Kyiv’s PostPlayTheater: of “Rebels,” Donetsk, and discomfiting narratives

If you are interested in the (somewhat frozen) conflict in parts of eastern Ukraine, you should hop on down to Kyiv’s brand new PostPlayTheater and check out the documentary play “Rebels” (“Ополченцi” in Ukrainian. The word itself usually has a slightly different meaning in English, but “rebel” is one of the standard terms for the separatists out east, so I am using it for now).

Rebels is the story of one man, recorded on a dictaphone by some kiosks on a late night in central Kyiv. The man used to be a part of the Russia-backed uprising in Donetsk, a conflict that has claimed thousands of lives and displaced over two million people. 

It was a stroke of genius to have a woman perform this. Galina Dzhikayeva, who left Crimea after it was annexed by Russia, inhabits the character like a hand in a glove. She also portrays the ex-rebel’s interviewer, and, in another clever move, she portrays herself, a displaced actress who openly states that she “has nothing in common” with the main character.

The rebels we see on stage aren’t just the armed separatists, they are also Dzhikayeva’s characters: the bubbly interviewer, the grim former fighter, the artist who says she can’t relate to this story even as she recounts a similar story in the breakaway republic of Abhkhazia, where she toured with a Simferopol theater.

The text itself is coldly, devastatingly apolitical – which is appropriate. At openDemocracy, Andrii Portnov recently wrote about how joining up to fight, whether for Ukrainian volunteer battalions or for the separatists, “does not necessarily signal an individual’s adherence to this or that ideology, but could be an attempt at survival or social advancement in a conflict situation.”

The ex-rebel who is the focus of “Rebels” is in this category of people – he didn’t want to leave his home, but also wanted to survive, to support his daughter, and to make money, and saw the separatist movement as a means to an end. He repeatedly claims that this war has nothing to do with him, even though he has served in it, and has killed people. He says of many of his fellow local separatists, “They’re the guys who used to sit in front of their building and drink vodka in the mornings… They were nobody, and then they were given guns and power.” He doesn’t deny Russia’s involvement in the conflict, but continually brings the focus back to fellow locals and their fierce loyalty to the tough neighborhoods they grew up in.

And, confirming journalist accounts of how this bizarre conflict is really conducted, the ex-rebel points out that the two sides in this war are engaged in constant, casual conversation with one another, even as they lob shells at each other. In the absence of hate, there is mere duty – which makes this conflict seem less like a war and more like mindless culling.

It’s also the story of a father who wants to buy his daughter a bike. And a former ambulance driver who broke his back but refused to give up when the doctors told him he’d always walk with a cane. And a working class man with an enormous amount of pent-up resentment. And a cold-blooded fighter who is perfectly OK with seeing people thrown into a hole in the ground and kept there for weeks should they have the wrong kind of attitude. And a guy who can says this about war, “At first you want to crawl into the soil and get away from it…Then you start to like it.”

Here, the hero, or the antihero, really, doesn’t fit a single politicized definition of the conflict. He’s not fighting for the restoration of the glorious Russian Empire. Neither is he a bloodthirsty terrorist hell-bent on destroying Ukraine – when he gave his interview, he had already abandoned the separatist movement (and was then beaten and robbed by his fellow separatists), and has a job in Kyiv. It’s a job he hates, so he thinks of coming back to Donetsk and just kind of lying on the couch. There is something flat and blank about his narrative – when the rage and PTSD erupt to the surface they are quickly swallowed up again by detached sarcasm.

The main character talks tough, but at its core, “Rebels” is about fragility – of society, of the human body, of the psyche, of life on nearly invisible but dangerous political fault lines.

This production will please exactly no one and that’s already a reason for it to succeed.

In the image above: Crimean actress Galina Dzhikayeva plays an ex-rebel, his interviewer and herself in PostPlay Theater’s production of “Rebels.” Photo mine. Feel free to use it.

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