Conflicts & War

The Face of War: Bringing the harrowing Mariupol siege to the stage

By Roman Pilipey

Vinnytsia, Ukraine, Sep 23 (EFE-EPA).- A Ukrainian theater company has launched a harrowing play about the performers’ experiences under Russian occupation in the Ukrainian port city of Mariupol.

“The main idea of our performance is to talk about our grief, the pain we have inside, and what we went through,” says Oleksiy Hnatyuk, director of The Face of War.

Hnatyuk is one of the founders of Conception Theater, a company that was performing in Mariupol before Russian troops stormed Ukraine in February.

Hnatyuk fled besieged Mariupol in late March and made it to Kyiv where he began reaching out to actors in the capital as well as linking up with performers he had already worked with in his hometown and who had also managed to escape what was once Ukraine’s industrial heartland.

Together they created a fresh and raw performance based on their experiences and memories of their time during the relentless Russian shelling of Mariupol, in southeastern Ukrainian.

The Mariupol actors are now on a domestic tour and have high hopes that one day the show will reach an international audience so that the world can learn about what they witnessed and suffered during Russia’s invasion.

The live show is powerful and for many Ukrainian spectators, the performance touches a nerve as the nation continues to fend off a Russian offensive.

As the curtain drops on a viewing of the play in a local theater in Vinnytsia, the several hundred audience members erupt in applause and many of them break down in tears.

The actors also get emotional.

“I thought the more we performed, the easier it would be from an emotional perspective,” says Dmytro Gritsenko, an actor and TV host who lived in Mariupol and fled the city in mid-March. “But it does not.”

“The story which we presented is not imagined. Unfortunately, it is not a script or a performance that could be forgotten once the curtains close. It is what we and hundreds of thousands of people from Mariupol and many other Ukrainians are living at this moment in time,” Gritsenko adds.

Speaking of what it was like to live in the besieged city, the actor explains that sourcing food and especially water was the biggest challenge for the population’s survival.

“We drank snow, rainwater, technical water from heaters, from boilers, puddles, we went through all of it,” he tells Epa-Efe.

Dmytro recalls that when he fled Mariupol, he encountered many Russian checkpoints, particularly on the fringes of the city where he was stopped and searched vigorously every 100 meters.

Evgeny Sosnovskiy, a Mariupol native and amateur actor and photographer, lived not far from the Azovstal plant which made headlines when Ukrainian forces and civilians retreated to the iron and steel works in early March and fought off Russian troops for 82 days.

Sosnovskiy remained in Mariupol until late April. He was lucky to survive a shell that struck his mother-in-law’s home while he was there.

“Half of the house was destroyed, I was buried by roof, stones, everything was on me. I lost my hearing at that moment, darkness was everywhere, and honestly, I thought this was the end.”

The actor was kicked out of his own house by pro-Russian Chechen fighters, known as Kadyrovtsy, and later found it had been scorched to the ground.

During Sosnovskiy’s stint in a bomb shelter with some relatives, his wife’s brother was injured during an attack and later died.

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