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Minsk, 2011 - A Reply to Kathy Acker

Belarus Free Theatre
Vladimir Shcherban and the Company
Young Vic’s Maria Studio

Yana Rusakevich Credit: Nikolai Khalezin
The Company Credit: Nikolai Khalezin
Dzenis Tarasenka Credit: Nikolai Khalezin

It is worth starting this review with a description of the company, to put it into a political context. “Belarus Free Theatre was founded in 2005 under Europe's last surviving dictatorship; the company is one of the most outspoken critics of Belarus’s repressive regime. Many company members have served time in prison, lost their jobs, gone into hiding or been exiled. Despite this, the company continues to develop award-winning work with the support of artists around the world”.

While the company may have been unhappy at unplanned heckling during the opening night performance of Minsk, 2011, noisy opposition certainly adds to the power of political theatre.

The elderly traditionalist, appropriately looking like a man who might be cast as KGB spy chief Karla in the inevitable movie version of Smiley's People, is apparently not a fan of a company banned in its home country but still keen to spread a deeply depressing message at considerable personal risk.

This performance, which forms part of LIFT 2012, runs on energy and anger, as nine performers give viewers an impressionistic view of the terrors of life in Minsk today.

As such, it is easy to see why the Belarussian Tourist Board and its cronies might be less than enthusiastic about allowing such performances free rein while they try to sell the meagre attractions of a country with no coastline, mountains or obvious selling points.

Language can be a barrier, even when a fair element of the 85 minutes relies on physical performance to complement the verbatim theatre. The Russian text has, though, been translated into uncompromising English surtitles by Chris Thorpe.

The former Soviet state gets clobbered almost throughout until the last of the performance’s short scenes when each of the actors tells us what Minsk means to them. To paraphrase horribly, they all hate it but Belorus remains in their heart as the Mother Country, despite unemployment, imprisonment and exile in some cases.

From the opening scene in which each of the five men is carted away by police-thugs for offences that are laughably inconsequential, followed by an episode of state-sponsored queer bashing, the tone is set. This is not going to be a cheery evening but it will present an uncompromising, if possibly one-sided, portrait of a country that few Londoners will ever visit.

Economically, Belarus has little going for it, with prostitution and sex clubs (that operate as factories by day) seemingly a major industry and security suspect following a bombing on the underground last year, which does echo a London experience and is simply symbolised by flattened bodies and three bags of rationed sugar.

The local way out of perpetual misery is the old Soviet combination of hedonistic partying and cheap booze, which under innumerable different names never tastes too sweet.

This presentation of an Eastern European homage to American novelist and lover of excess, Kathy Acker, is heart-felt. However, like much of her work, it can be something of a mess, as the short sketches seek to outdo each other in their efforts to shock viewers at the same time as piling the opprobrium on to a country to which several of those involved in this company cannot currently return.

Assuming that the Belarus Free Theatre has not allowed its political views to unbalance the truth, this is an important work that doesn't make for comfortable viewing but deserves support in its efforts to bring worldwide awareness of a troubled state that is still in the grip of repression long after the fall of the Soviets.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher