Thursday, July 18, 2024
 
 

Kafka in Kyiv — Why artists count in a time of war when the world has gone to hell one more time….

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It was three o’clock in the morning and I was on a train heading to a war zone.

I asked myself “why” I was going to Kyiv to perform in the first-ever “Ukraine Fringe” Festival at the Les Kurbas Center not far from Maidan Square.

My answer was because I had to.

In the last eighteen months I had heard so much both in Berlin and Washington about the “war in Ukraine” and the suffering that the people had undergone- that it took on a surreal aspect.

I wanted to do something.

I had to do something.

What could I do?

With all the reportage and inundations from the media one simply felt helpless. Or did one?

Not me.

As a “witness to our times ” to quote Xenophon I decided to do a fund-raiser in Washington – but  that fell through.  I contacted the Ukrainian Embassy that I wanted to help.  No answer.

Finally, I saw that one courageous theatre man Alex B. was launching his Festival in Kyiv.

That was for me.

Americans and other volunteers were helping the Ukrainian people to fight this ferocious Russian aggression.  I wanted to be there.

I was in a play called “Report to An Academy” that had started touring the US and Europe- it is the companion piece to Franz Kafka’s far better known “Metamorphosis.”  It is about man’s inhumanity, viciousness and — hatred of freedom.

It was directed by my wife and artistic  partner German director Gabriele Jakobi and I knew that she would want me to do this.  An ape is forced to choose between “freedom” (the variety stage) or “prison” (the zoo).  A slow lingering death much like what Mr. Putin is offering the Ukrainian people.

“Marry me or I’ll kill you.”

Sound familiar??

It comes directly from the pages of a book called “Mein Kampf”- ironically banned in Russia to this day.

I thought this might resonate.

At three am – three trains and 23 hours later I emerged at Kyiv train station to be met by my hosts Veronika and Polina (my “PA”). On the way in on the train I’d heard my first air-raid siren (there would be others). Later they told me that the day before a Russian missile hit a Kyiv suburb and killed two persons.

I thought I am far away from the insular world of American Theatre, safe DC theatre where concerns were definitely not like these.  The petty squabbles over money, plays and gender equality are the new illness that has afflicted the American theatre – once a great and proud institution that used to carry weight globally.

Before I’d left Washington, I had to take out an international travel policy for two million dollars.  I could have laughed at the thought.

First of all, my new colleagues and friends in Kyiv are lovely people – the contrast with what I saw soldiers in the streets, makeshift exhibitions on the street that leads to Maidan Square, and flags and flowers placed for every Ukrainian soldier who died fighting – were sharp. And heart-breaking.

It was nothing less than mind-blowing to be here.

That night I met the other artists who came from around the world – France, Hong Kong, UK, Switzerland – indeed Ukraine and her artists were not forgotten.

The next night I did my show “Report” the story of an ape who is forced to chose between the “new normal” aping a human or being an animal in a cage. For life.

I let the play speak for itself,  I had a day off before performance two.

I walked around this beautiful city – visited Saint Sophia. Outside there was a permanent memorial of photos on banners to  fallen (dead) Ukrainian soldiers.

Faces had names.  It was a shattering experience.

Men and women.  Some smiling, others with their call names or nom de guerre.

All died fighting to keep their country free and safe from the Ogre in Moscow.

Another reason why we need to help these people.

At the opera “Carmen” (I was inappropriately dressed in summer shorts – a scalper sold me a ticket at the last minute – as  I was  politely informed by one of the attendants but let me in when I said I from the was  from the USA) I met Aleksandr, a “Soldier from Luhansk.”

Another person, another name. His wife Olga, too.

These are the people of the Ukraine.  This is their homeland.

Later I met “The Girl from Mariupol” Alina who told me  “I have two homes Dresden – and Mariupol.”

That was the city bombarded into oblivion by Putin’s insane war.

And when I had my last day in Kyiv at the Hotel Ukraine where I went for lunch I met “The Lieutenant from Zaporizhzia.”

We chatted, he smiles and we shake hands when I tell him that I am from Washington and say: “You have a lot of friends there.”

That was the day I was hunting down my Ukrainian army tee-shirt – In an underground shopping arcade in Maidan Square (where the Orange Revolution began) when I hear another air-raid siren.

I stop.  All round me life is going on.

Above the streets are sunny and filled with life.

The sun is shining children are going to the KFC or eating ice-cream in the very warm September weather.

Couples sit on benches.  It seems — feels normal.

It is not. It’s war.

I keep reminding myself I am in a war zone.

It is a shock to realize that it could be 1940 London, 1939 Warsaw, 1945 Dresden or 1995 Sarajevo or 2023 Kyiv– it is — or another time, another war – that seems far away in Washington – but is the event here in Kyiv.

A matter of life and death.

I left Sept 6th after my last performance.

I had had a unique experience.  I was leaving.

My friends were staying. I felt guilty – I had to stay.

Alex asked me back for next year.  I said yes.

Then I will bring Scena Theatre’s production called “War of the Worlds” – the only play that I could think of that would speak to anyone who walked in off the street to see it.

The war is still on.  I was sitting in a room on a Greek island writing this already planning to go back.  To teach, act, write direct — whatever I can do I will.

If the free world doesn’t stop this maniac no one will and the war will only reach out and swallow Europe until it resembles the 19th century imperial maps.

Some people are too mean to live my father once told me.

They kill for the fun of it because inside they have no morality, they laugh at it and have nothing but contempt for the rule of law.

Think about it.  Do you want to live in such a world?  I sure as hell don’t.

Stop the killing.  Stop the obscenity that inhabits the Kremlin walls.

He is nothing less than a butcher and a low-level leg-breaker for the KGB. Even the Mafia would have gotten rid of him by now.

He’s bad for business.

America and anyone who loves freedom MUST HELP Ukraine.  NOW!

Today is today — and it is not too late.

Slava Ukraina!

 

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Robert McNamara is regarded as a seasoned authority on great European dramas and contemporary American plays.  Educated at Trinity College in Dublin, he founded Scena Theatre in Washington D.C. in 1987.  Since then, he has produced many world, American and regional premieres and taken many successful productions on tour to Europe.

Learn more about his work and Scena’s legacy in DC at ScenaTheatre.org.

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