Manchester’s AUGB Branch and Royal Exchange Theatre working together

By Bohdan Rutkowsky, AUGB Manchester Branch Chair

In April 2016 Manchester’s Royal Exchange Theatre Associate Director Kate Colgrave-Pope and North West award winning Playwright Lizzie Nunnery visited the Association of Ukrainians in GB (AUGB) Manchester Cultural Centre. 

They explained that they were part of the British Council’s sponsored World Stages project to give 12 theatres around the UK an opportunity to support international artists in countries where their work may have been censored. 

The Royal Exchange Theatre was delighted to have been invited to focus Ukraine.

Over a period of a few weeks, Kate and Lizzie held a series of workshops and interviews with individuals, teachers and pupils from the local Ukrainian Saturday School, the Ukrainian Church, organisations and cultural groups to learn more about Ukraine and the Ukrainian people. 

Later in the year, the Theatre invited Ukrainian director Tamara Trunova to spend time in the Royal Exchange building in Manchester to experience a range of British theatre and also to visit and spend time with the Ukrainian community at the AUGB Manchester Cultural Centre. 

Then in November Kate and Lizzie flew out to Kyiv for a week to carry out some further research and to continue to develop the script with Tamara Trunova. 

It was a wonderful opportunity for them to gain first hand experience of Ukraine.

Tamara returned to Manchester in March 2017, again teaming up with Lizzie and Kate for final scripting and rehearsals before her UK debut of “The People Are Singing”. 

The play was staged at the Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester, 6-8 April 2017.

It tackled the subject of war and conflict, as seen through the eyes of a 12 year old girl, and it dealt with the effects of indiscriminate murder, family death and suffering while simultaneously highlighting Ukrainians’ deep reverence towards religion, Taras Shevchenko, patriotism and the fight for freedom. 

There was also some reference to the issue of enforced starvation (the Holodomor), the Maidan uprising, treachery and the fight for survival in extreme circumstances. 

During a surreal side to the play, the young girl’s murdered mother reappears to offer her advice and support in moments of anguish while in another scene, a witch appears in a forest... 

All of the actors conveyed the passions of the play with captivating performances and all of them spoke or sang some lines in Ukrainian and Russian. 

Cora Kirk who played Iryna, the young 12 year old girl, whose childhood was torn apart by conflict. She managed to sing the Ukrainian National Hymn in Ukrainian, with deep emotion and was in the play throughout. She fought hard and resisted all temptation to desert her Ukrainian heritage.  

Graeme Hawley, Dima, played a truly sinister role. He was obsessed with Iryna, (his little devoshka!) and casually drifted into Russian dialogue to reinforce his role of a Russian soldier.

Chloe Massey, Katia, played the mother who was killed in front of Iryna and dragged away by Dima. She reappeared later in the play to support her lone daughter in the sinister woods.

Sam Redway,  Mikhailo, having experienced the horrors of conflict arrived wounded, tortured and in turmoil over his identity - urging Iryna to do anything and wear any flag in order to survive.

Kate Coogan, Olena, appeared to Iryna in the woods as the “witch” whose son was killed by a Russian mine and who took revenge by poisoning the soldiers. She hid in the woods where she became a myth. 

The end of the play also featured a performance from the Manchester Ukrainian mixed voice choir “Mriya” and the Ukainian Black Sea Cossacks who played and sang the song “Yikhaly Kozaky iz Donu Dodomu” - the music of which had featured twice during the play.

This was an emotional contemporary play which delved into history and drew on the present.

It resonated not only with the current conflict in Ukraine but also with the suffering of ordinary people in many other parts of the world.

Genuine great thanks are due to the British Council and to The Royal Exchange Theatre for taking such an interest in Ukraine and in helping to turn this play from the drawing board into reality.


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