in the morning of 21 January 2014, Marichka Kudriavtseva was all set for the biggest day of her career. The Ukrainian singer had three gigs in a row lined up in Kiev. But on her way to have her hair done, she started getting worried calls from her bandmates in Kyky Shanel, who specialise in French chanson and Soviet nostalgia. “I’m not going down there,” said her guitar player. “The show is cancelled,” said one of the others. “People are getting shot,” said the third.

This was the day when the peaceful protests of Ukraine’s “revolution of dignity” turned violent. With no concerts to play, Kudriavtseva found herself dressed in her finery alongside thousands of fellow citizens in Maidan Nezalezhnosti, the city’s central square. It was no time for singing. Instead, she grabbed a shovel and started loading snow into barricade bags.

“It was minus 20,” says the ethnomusicologist when we meet in Toronto, home to one of the world’s biggest Ukrainian expat communities. “I am a musician who makes art. I’m not political, but of course, when this happened in my country, I could not sit by and watch.”

The next day, Mark Marczyk, a third-generation Ukrainian from Canada, landed in the city. He’d been a frequent visitor since studying in Kiev in the years after the 2004 orange revolution and returned to work on a film score. He recalls: “My director said, ‘Don’t even think about going down there. Everybody has to stay in the hotel.’ As soon as he said that, I went down. I just wanted to see what it was.”

The experience brought Kudriavtseva and Marczyk together and led to Counting Sheep, an extraordinary piece of music theatre that – through the power of polyphonic singing, TV news footage and interactive staging – puts the audience into the heart of the Maidan protests, which were triggered by President Yanukovych’s refusal to sign an association of agreement with the EU, and fuelled by widespread disenchantment with the political system.

It is a show full of joy and exuberance just as much as it is about soul and sorrow. Having played to sellout houses in the rough-and-ready church hall where I saw it in Toronto, the exhilarating “guerrilla folk opera” has brought its evocation of people-power politics to the Edinburgh fringe.

Amazed by the size of the protest site, with its makeshift library, medical centre, kitchens and barricades, Marczyk felt compelled to get involved. “It wasn’t a political decision,” he says. “It was more, ‘People need help, we have to help. There’s a guy with his leg cut open, let’s go wrap him up. There’s a burning building, we have to help the people out before it falls down. People are coughing [because of tear gas], we’ll have to bring them milk. People haven’t eaten, we have to get soup to them.’”

Counting Sheep came about as Kudriavtseva and Marczyk tried to process what they had gone through. “It was less of a desire to make a show and more of a desire to help,” says Marczyk, who had discovered his love of Ukrainian folk music after falling in with a group of Kiev street musicians. “What affected me about the revolution was how people would drop everything and use whatever they were good at. ‘I’m a taxi driver, I can drive people to the hospital.’ ‘I’m a carpenter, I can build.’ For me, it was, ‘I’m a musician and a writer, so the best thing I can do is give people a platform to express their feelings about revolution.’”

Back in Toronto, he turned to his fellow musicians in the Lemon Bucket Orkestra, a self-styled “Balkan-klezmer-gypsy-party-punk-super band”. Their challenge was to turn an experience that had been both traumatic and triumphal into a piece of theatre that would do justice to the 780 people who died – and the 1.4 million subsequently displaced.

“I watched people being gunned down,” says Marczyk, visibly uneasy at the memory. “We were not on the frontline throwing bricks, but we were surrounded by cops and going into buildings, trying to get medical supplies out when the snipers started shooting. One of the reasons it was so easy to convince the Lemon Bucket Orkestra to do this was they saw that they had to help me to get it out of my system.”

Mark Marczyk: ‘One of the reasons it was easy to convince the Lemon Bucket Orkestra to do this was they saw that they had to help me to get it out of my system.’ Photograph: Jeremy Mimnagh
Finding a theatrical form was not easy. Marczyk and Kudriavtseva wrote a chunky 20-character script with multiple narratives, but it only seemed to diminish the enormity of what they’d gone through. Instead, they drew on Kudriavtseva’s six years as an actor and singer with Kiev’s Dakh centre of contemporary art. The music-theatre productions of her avant garde director, Vlad Troitsky, seemed a better template, and so Counting Sheep became an impressionistic collage in which traditional song expresses the conflicting emotions of turbulent times.

Gorgeously sung and passionately played, these winter-solstice songs, partisan army songs and traditional wedding songs are performed in the original language. “One of the ideas was: what if we drop all of the dialogue?” says Marczyk. “What if we just tell the story using these 1,000-year-old songs in which the weight of Ukrainian history is embedded in every single note?”

Kudriavtseva chips in: “The audience may not understand the words, but they understand the feeling – because you cannot describe it in a way that can be understood.”

Polyphonic voices, sometimes dissonant, sometimes harmonious, were also a way of expressing the sense of community central to everything Marczyk and Kudriavtseva do. This is a couple who invited hundreds of strangers to join them in a Toronto park for their wedding celebrations last year. As many as 30 musicians have contributed to the joyful collective expression of the Lemon Bucket Orkestra, which fields up to 17 members at a time. Likewise, Counting Sheep turns the audience from passive observers into vigorous activists, dancing, feasting and protesting in the theatre, just like the community that formed on the streets of Kiev.

“For me, community was the No 1 important thing,” says Marczyk. “I came to Ukraine, I didn’t know anybody and my language was not that good, and I found a connection to people through music.”

That’s why Counting Sheep is less a polemic against any particular politician than an evocation of human solidarity. Marczyk sees it as a provocation. “The show is a choice,” he says. “How do you choose to react when you’re faced by these kind of questions? The stakes are lower than in a real revolution, but if we’ve done our job correctly and activated your emotions then you will open yourself up to answering those questions for yourself.”

Counting Sheep is at Summerhall @ the King’s Hall, Edinburgh, until 28 August.