20 mins, 2020) follows three artists as they adapt to the Covid-19 pandemic. Filmed in 2020, the piece is a triptych of personal responses to the freedoms and restrictions encountered during lockdown. 24.RECONSTRUCTION (13 mins, 2022) presents the experiences of five Ukrainian female artists as they adjust to living in Germany after the full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine. RADIATION (40 mins, 2022) is an experimental film exploring the legacy of Chernobyl, inheritance and decay. It was filmed during the pandemic as part of a development residency at Dnipro Centre of Contemporary Culture.