London Theater Journal: Imagination From Despair in Edinburgh and Minsk
Mind you [...] the ensemble of “Minsk, 2011,” the sustained cri de coeur from the Belarus Free Theater, which is legally banned from performing in its native country. (It opened, with a salvo of offstage drama, at the Young Vic Theater last week.)
The breast-beating and complaining of the characters [...] would be a luxury for those in “Minsk, 2011. A Reply to Kathy Acker.” The latest offering from this astonishing underground troupe begins with individual performers walking up to a microphone center stage. They pause, hesitate, start to unfold a flag or merely look at their watches. Then, before they can utter a word, they are dragged out of sight by a troop of stocking-capped men.
The scene provides a raw, potent metaphor for the lot of the Belarus Free Theater, which can perform in its own country only surreptitiously. (In place of the usual production credits, the program cast and crew biographies list incidents of arrest, imprisonment and blackballing.) Conceived as a response to “New York in 1979,” an erotic anatomy of the city by Ms. Acker, this production presents Minsk as a place where sex is a thwarted, warping force.
“To be sexual in Minsk does not mean to want to have sex,” says one young woman. And the encounters presented here – between a prostitute and a john, a group of topless dancers and a government official, anxious patrons in a secret gay club, an aspiring stripper and two men she meets on the Internet – usually stop short of consummation. The sounds of orgasm are delivered by two disengaged performers who never touch; a young woman stands and vibrates mechanically and autonomously, limb by limb.
As usual with this company, whose brilliant “Being Harold Pinter” was staged in New York two years ago, much of what we see are visceral theatrical interpretations of real events, which include arrests, interrogations and the bombing of a subway station. There are first-person testimonials, and encyclopedia-style accounts of geographical and economic statistics and of history past and present.
Elementary props are put to highly sophisticated use. They include balloons, a red carpet, three sacks of sugar and long-handled brooms to clean away messy signs of life and death. There is a stunning coup de theatre, in which a naked woman is covered in ink and pressed onto a roll of brown paper, which is then fashioned into a cocoon from which she vengefully emerges with a whip. In one sequence, women who have been charged with prostitution are set the surreal, fairy-tale-like task of sweeping up snow.
There are sad and lovely images of snow as a transforming, even revolutionary element, which turns a gray city into a virgin canvas. One man speaks rapturously of the most beautiful graffiti he ever saw in Minsk, the single word “snow” on a wall. Snow melts, of course, just as graffiti is soon painted over.
The final scene of the production, directed by Vladimir Shcherban, allows the performers to describe their feelings about Minsk. To call them ambivalent is an understatement. Minsk is evoked both as a black hole that sucks out creative life and as the only place these people feel they belong.
After the curtain calls, as the artistic director Natalia Kaliada was beginning a speech, a rumpled, middle-aged man stood up in the aisle. “I am Belarus,” he said. “These people are not Belarus.” A few audience members booed,while several cast members applauded. Ms. Kaliada felt obliged to note that this was not a part of the play.
Except that it was, in a way – a testimony to a now rare breed of provocative political theater, wherein art and reality are so uncomfortably close that it’s sometimes hard to distinguish between them.
Ben Brantley, The New York Times, 18 June 2012