Pay no attention to the stars above. This review could just as well have carried a zero stars rating: such is the necessity of Belarus Free Theatre that a rating system of any type is rendered unnecessary. This company are not seeking critical acclaim: they want the basic freedoms we take and have taken for granted all of our lives. For those that don’t already know, BFT are a Belarusian theatre company whose work is banned in their home country. The company has been subjected to serial arrests, abuse and intimidation. Some are unable even to return home and are severed indefinitely from their loved ones. The rest can only guess what fate awaits them on their return. This is real, and as such demands a wholly different process of engagement, from say, The Lion King.
Minsk 2011: A Reply to Kathy Acker is a portrait of a city that is sick, with “bad teeth and a tiny pension,” its inhabitants humiliated and humiliating one another. The show’s stated intention, to explore unbridled sexuality – freedom, perhaps, in its purest sense – in underground Minsk is consistently derailed by the perennial interventions of the state. As their lives are infected by malevolent forces, so necessarily is their art. They cannot ignore it, and they cannot accept it and they’re determined that neither should we.
A catalogue of intimidation follows, painting Minsk as a caged animal driven to despair. There are brief moments of relief/release: a sequence in an underground semi-legal club where for a few hours only, people can be who they want. A possessed MC orates without pause, over a relentless beat, of the scenes of degradation, fucking and vomiting “and nobody gives a fuck.” It’s clear that the few opportunities people have to be free are taken violently, desperately, consentingly.
This is less theatre than performance art. The theatrical comfort blankets of character, narrative and invention are removed from the audience, replaced by a stark, simple approach to image making and direct engagement. They use their own names. They talk to us. They do not all possess the silky skills of drama graduates – they’re not pretending to be real. They are real. And it’s not that they have an unsophisticated approach – it’s simply that a) they’re dispossessed and haven’t got any money and b) there is no nuance to the oppression they face. This is not political theatre. It’s simply political.
The final episode is almost unbearable. The company line the front of the stage and tell us simply and honestly what they expect when they get back to the city that, in spite of everything, they love. All have lost their jobs – many will be arrested. One man, exiled, separated from his wife, speaks of his own virtual Minsk that he enters online, broken only by trips to Tesco from his London residence. Star ratings, in this context, border on the offensive. And it’s a rare occasion that the phrase “must see” can be applied with any justification. More accurately, you have a duty to see this show. It is necessary that you do. It is the very very least you can do.