The scene of the Ball from Romeo and Juilette, directed by Vladislav and Svetlana Lebediev (Novyi Theatre, Zaporizhia), 2016. Photo: Novyi Theatre.
Volume 7

Les Kurbas’s Tradition in Ukrainian Shakespeare Productions

The appropriation of Shakespeare by different nations, as well as the discussions about his works in various cultural contexts, lead to the emergence of unexpected interpretations of his plays and inspire creative experiments in the domain of theatre. As the American scholar Dennis Kennedy points out, “Shakespeare abroad is often much more political and polemical than in his motherland: he demonstrates things we lack most in our English theatres – the cruelty of power, the power of dangers, real hopes that dead English drama is still able to shock the audience, enrage the censors, and drive the actors to imprisonment.” (Kennedy, p.302).

For Ukraine as well as for some other countries from the former socialist camp, Shakespeare has turned into a touchstone in the search for national identity and political independence – the Ariadne’s thread helping to find a way out of the labyrinth of cultural colonialism. These metaphors reflect the whole essence of the process that took place in Ukrainian theatrical Shakespeareana which was crammed with the highest flights of creativity and the deepest chasms of despair. The Bard’s plays were used as a platform for bold theatrical experiments that not only produced great aesthetic achievements and undermined totalitarian ideological clichés, but also sometimes led to personal catastrophes for engaged artists.

Though staging the Bard in Ukraine is a relatively young phenomenon in comparison to the long and fruitful traditions of such productions in other European countries, it is marked with a large number of peculiarities deserving the attention of both Shakespeare scholars and theatre practitioners.

The first and foremost specific feature of the Ukrainian theatrical reception of Shakespeare’s dramaturgical legacy is that not all of the Bard’s plays have been represented on the stage so far. For instance, there is a dramatic lack of performances for such popular plays worldwide as Julius Caesar, Pericles or Cymbeline which needs immediate remedy. Thankfully, the first Ukrainian version of The Winter’s Tale presented on the stage of the Lviv Academic Theater, named after Les Kurbas on March 27, 2016, is definitely a positive sign of progress in this direction. It was made possible as a part of the global campaign called Shakespeare Lives which is aimed at celebrating  the Bard’s 400th death anniversary. The issues of jealousy, women’s position in society, class differences and the unlimited power of monarchs are extrapolated from the Ukrainian history. Perdita’s story symbolizes the fate of our country from a historical perspective – from the reign of the great prince of Kiev Russ Yaroslav the Wise till modern times. The director Evgen Khudzyk raises the question of whether those in power are capable of returning the country its lost position and identity.

Kurbas’s approach lives not only in the whole concept of the performance where Perdita in her embroidered shirt, traditional shoes, and with her clear voice and a sincere open smile is Ukraine itself. Kurbas’s sophisticated technique is also evident in synthesizing the impressive acting, the decorative art, the folk music, the symbolic language of body and the costumes into one rhythm of the play that shapes reality rather than reflecting it.

The center-piece of the stage is a huge clock surrounded with a circle made of salt. The clock’s hand moves from time to time and changes the chaos of human traces into a system of organized, concentric stripes – just like the fates of nations as well as the destinies of individuals are milled into salt, powder and dust. The clock is under the control of Cronos who deliberately speeds up or slows down the course of history – reign of great princes, reign of the Cossacks, reign of the Russian tsars, the modern era and contemporary times. The stream of time is represented through the changes in clothing always covered in polyethylene. The costumes made by the Chinese theatre designer Minglu Vong are very impressive – all the characters appear on the surface of the big clock which serves as a podium. Time as a fashion designer reveals itself through their attires. Wrapped in polyethylene, the bodies of the characters look as if they are frozen by eternity and detached from the spectators.

The image of Leontes is built on archetype traits of rulers – narcissism and hot temper, blindness and tyranny. Thus, the change in clothing doesn’t change the essence of the character.

