It’s just after 4pm on 25th July on a hot bright day in a dark studio at Falmouth University. A small group people are gathered in front of a stage where two men, stripped to the waist, wrestle. The concentration in the room is intense. For one moment the men freeze, one against the other and belly into small of back breathing hard. It’s aggressive and it’s erotic.
For eleven years Belarus Free Theatre (BFT) has habitually made work which seems to simultaneously imprison and free the body. Burning Doors continues this obsession with physicality: it’s their new performance, which tells the stories of political artists Russian Petr Pavlensky, Pussy Riot’s Maria Alyokhina and Ukrainian born Crimean filmmaker Oleg Sentsov. This scene will eventually be performed naked by Kiryl Kanstantsinau and Andrei Urazau, as Maryna Yurevich recites lines from Michel Foucault’s Discipline and Punishment. The scene not only perfectly sums up the moods and feelings inherent in BFT’s oeuvre so far (always about the blurring of boundaries between good and evil) but is suggestive of many of the thematic concerns that will dominate Burning Doors. Performance art, freedom, role-play, torture, appropriation of the body and artistic dedication are all recurring strands in BFT’s multimedia and audiovisual theatrical style.
It’s a work that focuses in the dedication that being an artist requires: especially in the post-soviet countries its protagonists live in. Pavlensky’s statements about what it means to be an artist punctuate the show’s chapters. Imprisoned by the authorities for setting fire to the wooden doors of the headquarters of Russia’s FSB security service, Pavlensky was recently freed with a fine of 500,000 roubles. This was after he’d demanded that his own charge be upgraded to that of terrorism, out of dedication to the idea that state machinery can be used as part of ongoing protests (i.e prison) and his wish to be in solidarity with Sentsov, who falsely languishes in jail on terrorism charges and a prison sentence that will last eighteen years (seen as revenge by the Russians on Sentsov’s opposition to Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea). The Russians refused, but this commitment to political artistic protest that seems to have inspired the performers. Before coming to Falmouth, the troupe spent a day talking with Pavlensky and Kanstantsinau particularly was affected, reflecting that he tries to “embody his spirit on his stage.”
In fact there’s something more intense than usual about the whole of the troupe, including Pussy Riot member Maria Alyokhina, who will be making her acting debut. In the warm-up session the next day at 10am, co-choreographic director and ensemble member Maryia Sazonava’s workout routines have the company moving like a synchronised swimming team. In the spaces between the music- Run boy Run by Woodkid is on the playlist- they breathe as one, stamp their feet as one, run as one. At the end of ninety minutes they are knackered but glad. “It makes me feel alive” says Yurevich.
This physical degradation, a show in itself even in the warm ups, dominates BFT’s early process weeks whilst directors Nicolai Khalezin and Natalia Kaliada are busy distilling text from four weeks of Skype interviews with Alyokhina. Many of the ensemble’s own ideas (inspired by Khalezin “First, we need to find a limit in us, and than go beyond that line of our physical abilities. Second, we need to explore the tortures that started from medieval times up to today’s riot police in our country”) choreographed by Sazonava and brought together by choreography and rehearsal director Bridget Fiske, are specifically about torture and make it into the final show. One torture sequence in particular, twenty minutes in length, is extremely hard to watch, even in rehearsal. “It’s all about kinaesthetic empathy” says Fiske, using her hands to enunciate the idea that repetition and the physical degradation of actors onstage will encourage an audience to empathise with them. How else to dramatically portray the very real ordeals suffered by Sentsov when he was arrested and tortured?
