New writing from particular countries comes with a weight of expectation that often has nothing to do with the author. Pavel Pryazkho’s work is celebrated in Moscow and St Petersburg, but Minsk is the city he calls home. I don’t think I’m alone among the British theatre-going public when I say that I’ve never been to Belarus and I don’t know a lot about it. I do know it’s a dictatorship and that it’s a shadowy, mysterious place we hear little about. According to Amnesty International, it is the only country in Europe to carry out executions, opposition politicians and human rights activists are detained for legitimate activities, and rights to freedom, expression and assembly are severely restricted. Well those last two are bound to put a bit of a dampener on Belarusian theatre culture.
If you’ve seen theatre from Belarus in London before, it’d be fair to assume it was the Belarus Free Theatre because, well, there hasn’t been anything else. The company describes itself as “one of the most outspoken critics of Belarus’s repressive government”. Their latest play Trash Cuisine is now on in New York following a successful London run. Needless to say, they’re banned from performing in their home country. The Belarus Free Theatre serve up what people in the West expect from a theatre company in a repressive regime: work that is clearly political and oppositional. Pryazhko, on the other hand, still lives in Minsk and his work refuses to do anything we might expect from him as an artist living in a dictatorship.
The Harvest is set in an orchard. Four young characters are picking apples. It all seems to be going fine until an offcut remark about not bruising the apples leads to a spiral of doubt and self-examination that eventually leads to chaos and destruction. They leave the orchard a total mess, with no apples successfully picked, the ground littered with smashed fruit, branches snapped off trees. That really is all that happens. We are given no backstory about these characters, where they come from and why they’re picking these apples. We know that there were apple pickers before them and there will be more after them.
There’s plenty that you can read into the scenario if you’re on the hunt for symbolism. The act of picking fruit in an orchard and bringing about destruction in the process could be a comment on the condition of modern man from a Christian and ecological perspective. The unseen power pulling the strings behind the operation could symbolise the faceless dictatorship of Belarus controlling the every move of its citizens. There’s just enough to send you down either road but not enough to sustain a complete reading of the play from either perspective. It’s constantly allusive. The register seems, on the surface, to be a naturalistic one. After all, this is a play about physical labour, presented in more or less real time. Even if we read the characters’ situation as an intentionally absurdist one, they appear to be communicating in a “realistic” way.
And yet there’s something a little off about the whole thing from the outset. From the way Egor says “cool”, as if it’s the first time he’s heard the word, to the pride with which Valerii wields his pliers asking if the others have “ever heard of pliers”. At one moment, Lyuba stops everything she is doing to dash across the stage because she hears a cuckoo. Everything stops while we watch her watch the bird and, only after this, do we return to the “action” of the play. These punctuating moments of strangeness lend an eerie atmosphere to proceedings, even as Michael Boyd’s production plays up the laughs and the innuendos. It feels as if the characters are trying on the ideas of themselves as adults or simply as human beings. Certainly anyone capable of doing anything. Even as the bleak white room of Madeleine Girling’s set tries to enclose the play into a kind of 1950s absurdist logic, the characters refer to medications and pharmaceutical drugs, connecting themselves, their allergies and ailments (extreme to the point of being almost unbelievable) to the real world of Google diagnoses.
The Harvest is not a play where nothing happens. It’s full of events. It’s just that those events are only relevant to the task at hand. While work plays usually use the work itself as an excuse to keep characters who might not want to speak to each other in the same room doing repetitive physical actions, the dramatic action of those plays is almost always about the workers bringing the outside world into the workspace. Here all we have is the work, action in its purest form and Pryazhko has crafted something indescribably compelling and curious out of it. As Lubya puts it: “They say there are three things you never grow tired of watching: fire, water and someone working.” Pryazhko is a true theatre artist. I hope we get to see more of his work in the UK. I can’t imagine I’ll ever grow tired of watching it.