The scenographic laconism awakens our imagination. The lack of distance between the audience and the stage, the occasional interaction between the cast and the public create an unforgettable atmosphere of teatrum mundi. The vocal score of the play as well as the choreography is truly in Kurbas’s style. The sound track is formed with Ukrainian folk tunes, jolly melodies of Lviv city folklore and the tragic melody of the song “Пливе кача” which, after the funerals of the Heavenly Hundred in 2014, became a tragic symbol or requiem for those who scarified their lives for the motherland.

However modern and daring this production is, it did not emerge out of nothing – on the contrary, it is tightly rooted in the authentically Ukrainian theatrical traditions which managed to survive through all the tempests and wrecks. Besides, the production of Khudzyk demonstrates obvious connections with the scenic technique of the outstanding Ukrainian theatre director Les Kurbas whose efforts and experiments washed off the taint of provincialism from the Ukrainian theatre and helped it launch the long and painful process of overcoming the country’s cultural minority complex. Thus, in order to make a clear vision of Shakespeare appropriation on the Ukrainian stage, we should take into consideration the general atmosphere in which the national theatre on the Ukrainian lands was born.

In accordance with the Ukase of Ems (1876) signed by the Russian tsar Alexander II, all stage performances and song lyrics to musical compositions were prohibited in the Ukrainian language. The governor-general of Kiev claimed that it is in Saint-Petersburg where theatre is art, but in Kiev it is politics (Кудрявцев). In the terms of the Cuban sociologist Fernando Ortiz that is shared by the literary scholar Angel Rama, such type of situation can be treated as a partial deculturation which is the first phase of transculturation (Ortiz).

The process of deculturation was aimed at forcing the Ukrainians to lose their two-hundred-year tradition of school, liturgical and political drama, and to devaluate their ethnographic theatre rooted deeply in ritual ceremonies and folk arts. Moreover, it intended to create the image of a typical Ukrainian as an illiterate, stupid and uncivilized person who is unable to appreciate cultural achievements and benefits of the progress.

At a time when the Russian Empire was doing its best to incorporate the elements of metropolitan culture on to the Ukrainian ground, there was a strong resistance to this politics from the representatives of the Ukrainian intellectual elite. One of the most prominent individuals among them was Les Kurbas, a gifted director who founded avant-garde theatre in Ukraine.

Kurbas is that very person who like the biblical Moses drew his people out of the cultural slavery of the metropolis. In his early years, he was an actor in the Hutsul folk theatre in the Carpathians, and then studied at the University of Vienna and Lviv University. So his outlook was greatly influenced by his European experience which provoked a strong desire to struggle against provincialism which was the main characteristic of the Ukrainian culture of the time. Being aware of all the devastating consequences of cultural colonialism, he saw his mission in reconstructing the aesthetic fundamentals of authentic Ukrainian theatre and in enriching them with the most up-to-date tendencies of the European art of performance.

In 1917, he established the Molodyi Teatr in Kyiv, then in 1920, organised the so-called KyiDramTe touring company, and in 1922, he created the experimental theatre studio of Berezil. The last project, which comprised 400 actors and staff members, a director’s lab, a psycho-technical committee, a design studio and a theatre museum, was meant to develop new training methods for actors and directors. As a result of its fruitful activity there appeared a special directorial approach that is now famous all over the world as Kurbas’s System.

He defined the essence of his method of transformation as the coordination of many components such as poetic elements, imaginative thinking and the high psychotechnics of acting in order to reveal to the audience the depth of the image or event, as well as their philosophical and social implications, and internal rhythm. He stated,

The method of transformation has such a name because it doesn’t create the illusion of reality, but reflects the action on stage in such a form which evokes the largest number of associations.” (Курбас, Про перетворення…, р. 127)

This artistic strategy activates the spectators’ imagination that enables them to decode metaphors, allegories and images. By involving the audience into the process of shaping the reality and senses, Les Kurbas tried to create a new type of theatre-goer whom he called ”a new, non-passive person” (Курбас, Театp…, р. 139).

