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Edinburgh review: Counting Sheep (Summerhall)

This great piece from Toronto-based, Ukraine-born Lemon Bucket Orkestra gets the audience right into the heart of a revolution

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Counting Sheep

In February 2014, protestors set up in Kiev's Maidan Square against a corrupt, pro-Russian president, Viktor Yanukovych. Counting Sheep, by the Toronto-based, Ukraine-born Lemon Bucket Orkestra, re-enacts their revolution. More than that, it readies us for our own, should the situation ever arise.

It starts at a table. Music plays. Food gets dished out. Actors in sheep masks play out a protest: a clutch of clowns against a line of riot police. Beneath their vizors, they wear the same masks. So far, so pat. As tensions escalate, however, the table's pulled apart and smashed into shields. Our benches become barricades and, with nowhere to sit, we're part of the protest.

Big screens overhead play news footage – fireworks fizzing over the Maidan Square crowd, bulldozers pushing back banks of police. It looks terrifying, but the point is that protests look one way from the outside and feel another from within. A food stall's set up, dumplings dished out. There are weddings and there's dancing. Someone pops a hard-hat on your head. Someone else hands you a shield.

Immersive isn't quite right. It's closer to the forum theatre of Augusto Boal. We're spect-actors in a simulation – and it's impossible to lose sight of that. The guns are paper planes. The bricks are foam. They never pretend to be anything else. Still it sweeps us up; our emotions tricked by our actions. Even in this controlled environment, your stomach knots, your adrenaline surges, your body clenches for the fight. It's powerful, play-acting.

Part of a group, you feel yourself committing to its cause. When the barricades burn, you watch from afar and, when performers play dead, you bow your head in respect. Those screens surround you with scenes from Maidan Square. It's incredibly involving.

But this is no mere theme park ride: "Pay your pound; play revolution." It's a primer for protest, even for revolution. In its midst, you get a sense – and yes, only ever a sense – of what the reality might be like. Counting Sheep takes you a small step closer to the thing itself, arming you with the tools you might need; knowledge, experience, perhaps even courage. You've worn a hard-hat, held a wooden shield, learned how to lock them together. You've felt what it is to stand shoulder-to-shoulder: the warmth of bodies packed tight, the safety in numbers. You could do so again if necessary. Forearmed and forewarned. Rehearsed and ready.

And yet, as the final scenes show, nothing prepares you for war – not theatre, not protest. In all the fun, we forget, but we know how this ends – armed separatists, Russian soldiers, the war in Donbass – and yet sometimes, you just have to fight. "The war is not over," a final slide states. Counting Sheep is a galling assertion of what that really means.

Counting Sheep runs at Summerhall until 28th August (except 15th and 22nd)

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