Well, I suppose there never is a good time to talk about the death penalty. But a Sunday evening? Is there – aren’t there – rules against that sort of thing? Laws?
Yes, quite. No laws at all, and that is definitely the point. There is no good time. In truth, this is the aspect of Trash Cuisine by Belarus Free Theatre that I was most affected by: I’m flung from my leafy West London, from an evening ordinarily reserved for an episode of Countryfile and the prime cuts of this week’s food shop, into the grit of Seven Sisters amongst graffiti and chicken shops. I don’t even know where I’m going – the location was undisclosed until 24 hours previously, and it turns out that wasn’t even the location of the show. I stumble upon a growing crowd of over fifty other people waiting outside a church – fifty other strangers – and am already begging for a trace of normality.
It’s a whirlwind. But before the show actually starts, there’s a lot of preamble: there’s the walk to New River Studios after a twenty-five minute wait, there’s free wine (alright, I’ll forgive the wait), then there’s the distribution of programmes, cards with social media handles, voting devices and blankets for anyone who might be cold. There’s a welcome from Natalia Kaliada, artistic director of Belarus Free Theatre, and an introduction from human rights lawyer Clive Stafford Smith. We also check in with an audience in Belarus via Skype – just one of over twenty countries watching the livestream of the show.
To be honest, by this point, I’ve almost forgotten I’m there to see a show. But this preamble is warranted. Belarus Free Theatre’s work is born from a very specific place and their logo, designed by Ai Weiwei, is quite simply of a hand with the middle finger stuck up. They’re the big bad theatre makers who are campaigning for good, and that middle finger goes to anyone who seeks to suppress their freedom to speak. It goes to Belarus, their home country, which has banned them from performing and creating there. In this show, Trash Cuisine, it also goes to the supporters and administers of capital punishment.
The concept of the piece, initiated by our chef (brilliantly and captivatingly played by Philippe Spall), is to use the cooking and consumption of food and meat as a metaphor for the savage butchery of human life. It is looked upon as a delicacy, a sport, an aspect of a refined way of life: women discuss their country’s respective practices over champagne and strawberries, and flour is thrown on the bodies of those who have been executed, like pastry to a meat filling.
We are told and shown stories and statistics of unjust (arguably, I guess) treatment of suspected and convicted criminals from Belarus to Guantanamo Bay. We are told through physical theatre, through recipes, and through an initially comic act in which Stephanie Pan gives a series of impressions of execution. Her impression of the electric chair, portrayed via screaming with a loop pedal, is not an experience I wish to repeat.
It’s a clever concept, and leads to a very clear route of thought into the way we view human life. It asks huge questions about morality, power, and cultural divides. But with regards to the way that sensitive concept is served, is it okay that I didn’t find it exceptional? Is it okay that I found it – in places – a little mediocre? Not that I wasn’t moved by the subject matter, but I was more moved by the story of the company and the fact that they can – and do – perform their work in this country and share it with the world. Long may they reign for all they are doing in terms of politically motivated and liberating theatre. But am I allowed to call it out on things, analysing it purely as a piece of theatre?
Therein lies my predicament. Should political art and theatre sit in a separate category? Surely a polished production is less important when what you’re discussing is the argument against prolonged trials and savage murders.
But okay, here’s the truth of it: it annoys me when artists do things on the floor of the stage or sitting or lying down, because no one but the front row can see what’s going on. Some of the performances were a bit lack lustre and some of the music was off key. The projections with text to read moved too quickly to follow. I craved an incremental journey between each scene so that I knew why I was still there, and what we – as an audience – were working towards.
Above all, I wanted more light and warmth, the kind that some fresnels and a blanket was never going to provide. And I know, capital punishment is amongst the darkest and coldest acts that humanity can submit to, but this brings me once more to question the difference between theatre as entertainment, and theatre for political statement.
The piece provided insight into a world that my cosy little existence shuts comfortably outside of everyday thought. It provided an opportunity to think on the people, such as Clive Stafford Smith, who are working to make a genuine change in the world, and applaud and be grateful to them. It was also a chance to feel part of the community that Belarus Free Theatre invite their audiences into, enticed by a truly infectious, inspiring and warm energy.
What the company make is good, there is no doubt about that. But has it changed my life? The production itself, not so much. But its existence and the dialogue surrounding it: that has irrevocably altered the way I feel and think. In short, I believe the piece meets its political aims with brute force and for that, it is extraordinary.
And I might just avoid eating meat for a little while.
Trash Cuisine is part of Belarus Free Theatre’s Staging a Revolution, a two week festival of performances and discussion platforms from Belarus Free Theatre to mark their 10th anniversary in 2015 (2nd – 14th November).
Performances and discussions will be live-streamed here: http://belarusfreetheatre.com/livestreaming