Home News Witches and Cossacks on stage resonate with Ukrainians

Witches and Cossacks on stage resonate with Ukrainians

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Lines for the show snaked through the block, with people waiting up to seven hours to buy tickets at a theater in central Kiev. Video of the performance has attracted millions of views online.

This blockbuster production isn’t a Broadway musical or a series of concerts by a pop star — it’s a play based on the classic 19th-century Ukrainian novel “The Witch of Konotop,” and its tone is anything but optimistic. Consider the opening line: “It’s sad and gloomy.”

Mykhailo Matiukhin, an actor in the show, said it resonated with Ukrainians because it showed “what we are going through right now”.

“Tragedy comes and takes away everything you have, your love and your home,” he said.

The play tells the story of a Cossack leader of a Ukrainian community nearly 400 years ago who seeks to eradicate a witch whom the local townspeople believe is responsible for a drought. The story is set against the backdrop of the military threat from Tsarist Russia – a threat that resonates with Ukrainians today as they watch depressing news from the battlefield every day and prepare at night for missile attacks on their cities from modern Russia.

The play, which is being performed at the Ivan Franko Theatre in Kiev, is particularly appealing to audiences for its sense of impending tragedy, according to director Ivan Uryvsky.

He said many Ukrainians watched the play not to escape the war but to find meaning in their lives.

“It’s hard to overstate the harsh reality that Ukrainians are living in right now, but theatre should feel the mood of the times and the people,” Mr. Urivsky said. “When theatre can do that, drama touches people’s hearts.”

The show’s success also highlights the renewed interest in Ukraine’s cultural heritage, in theatre, literature and art, since Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. That includes the culture of the Cossacks, a semi-nomadic people who inhabit the steppes of southern Ukraine and Russia.

“After the war, there was a new interest in our history and culture,” said Susanna Karpenko, who composed the music for the show. Ms. Karpenko said she was influenced by Ukrainian folk music and hoped to attract audiences eager to learn about their own culture. “Ukraine needs this kind of thing right now,” she said.

During the Soviet era, Russia dominated the territory of what is now Ukraine both politically and culturally, and Ukrainian-language books were largely banned. After the Soviet Union collapsed, Russia continued to expand its cultural influence in Ukraine, purchasing radio and television stations, newspapers, and book publishers.

Ukrainians began to fight back and assert a stronger sense of their own identity, a trend that intensified with Russia’s two invasions of Ukraine (in 2014, into Crimea and eastern Ukraine, and in 2022, against the entire country).

After the invasion, Kiev’s vibrant theater scene all but collapsed, as did many sources of entertainment, as fighting and missile attacks disrupted normal life and millions fled the country.

But Ukrainian theater has bounced back. In 2023, 350 new plays were staged across Ukraine, according to theater critic Serhiy Vynnychenko, founder of an online platform that analyzes theater-related data. That’s double the number of performances in the first year of the full invasion, even if it’s still far below the number of shows before the coronavirus pandemic and the invasion.

The Witches of Konotop premiered last spring and has continued to grow in popularity, with demand for this year’s show just as strong. The play has now become part of the theatre’s repertoire, with no plans to end the run.

This novel and play by Hryhorii Kvitka-Osnovianenko tells the story of Mykyta Zaboha, a Cossack town administrator, who falls in love with a beautiful woman who refuses to marry him. Zabroha is bitter about being abandoned, and his pain is exacerbated by a severe drought that sweeps the town. He becomes angry at women in general and, under the influence of a cunning, selfish clerk, believes it is all the fault of a witch.

The play is set during the 17th century when Tsarist Russia was trying to expand its control over present-day Ukraine. While Zablokha is searching for witches, his superiors order him to send soldiers to fight the Russians.

The prospect of going to war only reinforces the Cossacks’ belief that they are being sabotaged by witches whom they need to drown—and rather than prepare for war, Zablokha pursues this task with ruthless energy.

The play ends with the villagers discovering a witch after she has drowned several innocent women. But the witch has the last laugh, casting a spell that causes Zabloha to marry an unlovable woman from the village.

Eventually, he was dismissed by his superiors for neglecting his duties in preparing for the defense against Russia.

The current war with Russia has prompted many young Ukrainians to explore theater on their own, said Evhen Nyshchuk, manager of the Ivan Franko theater, which stages classics usually favored by older audiences.

In addition to the sold-out shows, posts with the hashtag “The Witches of Konotop” have been viewed 35 million times on TikTok, which is mainly used by young Ukrainians.

Theater critic Vinnichenko said that in addition to young people’s interest in history, many cultural events and concerts they usually enjoy have been canceled because of the war, leaving them with few entertainment options.

Anastasia Shpytalenko, 15, recently waited in line for five hours to get tickets with a group of friends to see the show. “We heard that the show was very popular and wanted to see it,” she said.

Daria Filonenko, 15, said the play “shows us what our culture is really like.” Another, Anastasia Yakushko, 16, echoed: “This play is amazing! Sometimes the old seems more interesting than the new.”

Witches have a strong resonance in Ukrainian culture and are a mainstay of its folklore. A video The photo, from the real town of Konotop in northeastern Ukraine, went viral online and shows a woman approaching a tank as Russian troops march into Ukraine. She summons witches to resist the soldiers.

“Do you know where you are? This is Konotop,” the woman said. “One out of every two women here is a witch,” she added, before telling a Russian soldier he was cursed with impotence.

A popular Ukrainian song often heard in cafes tells the story of a witch cursing her enemies. The lyrics of the song, written by the poet Liudmyla Horova, read: “Enemy, what the witch gives you, you will also get.”

Witch-themed souvenirs and T-shirts have also proliferated across Ukraine after two years of war. One clothing brand produced a T-shirt featuring a witch in khaki camouflage, flying on a shoulder-fired anti-tank missile instead of a broom. All of this, organizers say, has contributed to the show’s popularity.

“Ukrainians are attracted to the image of witches,” said theater director Ulivsky.

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