‘Our destroyed theatre’s heart still beats’: Mariupol’s actors return to the stage, two years on | Ukraine

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When the bombs hit the Mariupol Drama theatre, Vira Lebedynska did not hear a boom or a blast. From the recording studio in the theatre’s basement, where she was sheltering along with a few other theatre employees, the sensation was more like a vacuum.

“There was a whoosh, and a feeling that the air was being sucked out of the room,” she recalled. A few seconds earlier, her cat Gabriel had suddenly tensed, perhaps sensing the sound of a plane overhead. Then there was chaos: shouting, screaming, panicking.

Vira Lebedynska. Photograph: Kasia Stręk/The Guardian

The 65-year-old actor and vocal trainer was one of about 20 theatre employees among the more than 1,000 people sheltering in the theatre as the Russian army laid siege to Mariupol in March 2022.

The strike, believed to have been carried out with two 500kg bombs dropped from a Russian aircraft, came despite widespread knowledge that it was the biggest civilian shelter in the city. Estimates on the number of dead in the strike vary wildly, from “at least 15” (Human Rights Watch) to 600 (the Associated Press).

The bombed theatre in the southern port city of Mariupol, Ukraine. Photograph: Pavel Klimov/Reuters

On Saturday, the second anniversary of the strike, occupied Mariupol will be voting in Russia’s presidential election, a tightly controlled spectacle designed to give Vladimir Putin six more years in office. Meanwhile in Kyiv, Lebedynska will perform in Mariupol Drama, a play based on the memories of four actors who were sheltering inside the theatre, all of whom speak about their own experiences from the stage.

The four are among a small group of actors and staff from the theatre who have resurrected the troupe in Uzhhorod, in the far west of Ukraine. Performances take place in the vast, boxy auditorium of the city’s main theatre, which has offered up its stage for the Mariupol troupe. There are also occasional tours; Saturday’s performance will be the Kyiv premiere of Mariupol Drama. Props are minimal while costumes have been sewn from scratch or bought in local secondhand shops, but the spirit and sense of duty is high.

“The body of our theatre has been destroyed, but the heart still beats here in Uzhhorod,” said Hennadiy Dybovskiy, the theatre’s recently appointed 63-year-old director, who is originally from Donetsk.

In Mariupol Drama, each of the actors brings a real artefact on to the stage that reminds them of their time sheltering in the theatre. For Lebedynska, it is cloakroom tag number 392; staff of the theatre wore the tags around their necks to identify themselves to others who might need help finding their way around. For 24-year-old Dmytro Murantsev, it’s the one-piece Spider-Man pyjama suit that he wore throughout the siege, as it was his warmest item of clothing.

Ihor Kytrysh and Olena Bila. Photograph: Kasia Stręk/The Guardian

Also on stage in the play are Ihor Kytrysh, 43, and his wife, Olena Bila, 42 who have both acted at the Mariupol theatre for more than two decades. They left the theatre the day before the explosion, risking a drive across the frontline to get out of the city.

They feel grateful they made it out, with their son, but like most people from Mariupol, they feel a sharp sense of loss for everything they left behind. They had saved for two decades to buy their own apartment, had bought it in the months before the war and had just finished the renovations. They never got the chance to move in.

For them, one of the most disturbing memories is the sense of the erosion of authority and societal norms at the beginning of the siege. “We could see this moment of normal human relations breaking down, this point where people’s self-preservation instincts kick in and some part of the population just began looting and panicking. We’ve played roles in plays before about this kind of social disintegration, but nothing prepares you for seeing it in real life,” said Bila.

Lebedynska said she ignored her son’s pleas to leave Mariupol in the buildup to the war because she did not think full-scale war was possible. When the hostilities started, she took a rucksack of important possessions and Gabriel the cat, and made her way to the theatre. She and a few other theatre colleagues set up camp in the recording studio in the basement, which had a portrait of Mozart on the wall and a sofa that could be used to sleep on.