The physicality contrasts with other tentative scenes that reveal a strand of dark humour and Alyokhina’s poetical meditations on freedom and death. In typical BFT style and in a format well-used by the company, Russian officials are wheeled out (literally) to ruminate over Pussy Riot, Pavlensky and Sentsov whilst they talk about domestic matters, including plutocracy. It is perhaps scenes like these that have previously encouraged journalists and critics to label the company as “political” or even as “agit-prop.” Is BFT’s work agit-prop? “The worst thing is this label of political theatre” says Khalezin evenly, “People are allowed to talk about political things, for example in Belarus they will talk about why Britain left the EU and say they don’t understand, it’s beyond logic etc, but if I then said I am going to make a performance about Brexit they will say I am making political theatre. We’ve told stories without being afraid of any topics or geopolitical, political or social topics. We’ve never agitated anything.” Pussy Riot’s Alyokhina agrees with this notion of labels which are a pet hate of hers, “Agit-prop is a sticker. If BFT were making propaganda they would show my story as a hero of Pussy Riot and give the story of Pussy Riot. But we are trying to do something else.”
What is this else? Are the Russian officials merely Brechtian cardboard cut outs? Two scenes refute this notion. The officials are written as taking a conscious interest in their charges , submerged in their problems rather than being one dimensional cogs in a system they cannot acknowledge or change. Their complexity can both attract and repel an audience. This may have something to do with Alyokhina’s assertion over a slow coffee at the end of a long rehearsal day that the FSB “have a lot of experience communicating with protestors and that for them, it is also interesting.”
The scenes appear to explore notions of heroism and perceptions of good and evil. But didn’t Russia’s Dostoevsky introduce the modern world to the concept of the anti-hero? Khalezin’s eyes are lit up, it is plain the author is close to his heart. “Dostoevsky explains that humans are different to each other, that they are weak, greedy, evil, yet those same people can also be loyal and good-hearted. The double moral standards Dostoevsky talks about are now used as a totalitarian tool” Khalezin states passionately. Two weeks later he euphorically asserts that the question has inspired two key scenes in the play. The Dostoevsky answer is surprising: whilst BFT support the notion that good and evil is in everyone, they also reject the state’s totalitarian use of this model to excuse wrong doing. Neither do Pavlensky, Sentsov or Alyokhina wish to be portrayed “as suffering” and so, in the classical sense, heroic. In an interview Pavlensky has much to say about heroism, he might even be implying that today’s “heroes” are state sanctioned and are part of a state’s narrative.
Watching these scenes (or BFT’s earlier, more opaque works such as Price of Money or Being Harold Pinter) it is obvious that levels of interpretation are dependent on an audience’s ability to read scenes according to their own experiences, even theatrical experiences . “We deal with metaphors and we’ve been told that we are too metaphoric and that we need to give texts to people for them to understand and not just leave it on a metaphoric level” writes Kaliada in a late night email exchange over whether certain sections of Burning Doors should have chapter headings and explanations of thematic content. She admits she would prefer to have no text and make work that is purely physical. But a violent scene between Alyokhina and Kanstantsinau is a perfect example of the textual layers that can be gained if other mediums are introduced. On one level it may be read and possibly be only interpreted as a scene where a man is extremely cruel to a woman as she recites a poem by Yana Satunovsky, a legendary underground Moscow poet. On another level, there is plainly something more symbolic going on. After experiencing the scene over and over in rehearsal and having only one intense reaction to it, which is the desire to get up and make it stop, it occurs to me that the reason why it can work on so many levels and yet appear literal is because the violence, and the experience of it for the audience, might be so powerful that it wipes all notion of metaphor out of their heads. Feelings take over and the intellect runs away. Did the scene happen to Alyokhina? Seems to be the only appropriate and inevitable question to ask later at Falmouth University’s Koofi bar. It is met with a resounding and astounded “No, it’s a metaphor.”
Alyokhina, who seems to drink about ten coffees a day, is slight and bursting with wiry energy and personality. External circumstances don’t seem to have an impact on her for long. But Alyokhina’s quiet and determined presence brings a different dynamic to a troupe that have now become so intuitive with each other that of them Khalezin says “They know what I want without me having to say anything.” But Alyokhina’s ideas of freedom might be different. “I want to be myself onstage” says Alyokhina but it becomes clear that part of what this means is a dedication to a personal truth which causes many dramaturgical difficulties that are a challenge for the company to solve. “Prison is inside” Alyokhina insists “and all this decoration, beautiful decoration with bars, prison guards, this means nothing if you’re free inside. This is like theatre.” It’s not clear if Alyokhina means that theatre can be a prison, but as arguments erupt between herself and the rest of company over her desire to smoke onstage and wear the dress that she wore at her trials in court, it seems like it might feel like it to her. Some solutions are found and BFT wittily include some metatheatre scenes, challenging the notion that anything that has just been seen is realistic and where the nature of creative integrity, freedom, truth and illusion are brought into question.
