It would be easy to fill this whole review of Burning Doors, the new production from Belarus Free Theatre (BFT), on the importance of this theatre company, on how their very existence is essential.
However, not only have I written this before, many times (have a read of my interview with co-Artistic Director Natalia Kaliada here) but to do so repeatedly, I feel, actually undermines the theatrical achievements of these productions. Because this company not only produces important shows that examine critical themes and subjects in contemporary society, but they also do so in a challenging and provocative way.
Such as here.
The BFT is the only theatre company on the continent banned by its own government (Belarus is famously known as ‘Europe’s last dictatorship). Its members are persecuted; some have even disappeared. And this new show sees the group collaborate with Pussy Riot’s Maria Alyokhina – a woman who knows much about persecution herself.
Burning Doors sets out to explore and dramatise the role and responsibilities of contemporary artists in dictatorial societies – and the terrible consequences that befall them simply for expressing themselves through art. Art as a means of examining culture and behaviour, and art as a means of protest.
The first half of this two-hour show is based around Maria’s own experiences in the Russian prison system – a brutal world which exists to punish and torture enemies of the state. Rehabilitation an alien concept; one that is even derided as ‘soft’. You are meant to suffer in a Russian prison – and suffer Maria did.
For her part in Pussy Riot’s protests, Maria endured physical and psychological torture and here, on stage, Maria leads that dramatisation herself. She narrates in Russian (English surtitles running across the back of the stage) as scenes of desperate suffering materialise – simulated drowning, isolation, forced nudity, ritual abuse and humiliation… This isn’t easy going.
Yet directors Nicolai Khalezin and Natalia Kaliada have cleverly juxtaposed these harrowing scenes with more sarcastic, light-hearted touches that see a number of State apparatchiks weighing up how to manage Putin’s ever fluctuating orders with increasing worldwide protests and support for these political prisoners. The contrast works perfectly and keeps the audience engaged.
But the second half sees even these brief light(er) touches stripped away, along with almost all words and dialogue. Instead we are given an impressive and quite remarkable piece of physical theatre that has the company exploring imprisonment and freedom – and how the physical freedom from prison is not necessarily mirrored in a freedom of the mind.
The theme that you can leave prison in body only, in particular, is dramatically represented by the company attaching themselves to bungee ropes, fastened through open prison doors. Only the faster and harder they run away, with a greater ferocity the bungee rope pulls them back behind the prison doors.
The message is clear and this was probably the most powerful visual I took away from the show, but there were many others. An extended scene of shadow boxing, leading to ever-increasing exhaustion, was also particularly powerful. As was the impact made by watching the men in the company break down and cry. As were the scenes where they were strung up and hoisted to the ceiling. And so on, and so on.
These scenes of torture sting the eyes. I could sense that many in the audience thought this section of the show was perhaps too long. I would come back and say, well, I think that’s the point. It is meant to exhaust you; I feel you are meant to question why you feel increasingly numb. Because though our attention may fade, the suffering will still continue.
Burning Doors is powerful stuff. Its visceral anger and sense of injustice hits you like a truck. But even so, remember – we’re just an audience. The people on stage actually have had to endure that hell for real.
Soho Theatre, London to September 24, 2016
All images by Alex Brenner.