Onstage, Witches and Cossacks Strike a Chord With Ukrainians

Onstage, Witches and Cossacks Strike a Chord With Ukrainians

The lines for the show snake down the block, with people waiting for up to seven hours to buy tickets at the theater in downtown Kyiv. Videos of the performance have drawn millions of views online.

The smash hit isn’t a popular Broadway musical or a series of concerts by a pop star — it’s a play based on a classic 19th-century Ukrainian novel, “The Witch of Konotop,” and the mood is anything but upbeat. Consider the opening line: “It is sad and gloomy.”

Mykhailo Matiukhin, an actor in the production, said that is what has struck a chord with Ukrainians because it shows “what we are living through now.”

“Tragedy comes and takes everything from you, your love and your home,” he said.

The play dramatizes the story of a Cossack leader in a Ukrainian community almost 400 years ago as he tries to root out witches that local townspeople believe are responsible for a drought. The action takes place against the backdrop of a military threat from Czarist Russia — something that has resonated with Ukrainians today as they absorb daily, and often discouraging, news about the battlefield and brace for missile strikes from modern Russia on their cities at night.

Ivan Uryvsky, the director, said audiences were particularly captivated by the sense of impending tragedy in the play, which is performed at the Ivan Franko theater in Kyiv.

Rather than seeking escapism from the war, many Ukrainians have been flocking to the play to help make sense of their lives, he said.

“It is very hard to overplay the harsh reality Ukrainians are living in now, but theater should feel the mood of the time and the people,” said Mr. Uryvsky. “When it manages to do that, then the play will touch people’s hearts.”

The play’s success also underlines a renewed interest in Ukraine’s cultural heritage since the full-scale invasion of the country by Russia in February 2022 that has manifested itself in theater, literature and art. This includes the culture of the Cossacks, the seminomadic people who populated the steppes of Ukraine and southern Russia.

“When the war started, the new wave of interest in our history and culture appeared,” said Susanna Karpenko, who composed the music for the play. Ms. Karpenko said she was influenced by Ukrainian folk music and wanted to appeal to an audience eager to understand its own culture. “That is in demand in Ukraine now,” she said.

Under the Soviet Union, Russia dominated the territory that is now Ukraine both politically and culturally, and books in Ukrainian were largely banned. After the Soviet Union collapsed, Russia continued to push its cultural influences in Ukraine, buying radio and television stations, newspapers and book publishers.

Ukrainians began pushing back and asserting a stronger sense of their own identity, a trend that snowballed with the two Russian invasions of their country — in Crimea and Eastern Ukraine in 2014, and the attack on the entire country in 2022.

After the invasion, Kyiv’s vibrant theater scene, like many sources of entertainment, all but collapsed, as fighting and missile attacks disrupted normal life and millions of people fled the country.

But Ukrainian theater has bounced back. In 2023, 350 new plays were staged across Ukraine, according to the theater critic Serhiy Vynnychenko, the founder of an online platform that analyzes theater-related data. That is double the number in the first year of the full-scale invasion, even if it is still well below the number of performances put on before the Covid pandemic and the invasion.

The “Witch of Konotop” debuted last spring, and the buzz around it kept growing, as did demand for tickets this year. The show is now part of the theater’s repertoire and there are no plans as of the moment to end it.

The novel and the play, by Hryhorii Kvitka-Osnovianenko, tell the story of Mykyta Zaboha, an administrator of a Cossack town who falls in love with a beautiful woman who refuses to marry him. Zabroha’s distress at being jilted is intensified by a terrible drought that has gripped his town, and, angry at women in general and under the influence of his sly, self-serving clerk, he decides it’s all the fault of witches.

The play is set during a period of the 1600s when Czarist Russia was seeking to extend its control over the lands that are today Ukraine. As Zabroha searches for witches, his superiors order him to send soldiers to fight the Russians.

The prospect of going to war only strengthens the Cossacks’ belief that they are being undermined by witches, and that they need to drown them — a task that Zabroha pursues with ruthless energy instead of preparing for war.

The play ends with the villagers discovering a witch after drowning a number of innocent women. But the witch gets the last laugh by casting a spell that causes Zabroha to marry an unappealing woman in the village.

Finally, he is removed by his superiors for neglecting his duties to prepare for a defense against the Russians.

The current war against Russia has spurred many young Ukrainians to discover the theater for themselves, said Evhen Nyshchuk, the manager of the Ivan Franko theater, which stages classics that typically appeal to older audiences.

Beyond the sold-out shows, posts with the hashtag “The Witch of Konotop” have been viewed 35 million times on TikTok, which is mainly used by young people in Ukraine.

In addition to young people’s interest in their history, said Mr. Vynnychenko, the theater critic, many cultural events and concerts they are typically attracted to were canceled because of the war, leaving them few entertainment options.

Anastasia Shpytalenko, 15, attended the play on a recent evening with a group of friends after waiting in line five hours to buy tickets. “We heard that it was very popular and wanted to check it out,” she said.

The play “shows us what our culture really is,” said Daria Filonenko, 15, as another, Anastasia Yakushko, 16, chimed in: “This play is just wow! Sometimes, apparently, old can be more interesting than new.”

Witches resonate strongly in Ukrainian culture and are a mainstay of its folkways. Early in the war, a video from the actual town of Konotop, in northeastern Ukraine, went viral online. It captured a woman approaching a tank as Russian forces advanced into Ukraine. She invokes witches to defy the soldiers.

“Do you even know where you are? It is Konotop,” the woman said. “Every second woman here is a witch,” she added before telling a Russian soldier he would be cursed with impotence.

A Ukrainian pop song about a witch cursing the enemy, written by the poet Liudmyla Horova, can often be heard at cafes. “Enemy, you will get what the witch gives you,” the lyrics go.

Witch-themed souvenirs and T-shirts have also proliferated across Ukraine after two years of war. One clothing brand made a T-shirt picturing a witch dressed in khaki-colored camouflage flying on a shoulder-fired antitank missile instead of a broom. All this feeds the play’s popularity, the organizers said.

“Ukrainians,” said Mr. Uryvsky, the theater director, “are attracted by the image of the witch.”

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