Minsk 2011, Belarus Free Theatre, Young Vic, review
The Belarus Free Theatre paint a bleak picture of their increasingly repressive and violent homeland in Minsk 2011.
Imagine a European country where people are now so mistrustful of each other that no one dares to meet a stranger’s gaze for even a few seconds, where an ambulance might well contain thugs in medical uniform, administering beatings or even death, and where gatherings of more than three are prohibited.
No need to make much mental effort. Using basic props, and relying on scant, hand-to-mouth resources, the Belarus Free Theatre are here to tell us how things are in their homeland, where, under the dictatorial shadow of President Lukashenko, conditions for citizens have taken a turn for the kind of dark, Kafka-esque surrealism that so often flourishes under brutal regimes.
First seen here last year at the Edinburgh Fringe, now rightly given a platform in London, Minsk 2011 begins with a series of thwarted individual attempts at simple self-expression. One by one, four actors from the nine-strong ensemble edge towards and then back away from a microphone and instead begin an innocuous activity – one unfurls the old white-red-white Belarusian flag, another attempts to play a flute, a third tries to clap, a fourth just looks at his watch. In each case, this “subversive element” is bundled helplessly away by sour-faced heavies, before a couple of impassive charladies trace a cleansing circle over the stage with brooms. It’s obvious what’s being said and yet no overt “statement” is made. Adaptor/director Vladimir Shcherban hereby establishes a mood of bleakly amusing playfulness and unpredictability into which disparate material is then introduced. Like the show’s subtitle – “A Reply to Kathy Acker” – an obscure reference to the American performance artist’s short-story “New York City in 1979” – some of this material is too elliptical for its own good.
The sight of a naked actress being daubed in black ink, then wrapped from head to toe in rolls of blank paper is arresting but does little more than further scatter thoughts about how sexual exploitation is rife in a climate where desire has been driven underground. Although the company’s physical and visual prowess is admirable the evening is at its most affecting when it simply lets us hear at the end from the brave actors themselves, sitting all in a row and facing either the disorientation of exile here or the threat of persecution if they return home – a ghastly limbo that those with power in the EU could easily alleviate if they only showed a modicum of like-minded will and resolve.
Dominic Cavendish, The Telegraph, 18 June 2012