King Stakh’s Wild Hunt – Barbican Theatre, London

Reviewer: Adam Stevenson

Writer: Uladzimir Karatkievich

Adaptor: Nicolai Khalezin

Director: Nicolai Khalezin and Natalia Kaliada

Composer: Olga Podgaiskaya

Libretto: Andrei Khadanovich and translated by Daniella Kaliada

Conductor: Vitali Alekseenok

King Stakh’s Wild Hunt is an opera in Belarusian, based on a gothic novel of the same name published in 1964. The piece is created and performed by the Belarus Free Theatre, a company whose members have been harassed and imprisoned in their home country before being banned outright and forced to relocate 16 core members and their families out of Belarus.

The production is an overtly political act. Alexander Lukashenko has been President of the country since 1994, limiting expressions of the Belarusian language and banning the display of the red and white flag of the Belarusian People’s Republic. In the curtain call, actors bring on this flag as well as the blue and yellow flag of Ukraine. The lead soprano, Tamara Kalinkina and the lead Baritone, Andrei Bondarenko are both Ukrainian nationals, as are many of the cast. The audience is given postcards, featuring pictures drawn by children affected by the repression in Belarus and the war in Ukraine, along with a link to further activism. Although there are political elements to the story, the greatest political statement is in putting on an unapologetically Belarusian work.

Set in 1888, King Stakh’s Wild Hunt tells the story of Andrey Belaretsky, a scientifically minded ethnographer who sets off into the wilds of Belarus to record folktales. He finds himself at the castle of Marshland Firs where the young heiress, Nadzeya Yanouskaya, is being driven to despair by a number of ghosts. These include The Little Man and The Blue Lady, who haunt the castle but also the titular Wild Hunt of King Stakh, the ghost of a 17th century noble who was betrayed by Nadzeya’s ancestor. Belaretsky must discover the secrets behind the apparitions, following clues and red herrings before Nadzeya loses all will to live and without becoming a victim of the hunt himself.

Uladzimir Karatkievich’s novel is densely plotted, featuring a colourful cast of characters, all with their own machinations and desires. It’s a bit like The Hound of the Baskervilles, where the central hero must keep hold of a fraying sanity and reach the real villains underneath the ghostly goings-on. This production takes shortcuts with the logic of the book and portrays many of the events in ways that are more atmospheric and abstract, making it difficult (maybe impossible) to follow without some knowledge of the source material.

A scene in the book where two characters fight a pistol duel in a pitch-black barn is represented by having those two characters in blindfolds, clasping a pipe to their mouths with a candle in and holding three pewter mugs. When a character tips a mug, one of the lights above the stage fizzles. It’s a strange and striking visual, but not wholly clear what is happening and why. One character is portrayed as having comically elongated red hands, a reference to his description in the book but a strange and inexplicable choice without that knowledge. He is later dispatched, in striking fashion, by figures in black with even larger hands.

Where King Stakh’s Wild Hunt succeeds is in striking and peculiar imagery. There are ethereal floating figures in translucent cloth, there are the minions of the wild hunt in their Wicker Man masks, there are women with huge ponytails which they lash like whips. One of the themes of the book is the decline of the gentry. They are portrayed as in-bred, monstrous and pathetic, desperate to hang onto any vestiges of power and wealth. A ball scene, where Nadzeya comes of age, allows the Belarus Free Theatre to create a gallery of grotesques who prance, fawn and lurch around the stage.

The performance uses a projected screen, which includes an English translation of what’s being said but also filmed images that complement what’s happening on stage. A cone of gauze is sometimes lowered in front of the actions, so the words and images surround them. This is particularly effective when a toy carousel is projected on the cone, the toy horses chasing the actors round and round. The performance also has access to a large turntable, which is used far too often. There are echoes of Dead or Alive at times, the cast must be dizzy after being spun around so much.

The singing is excellent. Bondarenko has a warm, clear voice and Kalinkina manages to fill her lines with the constant fear and harassment that Nadzeya is under. They are supported by Iryna Zhytynska who plays a male paragon of virtue and Oleksandr Chuvpylo who plays a privileged tit. Olga Podgaiskaya’s score is atmospheric but forgettable, working more as a background to the visuals than a particularly noticeable element in itself. This makes sense, her speciality is creating new scores for silent cinema.

King Stakh’s Wild Hunt is ambitious and unique, with striking visuals and a brooding atmosphere which can overload the story and lead to incoherence.

Runs Until 16 September 2023

The Reviews Hub Score

Wild, but a little wooly.

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The Reviews Hub - London

The Reviews Hub London is under the acting editorship of Richard Maguire. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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