Creatures hiding behind folded fur wings atop thin wood trunks, branches hanging down from the ceiling like black stalactites, witches, priests and a chained, half-naked man howling in Ukrainian: the arcane stage world created by Vlad Troitskyi in Viï – le roi terre is a disorienting sight, the kind that doesn’t leave anyone indifferent. Troitskyi founded avant-garde Ukrainian theatre company Dakh in 1994 with money earned as a businessman, and his latest creation, which had its premiere last month in Lausanne, has just reached Paris together with another production of his, Le Roi Lear – prologue.
Both plays show their director as a maverick with a vision occasionally too feverish for its own good but never less than ambitious. His wordless take on King Lear, performed last week at the Théâtre Silvia Montfort, is arguably the stronger work, with its masked characters and hallucinatory first half. Lear poses as a cocaine dealer, his daughters as brides metaphorically wrapping themselves in their own viscera to show their commitment to him. Pop culture meets folk traditions both in the storytelling and in the score, performed by Dakh’s own band, DakhaBrakha, and the result brings striking tension to the opposition of tradition and modernity.
That preoccupation with tradition is also evident in Viï, freely inspired by a Nikolai Gogol short story and part of a company project called Mystical Ukraine. Mystical it is: in the reworked story, two French-speaking characters get lost on their way to a village, where one of them has family ties, and happen upon a world shaped by colliding Christian and pagan rituals, where reason seems to have no footing. A traditional wedding party is interrupted by a bride who laughs off the priest before fulfilling another destiny: taking over the role of the dying local witch.
What happens next is as cryptic and muddled for the audience as it is for the French characters: one of them finds himself with an axe and is later accused of killing the young woman, whom we’ve seen being terrorised by her brothers. The latter may or may not have engineered her death, or perhaps it’s all just a nightmare. The production reaches a point midway when it simply leaves the audience behind, making it difficult to relate to the rest of the story. Matters are not helped by the lack of subtitles for the Ukrainian text, and rather poor flow and acting in the French-speaking sections.
And yet there is much to marvel at in the charged atmosphere of Viï, including another score rich in textures by DakhaBrakha, as well as costumes and lighting that bring to life a world of Slavic legend. Troitskyi hints everywhere at what he sees as the earthbound side of Ukrainian culture, untainted by “so-called civilisation”. This production might reveal more of its secrets in Kiev; in a western setting it doesn’t quite meet its audience halfway.