If any theatre company lives at the knife’s edge of state oppression versus creative freedom, it’s Belarus Free Theatre. Based in London, with no ‘official’ existence in Belarus, bordered by Russia and Ukraine, its performances at home take place underground: in cafés, apartments, woods.
‘Burning Doors’ – which takes artistic protest as its theme – is a collaboration with Maria Alyokhina, who became internationally famous in 2012 as one of the two members of Russian feminist punk rock protest group, Pussy Riot, imprisoned for 21 months for staging a performance in Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Saviour.
The piece, performed with surtitles, weaves together testimony from Alyokhina (who also takes part in it) with recent state treatment of Russian artist Petr Pavlensky and Ukrainian filmmaker Oleg Sentsov. Earlier this year, Pavlensky was found guilty of vandalism for setting fire to the doors of the Russian Secret Service headquarters. In 2014, Sentsov began a 20-year prison sentence for ‘acts of terrorism’.
Russia’s 2014 occupation of Crimea looms large over co-directors Nicolai Khalezin and Natalia Kaliada’s production, as do its artistic and theoretical influences – the writings of Russian author Fyodor Dostoevsky and French philosopher Michel Foucault’s seminal work, ‘Discipline and Punish’. The seven-strong ensemble act as a chorus of pain.
This is a brutally physical production, with bodies suspended in the air, stripped naked and thrown around. The harsh, sometimes absurdist theatricality of the staging becomes a discomforting analogue for the ritualised humiliation and control employed by the Russian authorities. The cast grapple with each other with grim endlessness as they read out Pavlensky’s real-life interrogation.
‘Burning Doors’ is too long and baggily structured; clumsy in places. But two Russian officials trying to understand artistic dissent while taking a shit, and using an interrogation transcript as toilet paper, is a sharp splash of pitch-black humour. And ‘Burning Doors’ moves effectively from this provocation to the agony and defiance of its final, almost wordless scenes.
There’s a visceral sense of collective nervous breakdown here, as well as of a questioning: what, as artists, can we actually achieve?