(Shaun Walker’s article appeared in the Guardian, 3/16; Photo:  The bombed theatre in the southern port city of Mariupol, Ukraine. Reuters.)

When the bombs hit the Mariupol Drama theatre, Vira Lebedynska did not hear a boom or a blast. From the recording studio in the theatre’s basement, where she was sheltering along with a few other theatre employees, the sensation was more like a vacuum.

“There was a whoosh, and a feeling that the air was being sucked out of the room,” she recalled. A few seconds earlier, her cat Gabriel had suddenly tensed, perhaps sensing the sound of a plane overhead. Then there was chaos: shouting, screaming, panicking.

The 65-year-old actor and vocal trainer was one of about 20 theatre employees among the more than 1,000 people sheltering in the theatre as the Russian army laid siege to Mariupol in March 2022.

The strike, believed to have been carried out with two 500kg bombs dropped from a Russian aircraft, came despite widespread knowledge that it was the biggest civilian shelter in the city. Estimates on the number of dead in the strike vary wildly, from “at least 15” (Human Rights Watch) to 600 (the Associated Press).

On Saturday, the second anniversary of the strike, occupied Mariupol will be voting in Russia’s presidential election, a tightly controlled spectacle designed to give Vladimir Putin six more years in office. Meanwhile in Kyiv, Lebedynska will perform in Mariupol Drama, a play based on the memories of four actors who were sheltering inside the theatre, all of whom speak about their own experiences from the stage.

The four are among a small group of actors and staff from the theatre who have resurrected the troupe in Uzhhorod, in the far west of Ukraine. Performances take place in the vast, boxy auditorium of the city’s main theatre, which has offered up its stage for the Mariupol troupe. There are also occasional tours; Saturday’s performance will be the Kyiv premiere of Mariupol Drama. Props are minimal while costumes have been sewn from scratch or bought in local secondhand shops, but the spirit and sense of duty is high.

“The body of our theatre has been destroyed, but the heart still beats here in Uzhhorod,” said Hennadiy Dybovskiy, the theatre’s recently appointed 63-year-old director, who is originally from Donetsk.

In Mariupol Drama, each of the actors brings a real artefact on to the stage that reminds them of their time sheltering in the theatre. For Lebedynska, it is cloakroom tag number 392; staff of the theatre wore the tags around their necks to identify themselves to others who might need help finding their way around. For 24-year-old Dmytro Murantsev, it’s the one-piece Spider-Man pyjama suit that he wore throughout the siege, as it was his warmest item of clothing.

Also on stage in the play are Ihor Kytrysh, 43, and his wife, Olena Bila, 42 who have both acted at the Mariupol theatre for more than two decades. They left the theatre the day before the explosion, risking a drive across the frontline to get out of the city.

Also on stage in the play are Ihor Kytrysh, 43, and his wife, Olena Bila, 42 who have both acted at the Mariupol theatre for more than two decades. They left the theatre the day before the explosion, risking a drive across the frontline to get out of the city.

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