In true Pavlensky style they are using their own ‘state machinery’ (in this case theatre) to create an arena where the meaning behind Alyokhina’s protests and the company’s can be examined, albeit through metaphor. This applies especially to a scene where the company, as themselves, try to force Alyokhina to wear a jacket. “I wanted to break the fourth wall but to break it in such a way that there is no question of whether or not it has been broken. I wanted to create an anti-theatrical story for the audience to understand that they are positioned in a space that is made up” says Khalezin. Kaliada joins in the conversation and brings a slightly different meaning to the scenes: “This is the first time we decided not to immerse the audience in the total conditions of a jail (i.e Alyokhina’s) but just give very specific glimpses of it” she says. In a flash this gives meaning to a very early conversation with Kaliada when meeting Alyokhina for the first time. “How do you show what it is like to be in a prison?” Kaliada had said then in week two towards the end of an intensive rehearsal period. “It is impossible to describe her experience and for an audience to understand,” she continued. Looking at Alyokhina it was easy to see what she meant, although this cannot be explained in words. How can anyone’s personal terror of being locked away be ever got across to anyone else? Yet, BFT seem to have found a way.
If it has been a challenging working with someone who has never worked in a professional theatre before the experience has had some positives. “Working with Maria has taught us that anyone can be an actor” says Yurevich, Alyokhina’s stage coach.
It’s the next to last day before BFT have to do their get out and pack up for Leicester and their first preview. Some latent problems culminate into dramatic storms: Alyokhina develops a problem with her eyes and has to be taken to Truro hospital. Stanislava Shablinskaya and Urazau develop injuries and have to see a physiotherapist. For a moment all rehearsals are suspended and it is not clear whether there can be a technical run through. If people are worried or stressed you’d have to know BFT very well to realise it. Kaliada looks a little nervous, but focuses her attention on worrying about whether British audiences will get the context of the scenes. Khalezin crashes out on the benches. Daniella, their daughter, normally someone rushing around doing everything, including a great deal of translating, hangs on the sofas asking for advice about UCAS applications. There is a run through, but without Alyokhina, the company decide not to perform at full strength.
The next day, when the company have only until 5pm until the set is taken down by Falmouth’s team, there is a different mood in the camp. Alyokhina looks bright and fresh, there is, despite the time pressure, a palpable sense of excitement. The dress will begin at 1pm. When it does, Alyokhina’s scenes are still upsetting. However at the beginning of the torture scene Kanstantsinau and Shablinskaya argue. Shablinskaya, a karate champion, is meant to kick Kanstantsinau on his sides and hit him lightly on his chest. They have been through the routine many times before, but for some reason, perhaps from exhaustion or from a natural tendency to defend himself, Kanstantsinau ducks and Shablinskaya catches him on the head. Kanstantsinau is hurt and hits out. The whole quarrel is unscripted, but fascinating if not painful to watch. It’s a result of the physical degradation and exhaustion Fiske was talking about. It’s real. The show carries on but later Kanstantsinau is required to break down and sob onstage. This time he really cries. It’s so real that he’s not the only one. As he just sobs and sobs, Pavel Haradnitski, Siarhei Kvachonak and the others throw each other almost in slow motion. When Kanstantsinau is strung up on ropes there is a terrible realisation that is not just emotional or intellectual, but physiological. Somewhere deep in Russia this is really happening to Sentsov and thousands of others like him whose stories we don’t get to hear. BFT it seems, have managed to get some of that reality across. We are in a theatre and we know we are, but for these brief, startling moments it feels like we are not.
Burning Doors will be performed at Soho Theatre until 24 September, 2016. More info here.