In Donetsk theatre, a refuge from Ukraine's tragedy

DONETSK, UKRAINE, Simon Valmary- After the bombs, the fur coats. After the air raids, the air kisses. After six months of war, even the fighters attending an opening night at the Donetsk theatre traded in weapons for a rare moment of refinement.
The steps of the Donetsk National Academic Ukrainian Musical and Drama Theatre, empty for months, rang out over the weekend as 700 well-heeled theatregoers rushed up to enjoy a long-delayed debut to the season.

But despite the clear excitement on the opening night of Nikolai Gogol's "Marriage", the presence of Ukraine's civil war was unmistakable.
The theatre entrance was adorned with a sign: "No weapons inside". Five separatist rebels who attended the performance complied, arriving without their trusted Kalashnikov rifles, yet still dressed in combat fatigues.
But for others, it was a chance to don their Sunday best -- girls in dresses and stockings, men in button-down shirts and some in suits, ladies in their finest frocks, perfume wafting into the air.
Friends kept apart by the fighting greeted one another and caught up, while a pre-performance murmur rose up through the grand hallway to the imposing crystal chandelier above.
"They couldn't have come up with a better idea than to perform a classical comedy" like Gogol's, said Alexey, a 43-year-old in a well-ironed suit. "Nothing helps more in our situation than a bit of humour."
With the conflict between Ukraine's army and pro-Russian separatists raging, the main theatre in east Ukraine's rebel-held city was forced to close in late May, two weeks earlier than planned.
Five or six members of its troupe, without work and amidst the unrest, left Donetsk. Others took odd jobs to survive, performing at birthday parties or working in construction.
But, the staff said, each day residents called in during the long interlude, anxious to see the curtain rise again -- as it finally did, a month past the debut of a normal season.
-- Gogol, Ukrainian and Russian --
In the dark, the show began with applause, and for nearly three hours, the 19th-century Russian comedy on matchmaking and marriage provided a sanctuary from the tragedy they have been living outside.
A grateful crowd tittered with the first moments of farce, then raised their laughter to a roar, with spontaneous applause for each scene, gag and song, topped by a five-minute standing ovation for the players taking their bow.
Actors and audience knew the teary-eyed reactions at Saturday and Sunday's shows went beyond the performance itself.
"An opening is always a special day but this one brings up the most beautiful emotions -- including for us, the actors," said 34-year-old Anna Yakubovskaya, who had not been on stage since June.
"We've missed our audience," she said.
"We have missed this so much -- the joy, this beautiful place, this calm life," said Lilia Bondareva.
The 49-year-old child care worker came to the show with two colleagues, and with a bouquet of flowers picked from her garden "for the artists".
Playwright Gogol was actually born in Ukraine but wrote his plays in Russian. Here, that distinction -- and the nations' rival claims to the playwright -- made no difference to the troupe.
"We support the idea of having Ukrainian plays in our repertoire. We have Ukrainian plays. There may be political changes but I think people get used to that. I don't think it bothers them. It's the public which serves as our guide," said Elena Martinova, one of the stars of the evening's performance.
"In a context like this, we need culture," fellow actor Yakubovskaya said.
"In these situations of constant stress, emotions get suppressed. People are no longer sensitive to the unhappiness of others, they are no longer afraid. When there is bombing, or shooting, they just keep walking on the street as if everything was normal," she added.
"But unhappiness and pain have never turned anyone into a good person. People need to breathe. They need to have positive things in their life, in order to be able to love again."

Friday, October 17th 2014
Simon Valmary

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