King Stakh’s Wild Hunt: ambitious, provocative, probing music theatre from Belarus Free Theatre

Belarus Free Theatre’s world premiere production at the Barbican Theatre of King Stakh’s Wild Hunt is stunning, sometimes bewildering and absolutely immersing: a sort of dramatic cross-breeding of the worlds of Le Grand Meaulnes – magical, operatic, improbable – and The Hound of the Baskervilles – gothic, curse-laden, decaying.

Bringing together opera singers, actors, dancers, circus artistes; fusing classical music with electronics; blending theatre, cinema and opera, King Stakh’s Wild Hunt is adapted from the eponymous, celebrated ‘gothic noir’ novel written in 1964 by the visionary Belarusian writer, Uladzimir Karatkievich.  Karatkievich based his tale on an ancient Eastern European legend, and his novel both digs deep into his country’s rich cultural heritage and offers a challenging exposure of the experience of the Belarusian people.  In 2023, when Aleksandr G. Lukashenko, dictator and Putin’s ally, has been President for nearly 20 years and has sought to eradicate the Belarusian flag, language, history and heritage, violently repressing those who oppose him – including the directors and company of BFT, who have been forced into exile – the novel seems also to be a profound, foreseeing deliberation on the destiny of Belarus.

Andrei Bondarenko as Andrey Belaretsky and Tamara Kalinkina as Nadzeya Yanouskaya. Photo by Linda Nylind.

Set in 1888, ostensibly the story follows the endeavours of a young ethnographic scholar, Andrey Belaretsky, to free a young heiress, Nadzeya Yanouskaya, from an evil curse.  On a stormy night, the folklorist finds himself stranded in a storm and forced to take refuge in the castle of Mars Firs, the seat of the fading aristocratic Yanouskaya family.  Nadzeya explains that her family has been cursed for twenty generations, and she tells Andrey of the terrifying apparitions – the Blue Woman, the Little Man – that condemn her to live in debilitating and maddening fear, portending as they do her own violent death.

Andrey agrees to help her break free from this curse and in his search for truth learns more about the ancient legend, from the castle’s keeper of books, Ignas Berman-Gatsevich: Roman Yanousky, Nadzeya’s ancestor, tricked King Stakh into a hunt and then poisoned the wine at the post-hunt revelries, killing Stakh and his men.  Their corpses were tied to horses and left to gallop off through the marshes, but the King’s immortal soul demands vengeance.  As the studious, level-headed Andrey begins to unravel the secrets he himself becomes the Wild Hunt’s prey.

On the one hand, it’s a creepy Conan Doyle-like gothic mystery: there’s the eerie locale, a decaying aristocratic family, mysterious deaths, a terrible family curse and vengeful spirits.  On the other hand, as the truth is gradually revealed and we learn that the ‘ghosts’ are guardians and family members who seek to take ownership of the estate, it’s a troubling, politically probing representation of historic unrest in the late nineteenth century: a time when the borders of Poland, Lithuania, Belarus and Ukraine were disputed by Russia, and when the serfs, ‘emancipated’ in the 1860s, were suffering from the pernicious greed of their aristocratic landlords.  The Wild Hunt does not only terrorise Nadzeya but also the local peasants, murdering those who protest, instilling fear in those who remain. 

Andrei Bondarenko as Andrey Belaretsky. Photo by Linda Nylind.

The parallels with the region today are self-evident.  Karatkievich’s story is both mystical and modern, historic and living.  As BFT’s director Natalia Kaliada says, “The Wild Hunt reminds us that the past is not dead, it’s here in Europe today, and we must do everything in our collective powers to stop it in its tracks”.  In addition, she explains that as well as giving the story “a new tone by combining opera singers with stage actors, classical musicians with new theatrical technologies” they aimed to bring together artists from Belarus and Ukraine who, forced to flee to evade tyranny, persecution and war, cannot perform in their homeland today.  Five opera singers from Ukraine join the seven actors from BFT’s permanent ensemble, all exiled from their Belarusian homeland and now living in Poland and the UK, and seven on-stage classical musicians (the Five-Storey Ensemble) from Belarus and Ukraine, with the principal roles of Andrey Belaretsky and Nadzeya Yanouskaya performed by Ukrainian baritone, Andrei Bondarenko and Ukrainian soprano, Tamara Kalinkina, respectively.

King Stakh’s Wild Hunt is incredibly ambitious, pointedly provocative and inspirationally imaginative.  Sometimes a bit too much so.  Sound, movement, words and visual images are unalleviated in their intensity and kinetic force.  Both Olga Podgaiskaya’s minimalist score – essentially a background soundscape for the unfolding narrative – and the declamatory singing and spoken voices are amplified.  Karatkievich’s novel was adapted as a film in 1979: here, a cinema screen takes over the entire back-drop, issuing a disorientating sequence of images – forests, portraits, mists, rooms within the castle – upon which English captions are overlain (video design, Dmytro Guk).  Peter Small’s lighting design creates shadows, shifts, patterns and webs, garishly bright colours puncturing the prevailing darkness, the beams and shafts of light restless, edgy, swirling. 

Pavel Haradnitski as Ignas Berman-Gatsevich. Photo by Linda Nylind.

