Two Cities on the Verge of Devouring Themselves
LONDON — Words don’t come easily in the opening moments of “Minsk, 2011: A Reply to Kathy Acker,” the lacerating new work from the Belarus Free Theater. The latest offering from this astonishing troupe in exile, which recently closed at the Young Vic Theater, begins with individual performers walking up to a microphone. Each pauses, hesitates, starts to unfold a flag, play a flute or merely glance at a wristwatch. Then, before any of them utters a sound, 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 the novelist Kathy Acker, this production presents Minsk as a place where sex is a thwarted, warping force. Like the Nemiga River that runs beneath the city, erotic impulses have been forced underground.
“To be sexual in Minsk does not mean to want to have sex,” one young woman says. 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 accounts of geographical and economic statistics and of distant and recent history.
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 théâtre 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, lets the performers 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.
While “Minsk” summons a city suffocating beneath an oppressive state, Philip Ridley’s savage and utterly gripping “Mercury Fur” imagines another European capital as a land of lawlessness. That’s London in what — if you’re in the right (or wrong) mood — feels like the all-too-foreseeable future.
“Mercury Fur,” which ended its limited run at Trafalgar Studios recently, offers the most merciless vision of a self-devouring Britain since Sarah Kane’s “Blasted” rattled audiences here in 1995. Directed with expertly harnessed ferocity by Ned Bennett, this Greenhouse Theater Company revival of Mr. Ridley’s 2005 drama follows the preparations for a party in an abandoned, rubble-strewn London apartment.
Elliot (Ciaran Owens) and Darren (Frank C. Keogh), feral and violently affectionate brothers, are overseeing the arrangements. They are in charge of drinks, snacks, décor and, most important, the care, feeding and costuming of the Party Piece, in this case a boy dressed up for the, er, entertainment of a prosperous paying guest.
It’s the sort of setup you associate with gratuitous splatter movies. But Mr. Ridley (“The Pitchfork Disney,” “Tender Napalm”) isn’t just out for easy thrills. As is true in all effective futuristic fiction, this one creates an exactingly detailed dystopia, with an exotic yet disturbingly familiar language and customs of its own.
These would seem to have been assembled from the ashes of a city ravaged by uncontrolled rioting. (The London riots of last summer have given this revival an uncomfortable topicality.) And much of the play’s dialogue is shaped by its characters’ addled efforts to recall their own history, both personal and cultural.
Of the people who come and go in the flat — including an inquisitive squatter next door (Sam Swann); a hulking makeshift entrepreneur (Ben Dilloway); and his blind, bejeweled girlfriend (Katie Scarfe) — only Elliot and his lover, Lola (James Fynan), have much of a memory left.
Everyone else takes hallucinogens (in the form of different-colored butterflies) that erase and blur recollection, while scrambling traditional lines of family, gender and feeling. These people are understandably unwilling to live with clear pictures of what they have been through, even if it’s only what they went through that morning.
Though the plot assumes an obtrusive capital P in the second act, the cast — rounded out by Ronak Raj as the Party Piece and Henry Lewis as the Party Guest (from the City, wouldn’t you know?) — is terrifyingly in the moment throughout. So much so that I noted several audience members leaving the (admittedly claustrophobic) theater as “Mercury Fur” headed toward its grisly denouement.
I understood the impulse, since by that time I was looking at the stage through the splayed hand I’d clamped over my eyes. There had been moments I responded that way during “Minsk, 2011.” Yet in both cases, I felt strangely hopeful, as I had when I first saw “Blasted.” Here was evidence, after all, that original, socially engaged theater still has the power to shock.
Ben Brantley, The New York Times, June 29, 2012