Shakespeare’s plays turned out to be a brilliant space for Kurbas’s experiments and almost all key principles of his method were approbated and polished on the Bard’s Macbeth. He produced it twice – in 1920 in KyiDramTe and in 1924 in Berezil – but during these years, he never stopped improving his directorial concept and performing techniques. His vision of the main message of the play was also altering because of the growing threat of political tyranny in the Soviet Ukraine. His first attempt was a kind of stylization of the classical text, but his second Macbeth was an extremely innovative production. The director transformed the Bard’s tragedy into an avant-garde production, full of political allegories, thought-provoking allusions and expressionistic elements.

The stage was painted black and the entire action took place against the background of a brick wall. Kurbas refused to use pompous scenery, replacing it with huge green screens, some of which measured up to 16 square meters. They had labels written in red in the manner of ”Castle”, ”Castle gate”, ”Field”, ”Cave”, etc. The screens moved rhythmically up and down, back and forth, and left and right, dictating the general tempo of the performance. Besides, they were active participants in the action development. For example, in Act 3, when Banquo was trying to hide behind the screens, they were treacherously moving, disclosing him to the Murderers (Макарик, p. 112).

The mix of expressionistic and constructivist theatrical conventions is created with the help of eccentric, eclectic costumes. Macbeth wore a long sackcloth blouse and military trousers with puttees on his legs. He reminded one of both a medieval warrior and a Red Army soldier. The witches sported ginger wigs, and grey and blue costumes decorated with electric bulbs which sparkled during the most intense moments (Макарик, р. 114-115).

Les Kurbas denied the popular tradition of representing ghosts with the help of white curtains or shadows, as well as the interpretation of spirits like something mystical. For instance, in the scene with the Ghost of Banquo he perfectly uses his method of transformation with the help of a unique combination of lights, rhythms and movements.

The Ghost of Banquo enters. He goes through the stage. Everything in him is dead, as if there is no life in him. The rhythm and tempo of his movements are strange and unexpected. Banquo makes his first step. Then the second one. The foot is raised to make the third, but abruptly and unexpectedly it moves back; not touching the ground, it moves forward again… Frightened people make way for Banquo. But he proceeds in a new, unexpected tempo and rhythm… He leaves. Silence. Pause.” (Єрмакова, р. 238)

According to the director, this “rhythmic” transformation had to impress anxiety upon the audience, cause fear in characters and remind them of the committed crime – the murder of Banquo.

The effect is strengthened by the shadow of Banquo produced with the help of beams of light.  While the Ghost is slowly marching across the stage, the spectators can observe Macbeth’s face, horrified by the chimerical shadow.” (Василько, p. 30)

As a great admirer of Bergson’s philosophy, Les Kurbas used the so-called technology of “real movements”. The actor of Berezil was treated as a clever harlequin who is able to improvise, change voices and have a perfect command over his body language. For example, there were some “crawling mise-en-scenes” in which the actors sank to their knees and were creeping around the stage, producing animal-like movements, bizarre gestures and harsh sounds. The elements of grotesque were combined with elements of political satire. A talented Ukrainian actor Amvrosii Buchma played the Clown, absent in Shakespeare’s text and introduced to the performance by Les Kurbas in order to improvise and joke about urgent political issues or theatre-related gossip. Each performance was characterized by new, fresh improvisations.

In Macbeth every actor played two or three parts. It is remarkable that in Kurbas’s directorial conception actors were to start playing their roles only the time when they found themselves on the stage facing the audience. After finishing the scene, they turned into ordinary people and left the stage shedding the skins of their respective characters.

The principal difference in the second Kurbas interpretation of Macbeth is connected with the director’s attitude toward the relationship between literature and theatre. In his notes he wrote,

“…literature has executed theatre and actor… Shakespeare as a poet will suffer losses and disappear if he is played as a ‘theatre’, where the words are embroidered on the canvas of the actor’s and the director’s rhythm of action and emotion… Shakespeare as theatre will suffer losses and disappear, if the production is built on the stylistically perfect rhythm of his verse, images and feelings… Shakespeare should be translated into the language of theatre…” (Курбас, Режисерський…, р. 52)

The most significant driving force in this process is the tandem of thoughtful director and universal actor.

