World premiere of King Stakh’s Wild Hunt, a brand new gothic noir

from one of the world’s bravest theatre companies, Belarus Free Theatre

Production unites actors, opera singers and musicians from Belarus and Ukraine – with lead roles performed by 

Ukrainian baritone, Andrei Bondarenko and Ukrainian soprano, Tamara Kalinkina, conducted by Vitali Alekseenok

Thursday 14th to Saturday 16th September 2023, Barbican Theatre

This September, Belarus Free Theatre (BFT) returns to the Barbican Theatre with the world premiere of King Stakh’s Wild Hunta thrilling gothic noir based on the celebrated Belarusian novel.

Directed by BFT’s co-founding Artistic Directors, Nicolai Khalezin and Natalia KaliadaKing Stakh’s Wild Hunt is a conversation between art forms, interlacing opera, theatre, multimedia and live music to tell a story rooted in the history of Belarus with blazing relevance to Europe today and our indifference to brutality.

The production brings together actors, opera singers and musicians from Belarus and Ukraine – many of whom have been forced to flee their homelands due to war or dictatorship. It is the most ambitious artistic venture BFT has ever undertaken as well as being a statement of solidarity between Belarusians and Ukrainians, united in total condemnation of the war in Ukraine.

King Stakh’s Wild Hunt is one of the most popular novels by the visionary Belarusian writer, Uladzimir Karatkievich. Inspired by Eastern European folklore it follows the ghostly hunt to free a young heiress from an evil curse.

One day in late autumn 1888, Andrey Belaretsky, a young ethnographer, sets out on a journey to the remotest regions of Belarus. Stranded in a storm en route, he is forced to take refuge in the sprawling castle of Marsh Firs, home of the aristocratic Yanouskaya family. There the teenage Nadzeya Yanouskaya tells Andrey that her family has been cursed for twenty generations and that she, as the last in her family line, has all-consuming visions of a sudden and violent death. Andrey agrees to help Nadzeya break free from this ancient curse, but as he begins to unravel the secrets of the Yanouskaya family, he too becomes a target of the Wild Hunt, the murderous spectral figures that stalk the Marsh Firs estate. Andrey must uncover the truth about these otherworldly huntsmen to release Nadzeya from her terrible fate and undo the curse that has marked the noble family for so long.

This world premiere features a transporting score by composer, Olga Podgaiskaya, conducted by Vitali Alekseenok, Artistic Director of the annual Kharkiv Music Fest in Ukraine, and First Kapellmeister and Deputy Music Director, soon to be Principal Conductor, at the Deutsche Oper am Rhein Düsseldorf/Duisburg. On stage: seven actors from BFT’s permanent ensemble, all exiled from their Belarusian homeland and now living in Poland and the UK; seven on-stage classical musicians from Belarus and Ukraine, known collectively as the Five-Storey Ensemble; and five opera singers from Ukraine – with the lead roles of Andrey Belaretsky and Nadzeya Yanouskaya performed by Ukrainian baritone, Andrei Bondarenko and Ukrainian soprano, Tamara Kalinkina, respectively.

Andrei Bondarenko won the 2011 BBC Cardiff Singer of the World Competition Song Prize, was awarded a diploma at the New Ukrainian Voices competition and won first prize at the “Art in the 21st Century” international vocal competition in Vorzel, Ukraine; he is currently a member of the Volksoper Wien ensemble. Tamara Kalinkina is lead soloist at The National Opera of Ukraine. She is a passionate advocate for contemporary opera especially those by Ukrainian composers and was awarded the honorary title of Distinguished Artist of Ukraine by the then President Petro Poroshenko in 2018.

King Stakh’s Wild Hunt is narrated by the late Andrėĭ Kali︠a︡da, father of Natalia Kaliada, and extracts have been taken from the audio book he recorded of Uladzimir Karatkievich’s novel in 2009.

Director, Natalia Kaliada, said: Since the beginning of Belarus Free Theatre’s existence, my father – Andrėĭ Kali︠ada – talked about the importance of staging King Stakh’s Wild Hunt – not just because it’s one of the greatest Belarusian novels of the last century, but because he deeply understood its relevance. 2022 was the year that we finally acted upon his advice. 2022, the year that saw Russia unleash war on Ukraine, killing thousands upon thousands of innocent people. 2022, the year when the crippling occupation of Belarus by Russia really took hold – silently removing all of the Belarusian historians, philosophers and writers from the school curriculum to completely wipe out the Belarusian identity. And 2022, the year when my father died unexpectedly. The authorities raced to his funeral threatening to arrest people, prohibited us to place our white-red-white flag on his coffin, prohibited a service in the Belarusian language…. His death is painful for our family, but metaphorical for our nation. Alongside dedicating this world premiere to the memory of my father, we dedicate it to all of the children and parents who are unable to bury their loved ones as they would wish in their homelands due to dictatorship and war. 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”.

Director, Nicolai Khalezin, said: King Stakh’s Wild Hunt is a piercing story that combines mysticism and reality, love and hatred, nobility and cowardice, history and modernity. We wanted to give this amazing story a new tone by combining opera singers with stage actors, classical musicians with new theatrical technologies. Another one of our intentions was to unite some of the talented artists who cannot perform in their homeland today. Uladzimir Karatkievich managed to find his way to the reader even under the communist Soviet regime, weaving truth and relevance into the lines of his novels. History puts everything in its place, and this is exactly what we hope to achieve in King Stakh’s Wild Hunt”.

Described by The New York Times as, “one of the bravest and most inspired underground troupes on the planet”Belarus Free Theatre has originated some of the world’s most provocative and breathtakingly physical theatre and is the only theatre company in Europe banned by its government on political grounds. King Stakh’s Wild Hunt marks BFT’s return to the Barbican following the critically and publicly acclaimed stage production, Dogs of Europe, in spring 2022, described as “unthinkably brave” (Evening Standard) and “staggeringly powerful” (Time Out).