“If we can’t see the Hague trial in real life, let’s see it in the theater,” declared the author of an acclaimed satirical play that is causing a sensation in Bulgaria, in which Russian President Vladimir Putin and his allies are tried for war crimes.

The Hague, by Ukrainian author Sasha Denisova, tells the story of an orphaned teenager from Mariupol who imagines how Russia’s top brass is brought to justice for its devastating war in Ukraine.

Vladimir Putin is currently the subject of an arrest warrant issued in March by the International Criminal Court (ICC) over accusations of having deported children to Russian-occupied areas of Ukraine, although Denisova had already written the play at the time.

After premiering in Poland and the United States earlier this year, celebrated guest director Galin Stoev adapted the play for Bulgarian audiences, seeking to challenge pro-Kremlin sentiment in the Balkan country.

In the play, currently staged at the National Theater in Sofia, Bulgarian actress Radena Valkanova plays Putin, wearing an elegant black suit and red shoes.

“We must laugh mercilessly at Putin,” Denisova told AFP, just as Charles Chaplin mocked Adolf Hitler in “The Great Dictator.”

In Bulgaria, a member of the European Union and NATO but historically close to Russia, there are still many citizens nostalgic for what they consider the glory days of the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union.

Nostalgia also refers to Russia as protector of the Slavic peoples of Bulgaria against Ottoman rule.

Some studies suggest that 30% of Bulgarians are pro-Putin, prompting Stoev to create a “revealing” adaptation of the play in Sofia.

And it seems to have hit the mark.

“The audience is deeply moved and asking questions,” Stoev told AFP, after the actors received another round of applause from the audience.

However, the main challenge is to constantly adapt the script to reflect the current state of the war.

Julian Vergov – who plays the head of the Russian mercenary group Wagner, Yevgeni Prigozhin – admitted that working with a changing script is a challenge. Both Prigozhin’s failed mutiny and his death in a plane crash had to be added, leaving his fate in question.

“The play is fiction, but at the end of the day you play a real character, who then dies during rehearsals. It’s impressive,” Vergov said.

The company also needs to be aware of the latest rumors about the health of Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov and the Russian president.

Among all the praise, the work’s detractors criticize it, considering it to be a “biased propaganda vaudeville.” An actor allegedly declined a role for ideological reasons.

“With this show, we invite viewers to reflect on real events” and draw their own conclusions, replied director Vasil Vasilev.

“Politicization is just the opposite: when they tell us what we should think and do,” he added.

Putin impersonator Valkanova was happy that the play has aroused “very polarized opinions,” considering that they are “the purpose of this type of theater.”

“I’m glad there’s something like this to spark people’s thinking, something we lack as a nation,” he said.

Galin Stoev hopes to perform the play in the future in rural areas of Bulgaria, known to be susceptible to pro-Russian sentiment.