A vivid manifestation of this principle is the final episode of Macbeth in 1924. The performance ends with the scene where Kurbas figuratively transformed the ideas of betrayal, ambition and struggle for power. After Macduff had Macbeth and appeared on the stage with his severed head on a spear, the queue of potential new kings immediately emerged. The bishop crowned Malcolm with the famous words from the Bible, “There is no authority except that which God has established”. Afterwards, the newly proclaimed monarch went to a side, and was attacked and killed. His murderer took his crown, went to the bishop and followed the same procedure. Then, another murderer came, and the situation was repeated at least two or three more times (Корниенко, р. 294). These political implications, added to the original text by the director, turned to be a tragic prophecy of Stalin’s further repressions. Among the victims of the totalitarian repressive machine there were a lot of artists, including Les Kurbas.

As a result of some slanderous inventions, he was ousted from Berezil and had to leave for Moscow, where he initiated a famous staging of King Lear by Solomon Mikhoels. By the beginning of the 1930s, Kurbas had turned into the constant target of severe attacks from Soviet cultural officials and theatre critics. His plans to stage Hamlet with Iosyp Hirniak in 1932 were not destined to be fulfilled as both of them were accused of Ukrainian nationalism and was arrested in 1933. They were put in a labour camp on the Solovky Islands. Even under such terrible conditions, Les Kurbas showed his true love for the art of performance by organizing a camp theater. He was shot in 1937, but the seeds of new theatrical thinking planted by him in the cultural grounds of Ukraine brought forth really fruitful results.

In modern theatre studies the question of Les Kurbas’s tradition is a point of burning discussions, because he himself never embraced any single program or ideology. In his notes it is emphasized that Berezil was not a dogma, but a constant movement, a ceaseless revolutionary search for new forms of artistic expression.

Some elements of Kurbas’s method of transformation were employed by his friend and follower Iosyp Hirniiak, who managed to survive in GULAG. In 1943, he returned to Lviv, which was then occupied by the Nazi. In the memory of Les Kurbas, he decided to make his dream come true and produce the first Ukrainian stage version of Hamlet. This decision was a kind of important aesthetic gesture as ten years before this, when the Ukrainian theatre luminaries invited Konstantin Stanislavski to stage Hamlet in Kyiv, he refused mentioning that Ukrainian theatre is too young and still too artistically immature for the great tragedy. Besides, Hirniak’s production also had some ideological implications. In the historical and political context of those times, this play was a kind of cultural equivalent of proclaiming the Ukrainian search for independence from both the Germans and the Soviets.

In his letters to the actress Orysya Steshenko, Hirniak mentioned that he deliberately executed a follow-up of  Kurbas’s original intention of choosing for the Ukrainian stage complex and important works to shape an authentic Ukrainian theatre (Ревуцький, р. 155). The second intention was to represent a person who comprises God in himself, but rejects the world created by God. It seemed to Hirniak that Hamlet embodied a lot of that due to occupation conditions, and was behind the seal of various restrictions and censorship. And he longed to speak out.

In Hamlet’s hesitation the director saw a close allusion to the state of Ukraine, squeezed between two tragic dooms – the dangers of the Nazi and the Bolsheviks yokes. He used such elements of Kurbas’s technique as the combination of intellectualism with thought-provoking gestures, costumes and scenery.

Hirniak said, “I tried to highlight in Hamlet willingness and activity. Hamlet will truly die, but the circumstances were stronger than he. I’d like this tragedy to sound elevated, as it must be with a tragedy of Shakespearean scope, where horizons are wide and passions are impressive.” (Гайдабура, р. 119)

With this performance-confession Hirniak and Blavatsky-Hamlet who were true Kurbas apostles bade farewell to their enslaved motherland. This stage version was never mentioned in the fundamental Soviet histories of theatre. This fact testifies the undercutting and nationalistic character of the first Ukrainian Hamlet.

Only in 1990s Kurbas regained the lost recognition and his approach brought about new followers. Among them, there are the directors Vladislav and Svetlana Lebediev (Novyi Thratre, Zaporizhzhia). Their latest work Romeo and Juliette was staged on February 13, 2016. They successfully used Kurbas’s technique of transformation, and it is evident in all the levels of their performance that the production is aimed at disclosing the essence of the events in modern Ukraine.

A scene from Romeo and Juliette, directed by Vladislav and Svetlana Lebediev (Novyi Thratre, Zaporizhzhia), 2016.

A scene from Romeo and Juliette, directed by Vladislav and Svetlana Lebediev (Novyi Theatre, Zaporizhia), 2016. Photo: Novyi Theatre.

They refer to Shakespeare’s tragedy to prove the fact that several next generation Ukrainians would have to pay a terribly huge price for the present day military aggression and the split of the country. The tragedy of medieval Verona makes modern spectators realize the irreparable sacrifices that are inevitable on the way of reviving peace. In accordance with Kurbas’s approach the attitude to the text of the tragedy is rather free as some anti-war monologues from Troilus and Cressida and Edward III are included in the performance.

The plain scenery consists of only two elements. The first one is a brick wall of the Capulets’ house with numerous pieces of paper stuck on it. Each paper is a message or a prayer for love written to Juliet by the young people of the 21st century. So the directors blend two temporal spaces into an unity which manifests the eternity of love and the permanence of human nature.

The second scenery component is a multifunctional transformer which changes into different objects according to the requirements of particular episodes. Used as the central square of Verona, Juliet’s room, the altar, the marriage bed, the crypt and the place of reconciliation, it resembles Kurbas’s constructivist props.

A vivid example of Kurbas’s method of transformation is represented in the scene when Mercutio hints that Tybalt is a mouthpiece of fascist ideology. The fencers thereafter cry “hail” and make recognizable fascist gestures.

The scene of the ball transports the audience to the “Satan ball” like the one described in Bulgakov’s novel The Master and Margarita.

The episode, in which Juliet is getting ready for her wedding night, is similar to the one in the well-known story called “Shulamith” by the prominent Russian writer Alexander Kuprin, where the heroine oils her body before an encounter with her beloved. The cloth for Juliet’s wedding dress is firstly transformed into the wings that carry her to Romeo, then, it is used as her funeral shroud.

In this production the directors bring to light the image of Queen Mab who acts as the personification of destiny which inevitably pushes Romeo and Juliet to their deaths. She throws them at each other at the ball infecting them with irresistible passion. She enchants Friar Laurence and imposes on him the idea of a secret wedding as an opportunity to reconcile the feuding sides.

Queen Mab herself is neither good nor evil. She is a product of those kind and severe emotions, both positive and negative feelings which reign in Verona. A brilliant manifestation of this idea is apparent in the final episode. Queen Mab is in the centre of the stage covered in her white cloth. Suddenly, several heads with different facial expressions emerge through it. It symbolizes the entirety of our universe that depends on the energetic impulses which are constantly sent to it by us.

A hidden yet evident dialogue between the universal and the national, Shakespeare’s context and ours, is able to produce crucial solutions for burning social, political and moral problems. So far the Bard has not only been the centre of the Western literary canon, as Harold Bloom declared, but has also served as a universal looking glass that helps mankind to penetrate into the depth of the human subconscious, and thereby,  grasp the essence of political cobwebs, social tensions and artistic trends.


