‘Art of Courage’ was poignant.
“Art is a reflection on life”. These words by El Anatsui are particularly appropriate for Art of Courage Ukraine’s immersive production of the same name. Currently showing at PIP Theatre in Milton, Brisbane, audiences are transported across space and time to witness the heartrendingly beautiful spirit of hope and courage that lives within Ukraine and her people. Presented as a multimodal, non-linear theatre experience, ‘Art of Courage’ seeks to raise awareness of Ukraine’s history of standing against injustice whilst maintaining desperate hope and intense cultural pride.
Styled as non-traditional and contemporary theatre, ‘Art of Courage’ was created, co-directed and co-written by Sophia Hodych, with Ben Lynskey also co-directing. The production was first presented in Florence, Italy in 2023 during the META Conference.
Invited into the theatre, a performance about the Executed Renaissance is interrupted by an air-raid siren, allowing the main story to begin. The small audience intimately follows, quite literally, a small group of friends living in Ukraine as they navigate a country torn apart by civil unrest, the sweet highs and desolate lows of romance, and the preservation of cultural traditions – all while desperately clinging to their future dreams. Side stories, such as the devastating effects of Holodomor, are presented as film vignettes for audiences to find.
Taking place across the various rooms and levels of the quaint PIP Theatre, ‘Art of Courage’ immerses the audience through the clever set design that not only adds to the atmosphere of each scene but also allows the audience to instantly predict the scene’s location on the disjointed narrative timeline. From the cramped, sparse army bunks to the lush spirit realm with its plant life marching across windowsills and spilling down the walls, the audience feels free to explore the minor details to achieve a greater connection to the cast of characters. For instance, small frames detailing Ukrainian folklore are dispersed throughout one of the areas, inviting the audience to join in on an educational scavenger hunt while soft strains of ethnic music plays softly in the background. By fostering and encouraging such participation and immersion, the directors successfully tied the audience to the lives unfolding in front of them, so that by the harrowing climax the full impact of the Russo-Ukrainian War is deeply felt by all. This was slightly minimized by the jarring return to the frame story of the Executed Renaissance, though the connecting themes of art providing hope and revolution were evident.
The ensemble cast truly shines within this production, their connections palpable as they laugh, tease, and grieve together. Mackenzie Curtis excels as the tragic Marichka, embodying the vivacity of youthful free-spiritedness as well as the ennui of a dashed future. Brigette Freeme as Lilya and Liam Wallis as Alex were another highlight of the show, with their blossoming romance eliciting an irrepressible, giddy feeling of joy.
‘Art of Courage’ is an emotional glimpse into the impacts of war and oppression at the smaller, more everyday scale. The immersive aspect was a delight to the senses, so that you not only watch that fragile string of hope endure within the people of Ukraine, but also feel it to your core. By using a non-linear narrative, the directors were able to play with what the audience already knows. In particular, the results of a fortune-telling that the characters engage in allows a delicious thrill of dramatic irony as the audience attempts to anticipate the events being laid out in front of them. While most aspects of the Ukrainian history and culture is cleverly conveyed, some events seemed to rely on prior knowledge and so weakened the impact of those particular scenes. Despite some technical issues, ‘Art of Courage’ handled everything with professionalism and bounced back wonderfully. Overall, by taking the audience on this journey, ‘Art of Courage’ brings a distant trouble to the forefront of our minds and encourages us to keep the spirit of hope alive in ourselves and in others.