Fresh from wading into just about the broadest, most contentious and complex field imaginable in its last show – gender and sexuality, for Merry Christmas, Ms Meadows – Belarus Free Theatre turns to an equally ambitious, all-pervasive area here: money.
Loosely structured around Aristophanes’ 408 BC satire Plutus, director Vladimir Shcherban interweaves documentary material, various literary sources and the experiences of his half Belarusian, half-British ensemble of making ends meet in two vastly different economic systems. The result is an impassioned, tightly structured piece with an urgent – if not exactly new – attack on inequality and excess under post-crash late capitalism.
Coke-snorting, street-walking and mass-murder/ suicide/ horse-shooting (remember Christopher Foster?) all play a part in this boom and bust fable, as the opulent set – including chandelier and grand piano – is gradually torn apart by the bilingual, ball-gown and tux-clad cast. The design has an almost hallucinogenic visual imagination, gymnastically transforming these pieces into a prison cell for one monologue, a brothel for another and, of course, classical Athens. One particularly striking sequence features a Greek Goddess as an ageing dominatrix, surrounded by barking dogs in leather gimp masks.
Early in the piece, performers present scraps of critical responses to previous productions, including the star-rating – hinting at a potentially interesting exploration of the worth placed on theatre in an art-as-commodity, star-ratings-as-currency economy. This is quickly dropped, but a deeper focus on the relationship between theatre and money could have been fascinating – particularly coming from a company who work for free in their native Belarus, but have had to adapt their practice and finance model here.
“Too many issues, not enough drama,” deemed Lyn Gardner (or at least the sub writing her headline) in the three-star review of Ms Meadows that’s read out here. That’s a little true of this follow-up too – the subject matter is too sprawling to skewer entirely successfully, and the climax – a lengthy reading from Stephane Hessel’s Occupy-inspiring tract Get Outraged! teeters into dry didacticism, the exact opposite of the rabble-rousing desired. Another review bemoans the difficulties of switching between reading the subtitles and watching the cast – not normally such a problem, but here the archaic translation of Aristophanes can be a little hard to penetrate, making it disorienting for those unfamiliar with the original text, .
But there’s enough contemporary context woven around this narrative, and a compelling injection of optimism amidst the crisis. Price of Money might not deliver its tongue-in-cheek promise to make you rich, but it’s certainly a powerful call to arms to take something back from those who are.