Actors from Mariupol theatre and new recruits of the renewed theatre, now in Uzhorod, rehearse for a piece called Poets Lived Here, depicting how lives have been changed by the war. Photograph: Kasia Stręk/The Guardian

“There weren’t that many people at first, but then someone opened the theatre doors and people started streaming in. They had heard there would be an organised evacuation from the theatre, but there was no evacuation so in the end everyone stayed there,” she recalled.

People cooked food on open fires outside, and carried various sets and props from the storerooms to sleep on. On occasion, some people tried to leave and drive out of Mariupol, but they often came back some hours later, saying they had been shot at.

Lebedynska does not remember the aftermath of the strike clearly, with just a few searing snapshots left in her mind: parents slapping the face of a young girl, trying to revive her; people stumbling into the street, bloodied. Gabriel, the cat, had gone missing. She had no time to search for him.

She walked for two hours through the ruined city, in a dressing gown, before stopping to stay the night in an apartment on the edge of Mariupol with the windows blown out. Her onward journey was an odyssey of extreme stress, discomfort and checkpoints.

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It can feel strange playing with a skeleton troupe to a mostly empty auditorium, in a theatre a thousand miles from Mariupol in the opposite corner of Ukraine. But Dybovskiy said it was an important act of defiance to keep going. “This is the only professional collective that is flying the flag of Donetsk region. We won’t let the Russian Orcs appropriate our Donetsk theatre traditions,” he said.

Such talk masks a tricky reality, however. Of nearly 200 theatre employees before the war, only about 50 have left Mariupol, joining various Ukrainian theatres or moving abroad. The rest have stayed behind and some joined a new theatre established by Russian occupation authorities, named the Mariupol Republican Order of the Badge of Honour Russian Drama Theatre.

Hennadiy Dybovskiy was named a new director of the Mariupol theatre, which now works and plays on in the building of the Zakarpattia Regional Music and Drama theatre in Uzhorod. Photograph: Kasia Stręk/The Guardian

Kytrysh and Bila said they were shocked by how many of their former colleagues made that decision. “The war showed who is who. There were people who left but then went back; there are people who we thought for sure would leave, and in the end they went to work for the Russians,” said Kytrysh.

The former director of the theatre, Volodymyr Kozhevnikov, lost several close relatives during the siege and told colleagues he stayed behind because he wanted to bury them. He now serves as the head of the musical department of the new theatre, which plays in a temporary hall in Mariupol because the original theatre building was destroyed beyond repair in the strike.

The newly Russianised troupe has already been on several tours to Russian regions, and Moscow has sent in actors and directors to work in occupied Ukrainian territory. The theatre frequently takes part in “patriotic” concerts devoted to Russian national holidays and its orchestra is called on to play military marches.

Moscow-based theatre director Nika Kosenkova recently directed Alexander Pushkin’s Feast in the Time of Plague, a short play about grotesque celebrations during a time of death and illness, apparently an unironic choice. Footage broadcast on local television showed her explaining to the actors that “the most important thing is to understand Pushkin’s text and his intonation … to speak properly and be educated people,” before parodying the sound of a Ukrainian accent in Russian as an example of how not to speak.

Lebedynska said that in the months after she had fled to Ukraine-controlled territory, she still had some contact by telephone with fellow actors who had stayed. “I think a lot of them had simply been waiting for the ‘Russian world’ to come. People were telling me the theatre was blown up from the inside. I was telling them: ‘I’m not going to argue with you, but just think about what you’re saying,’” she said.

Dmytro Murantsev. Photograph: Kasia Stręk/The Guardian

Murantsev said he thought these views were more of a coping mechanism, for people who could not bear to leave their home town. “I don’t think there were many super pro-Russian people there, I think they just feel ‘outside politics’ and want to stay quiet,” he said.

Those in Uzhhorod wonder if they will ever be able to go back home, and are left with both the horrible memories of the siege and a sense of longing for a place that no longer exists.

“Time hasn’t healed me, though I at least feel a bit more distanced from it. But I still wake up in the night with unbearable panic attacks. This all stays with you, inside you” said Lebedynska.

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