Works Cited:

  1. Kennedy, Dennis. Foreign Shakespeare: Contemporary Performance. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004.
  2. Кудрявцев, Лев. ”Киевские губернаторы: герои и деспоты”.
  3. Ortiz, Fernando. Cuban Counterpoint: Tobacco and Sugar. Durham: Durham University Press, 1995.
  4. Курбас, Лесь. “Про перетворення як один із образних засобів розкриття глибокої сутності життя”. Лесь Курбась. «Березіль». Київ, 1988.
  5. Курбас, Лесь. “Театр і глядач”. Лесь Курбась. «Березіль». Київ, 1988. Макарик, Ірена. Перетворення Шекспіра. Лесь Курбас, український модернізм і радянська культурна політика 1920-х років. Київ: Ніка, 2010.
  6. Єрмакова, Наталя. Березільська культура, історія, досвід. Київ: Фенікс, 2012.
  7. Василько, Василь. “Народний артист УРСР О. С. Курбас”. Замість передмови. Лесь Курбас. Спогади сучасників. Київ: Мистецтво, 1969.
  8. Курбас, Лесь. “Режисерський щоденник” (Умань, 23 січня 1921 р.). Курбас, Лесь. Філософія театру. Київ: Вид-во Соломії Павличко «Основи», 2001.
  9. Корниенко, Нелли. Театральная эстетика Леся Курбаса // Лесь Курбас: Статьи и воспоминания о Л. Курбасе; Литературное наследие. Москва: Искусство, 1987.
  10. Ревуцький, Валеріан. Нескорені березільці Йосип Гірняк і Олімпія Добровольська. Нью-Йорк: Об’єднання українських письменників «Слово», 1985.
  11. Гайдабура, Валерій. Театр між Гітлером і Сталіним. Україна 1941-1944. Долі митців. Київ: Факт, 2004.



Nataliya Torkut is the Head of the Ukrainian Shakespeare Centre and Professor of the English Philology and Foreign Literature Department, Classic Private University (Zaporizhzhia, Ukraine). She is a member of the Ukrainian Higher Education Academy of Sciences and the editor-in-chief of the journals Renessansni Studii (Renaissance Studies) and Shekspirivskyi Dyskurs (Shakespeare Discourse).

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European Stages, vol. 7, no. 1 (Fall 2016, Special Issue: Shakespeare in Europe, 2016)

Editorial Board:

Marvin Carlson, Senior Editor, Founder

Krystyna Illakowicz, Co-Editor

Dominika Laster, Co-Editor

Kalina Stefanova, Co-Editor

Editorial Staff:

Cory Tamler, Managing Editor

Mayurakshi Sen, Editorial Assistant

Advisory Board:

Joshua Abrams
Christopher Balme
Maria Delgado
Allen Kuharsky
Bryce Lease
Jennifer Parker-Starbuck
Magda Romańska
Laurence Senelick
Daniele Vianello
Phyllis Zatlin

Table of Contents:

  1. Some Quadricentennial Shakespeare in Germany by Marvin Carlson
  2. Tiago Rodrigues’s Antony and Cleopatra by Manuel García Martínez
  3. Amleto: An Opera Rediscovered by Katrin Hilbe
  4. Coping With the Greatest for Over One Hundred Years by Alen Biskupović
  5. The Art of Sharing Shakespeare: Emil Boroghină, a Romanian Sorcerer by Maria Zărnescu
  6. Shakespeare’s Villains and Modern Politicians in Latvia by Edīte Tišheizere
  7. A Queen for a King! Tom Lanoye’s Königin Lear at Schauspiel Frankfurt by Katrin Hilbe
  8. The Tempest: Magical Ballet Where East Meets West by Sepideh Shokri Poori
  9. “The Ukrainian Play”: Macbeth Ritualized by Vlad Troitskyi by Daria Moskvitina
  10. Les Kurbas’s Tradition in Ukrainian Shakespeare Productions by Nataliya Torkut

Martin E. Segal Theatre Center:

Frank Hentschker, Executive Director

Marvin Carlson, Director of Publications

Rebecca Sheahan, Managing Director

©2016 by Martin E. Segal Theatre Center

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