Minsk, 2011: A Reply to Kathy Acker at Young Vic, review
A forlorn flurry of snow; cleaners in headscarves bent over brooms; a row of pale faces on a rattling subway train; dancers in black underwear, as skinny and angular as Egon Schiele’s hollow-eyed women, gyrating aggressively in strip joints. This kaleidoscopic show by Belarus Free Theatre, presented as part of LIFT 2012 and directed by Vladimir Shcherban, is a kind of brutal ballet in which images and memories from a country in the stranglehold of Lukashenko’s dictatorship collide. It’s provocative, confrontational, spiked with dark wit, scalding in its grief and rage; but in its irrepressible hope, it also soars.
The play is a companion piece to an earlier show, New York in 1979, itself adapted from a work on socio-sexuality by Kathy Acker, the radical postmodern American writer and feminist. Shcherban’s raucous, freewheeling staging gleefully embraces the punk spirit of Acker’s writing to explore life in the Belarussian capital under a stifling authoritarianism that can twist and proscribe desire and sensuality. Convicted prostitutes are commanded to sweep the streets after a heavy snowfall — a humiliation that turns into a scene of delirious celebration as the women, straddling men’s shoulders, swirl through the snowflakes; a Gay Pride march leads to violent arrests. A factory workers’ canteen becomes by night a wild underground club where sexual pleasure is seized hungrily, desperately, even savagely.
Meanwhile, mere eye contact in public becomes dangerous. It’s as if bodies have been commandeered and human intimacy distorted by state control — an idea that reaches a surreal and shockingly brilliant climax in a scene in which a woman describes being taken into custody by the police and having not just her fingerprints, but a print of her entire body taken. Stripped naked and daubed from head to toe in ink, she is rolled in paper until she is almost smothered — only to rip her way out, stained and defiant, and furiously brandishing a whip.
It’s fascinating, frightening and yet exhilarating, because the performers make it poignantly clear — especially in a final sequence of highly personal monologues — how much they love their home, and how ferocious is their determination to fight for its freedoms. This is theatre with true passion and purpose: wild, intense and thrillingly urgent and alive.
Sam Marlowe, The Times, 18 June 2012