Close Strangers Festival 2021

On Friday night, the festival saw the main event; the ‘spectacle’. Close Strangers: East is full to the brim with new and innovative approaches to performance so it was nice to uphold some tradition and step foot into the stalls of the main stage of Teatr Polski. H-Effect is a fusion of film, music and theatre, offering a multidisciplinary view on what and how we can begin to think about trauma.

The performance itself follows the story of four Ukrainian individuals that are battling their memories of trauma and war, refusing to idolise the ‘hero’ in the way that society dictates that we should. The director, Roza Sarkisian, takes inspiration from Shakespeare’s and Heiner Muller’s representations of the character Hamlet. The five performers, Oksana Cherkashyna, Kateryna Kotliarova, Roman Kryvdyk, Oleg-Rodion Shurygin-Gerkalov and Yaroslav Havianets each have their unique battles that they are facing and, poignantly, are named as themselves throughout the performance. There is purposefully no linear narrative, instead H-Effect seeks to piece together fragments of memory and emotional outbursts as they bubble to the surface; scenes repeat, scenes are interrupted and rave music contrasts topics of severity, all in an attempt to capture the unpredictability of processing trauma. H-Effect is an incredibly sophisticated exploration of the limitations of language and how, sometimes, words will never be enough to package your experiences into.

Within the cast, Kateryna and Yaroslav are perhaps closest to scenes of conflict and violence in their everyday lives – with the first being a war reporter and the latter having served as a soldier in Ukraine. In fact, Yaroslav deserves particular mention for his confidence in displaying vulnerability. In discussion with the director, Roza Sarkisian, I was told that weakness, particularly male weakness, is a highly contested topic for people in Eastern Europe. Displaying emotions and admitting when you are perhaps struggling is deemed incompatible with masculinity. In my opinion this is not exclusive to Eastern Europe, making this performance globally relatable in its direct assault on the word wide problem of defining masculinity.

Oleg-Rodion is also presented as a martyr for LGBTQ+ rights, often on stage in impassioned rage and frustration at the political situation. They are bold and unapologetic and I can only hope that demonstrations such as this one will help to shift the public attitudes of some of these countries. Oksana, who is a well-known Ukrainian actress, is truly sensational. Whilst unable to understand the language, I could follow Oksana’s narrative and emotion with total clarity. To me, this exemplifies being the master of your art and, with such challenging content to cover such as rape and the abuse of the system, I have nothing but respect for her macabre performance.

The ominous presence of a gun remains on stage throughout the performance, acting as a constant reminder of the violence that underpins the lives enacted on stage. In one scene, Oksana writes in black tape, which is also symbolically taped across her mouth, the following words: ‘NO WAR NO ART’.

To me, no art is the absence of conversation and the inability to confront the inhumanity of human experiences that we are unfortunately still battling with today in the 21st century. Maybe one day we will be fortunate enough that this is no longer necessary but, for the time being, education through art is an absolute must.