Immersive gig-theatre show Counting Sheep was a smash hit when it debuted in Edinburgh in 2016, winning both a Fringe First and the Amnesty International award. It stunned audiences with its boisterous and vivid depiction of the Ukrainian protests in 2014, which led to countless deaths as the nation felt the effects of (still ongoing) Russian expansionism.
The piece now comes to London to headline the VAULT Festival, with the added twist that a new directorial team of Natalia Kaliada and Nicolai Khalezin from Belarus Free Theatre have come on board to add some extra clout. Which may have begged the age-old question, if it ain't broke, why fix it?
Thankfully for Counting Sheep this isn't a problem – the immersive piece still carries huge heft and power (though loses the fun sheep masks from the Edinburgh run), and for all its alterations and slightly jacked up running time, it is an enthralling depiction of how revolution comes about.
We start on benches, we're fed food, we dance, we drink, we play, we waltz together. As the revels continue projections begin to flicker with newsreel footage, chance visions of Vladimir Putin shifting in and out of focus. All of a sudden we're manning barricades, shifting sandbags and stamping in time to thumping, bassy music. Placards soar overhead, people chant, mobile phones stream the outbursts. It's like everything Nicholas Hytner's Julius Caesar tried to be.
Mark and Marichka Marczyk, who based the show on their real-life experiences on the barricades and are present in the show, never shy away from the cruel irony of protest – that we can feel closest to others when we're in the heat of violence and conflict, where death is only a bullet away. One of the most moving sequences sees a grieving woman wrapping up a fallen lover in a long tablecloth, the same tablecloth that, only an hour before, had been resting on the table where food and vodka were dished out. Community and tragedy hand in deadly hand.
A lot of the 90-minute runtime does, admittedly, involve the audience having to lug parts of Nicolai Hart-Hansen's set to and fro, but it's helped by the punchy, throbbing music provided by the Balaklava Blues group. Josh Pharo's lighting and video, projected onto the two longer walls of the immersive space, provide a non-stop insight into contemporary affairs – shots of the protests, the funerals, the armed separatist groups.
The immersive seats, in the heart of the revolution with the sandbags, riot shields and hardhats, provide far more excitement than the "spectator" seats for bystanders who simply sit and watch the show from the extreme ends of the performance space. You fork out and you get kettled.
But all of that is transcended by the sheer care, heart and genuine emotion that ripples through every scene. After the show, the Marczyks and the rest of the cast walked around and hugged every member of the audience, tight. It was the piece in a nutshell – an embrace, heartfelt, done with genuine care.