Andrey Belaretsky, in a dark suit and hunting boots, and Nadzeya Yanouskaya, dressed in white, stand out for their simplicity against the garish, sometimes grotesque exuberance of Lidiia Dresch-Pyshna’s and Anastasiya Ryabova’s costumes, (for example, a character with outsize red hands, derived from the novel, is eventually murdered by figures with even bigger white hands), and the masks designed by Anastasiya Miadzelets-Teush, by turns fanciful and fearsome.  At times, a gauze cone descends to enclose some characters (set design, Nadya Sayapina and Nicolai Khalezin), becoming a canvas for further projections – such as a spinning carousel which evokes the madness of the Wild Hunt – adding to the tone of secrecy as characters (and the projected text) half-disappear.  The stage’s central revolve keeps on spinning. 

Even the interval offers no rest, as a solo, hooded cellist plays a mournful air, her circling form surrounded by three sway-pole performers, whose gossamer white robes float and flicker like gigantic will-o’-the-wisps.  The physicality of all these elements encompasses the whole auditorium, and the effect is thrilling if sometimes overwhelming.  Perhaps that’s what is intended.

Kate Vostrikova, Andrei Bondarenko and Iryna Zhytynska. Photo by Linda Nylind.

The libretto by Andrei Khadanovich adapts the audio book that Natalia Kaliada’s father, Andrei, made of Karatkievich’s novel in 2009, and the necessary process of excision and compression sometimes renders it challenging to follow the sequence of events and appreciate all of the characters’ identities and relationships, despite the surtitles.  King Stakh’s Wild Hunt begins with the narration of the wheelchair-bound Andrey Belaretsky, who instructs us, “no book can give you any idea of what I, Andrey Belaretsky, now a man of 96, have seen with my own eyes”.  What he has seen unfolds over the following 27 scenes, beginning with Andrey’s arrival at Mars Firs, where the housekeeper introduces him to Nadzeya and he learns of the family curse, a legend which the bookkeeper, Ignas Berman-Gatsevich – who is lurking in the library, “gathering book dust” – later elaborates.

There’s a ball, with feasting and dancing, at which Andrey meets Nadzeya’s guardian, Gryn Dubatovk (Oleksandr Forkushak) – who, we later learn, is not quite the benevolent protector he might seem – and the idealistic Svetilovich (Iryna Zhytynska), a former student of Kyiv University, who has been expelled for anti-imperial protests and for his support for Ukraine, and who meets a tragic end.  When he receives a threat that the Wild Hunt will pay him a nocturnal visit, Andrey – aware that ghosts do not write letters – asks the hunter, Ryhor (Raman Shytsko), to help him track down the hunt.  Eventually they lead an uprising of the people: there are pursuits, traps, and eventually a conflagration.

Oleksandr Chuvpylo as Ales Varona and Andrei Bondarenko as Andrey Belaretsky. Photo by Linda Nylind.

It’s impossible to heap too much praise on the performers.  Andrei Bondarenko, winner of the 2011 BBC Cardiff Singer of the World Competition Song Prize, sang with forthrightness and immediacy, powerfully capturing Belaretsky’s dilemmas – as his common sense is confronted by the carnivalesque and callous.  Tamara Kalinkina, a lead soloist at The National Opera of Ukraine, conveyed Nadzeya’s fear but also her resilience.  Pavel Haradnitski’s Ignats Gatsevich was fittingly creepy; Oleksandr Chuvpylo’s Varona was a privileged spoilt brat, looking for a fight at every turn.  Stanislava Shablinskaya was brilliantly compelling as the Beggar Woman, Little Man and Blue Woman.

King Stakh’s Wild Hunt is a political statement, avowing solidarity between Belarusians and Ukrainians, who are bonded in total condemnation of the war in Ukraine.  At the curtain call, respective national flags were united.  The audience was given postcards and paper airplanes festooned with paintings by children affected by the current situations in Belarus and Ukraine. 

But, it’s also astonishingly rich art.  In a closing speech, Natalia Kaliada urged us to have hope.  Belarus is still alive as long as the language lives in songs.

Claire Seymour

King Stakh’s Wild Hunt: based on the novel by Uladzimir Karatkievich

Soloists – Tamara Kalinkina (Soprano), Andrei Bondarenko (Baritone), Iryna Zhytynska (Mezzo-soprano), Oleksandr Chuvpylo (Tenor), Oleksandr Forkushak (Baritone), Mykola Hubchuk (Baritone) and Olena Arbuzova (Soprano); Five-Storey Ensemble; Actors– Raman Shytsko, Maryia Sazonava, Yuliya Shauchuk, Pavel Haradnitski, Stanislava Shablinskaya, Siarhei Kvachonak, Kate Vostrikova, Daniella Kaliada (in video projections only); Sway pole performers – Ileana Maria Susanna Prudente, Tilly Lee-Kronick, Carys Victoria Nicholls; Elizaveta Lessoun (cello).

Nicolai Khalezin – Director, Dramaturgy and Original Text Adaptation, Natalia Kaliada – Director, Andrei Kaliada – Narrator, Vitali Alekseenok – Conductor, Olga Podgaiskaya – Composer, Andrei Khadanovich – Librettist, Maryia Sazonava – Choreography, Nadya Sayapina – Set Design & Head of Production Design, Nicolai Khalezin – Set Design, Anastasiya Ryabova – Costume Design, Anastasiya Miadzelets-Teush – Mask Design, Peter Small – Lighting Design, Dmytro Guk – Video Design.

Barbican Theatre, London; Friday 15th September 2023.

ABOVE: Andrei Bondarenko as Andrey Belaretsky in King Stakh’s Wild Hunt by Belarus Free Theatre. Photo by Linda Nylind.