‘We spent five days in hell’ – Belarus Free Theatre are back from the brink.
Belarus Free Theatre’s long-delayed epic ‘Dogs of Europe’ is almost indescribably immense, a vast, shrieking madness that lasts north of the advertised three hours and really does feel like you’ve lived through it.
I want to try and be relatively brief here so I can get this review up ASAP, as two shows on Saturday March 12 are your last chances to see its brief Barbican run. But first some context.
When ‘Dogs of Europe’ was originally due to come to the Barbican in May 2020, Belarus Free Theatre were merely forbidden from practising in their home country. That didn’t actually stop them doing so: I saw a clandestine version of ‘Dogs of Europe’ in Minsk in March 2020. Since then, however, the regime of Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko has because vastly more repressive, and the company has been forced to flee. The government has also banned the novel by Belarusian author Alhierd Bacharevic that ‘Dogs of Europe’ is adapted from.
But here we are: Belarus Free Theatre have survived, against the odds, and not for the first time.
‘Dogs of Europe’ is very much a show of three acts, with the first as chaotic and mad a piece of theatre as you’ll ever see, an almost indecipherable 90 minutes of cacophonous sensory overload that begins with a strange, violent fairy story about an old woman being abducted, ends with an eccentric government official stripping off and running in circles, and finds plenty of time to drop in a lot of surreal stuff about geese, plus a fight scene containing the immortal line ‘Russian warship, go fuck yourself’. Defined by the company’s wild physicality and Roman Liubyi’s gargantuan, pop art style videos it is extraordinary and baffling.
Heading into the interval, there’s certainly the worry that this most laudable of companies have basically turned in something incomprehensible. But then ‘Dogs of Europe’ dramatically changes shape. Performer Aliaksei Naronovich continues to run around in circles naked for the entire break… and then gets dressed (without pause for breath) and morphs into hardbitten German detective Teresius Skima, trying to determine the identity of a dead body found in a Berline hotel in the year 2049, his only clue a book and a goose feather found on the body. In this future, Europe is divided between a Russian Reich and an EU-equivalent League of European Nations. Books are increasingly rare in this world, and with them individual countries’ senses of selves. On a trippy odyssey through some of Europe’s last remaining bookstores – cracked, liminal spaces run by bitter drunks and horny madmen – Naronovich’s tough, dishevelled Skima pieces together the fact that the deceased was something called a ‘poet’ from a country called ‘Belarus’ that was absorbed into the Russian Reich decades ago.
Of course, the play and book are making some very earnest points about the suppression of Belarusian culture and national identity by its repressive, pro-Russian regime. That the book is now itself banned in Belarus only serves to underscore this point with a depressing lack of subtlety. But by rendering the story as a queasy, dreamlike fable – one that cleverly throws some light on some of the more incomprehensible bits of the first act – it manages to feel greater and more mystical than mere agitprop, a haunting, playful, dreamlike requiem not just for Belarus but for culture and national identities generally, a sense of something being lost, books burned literally and books burned from memory.
The final section isn’t even technically part of the play, and yet feels indivisible from it. Under the giant projected slogan ‘Where the books were burned in time people will burn’, the company’s co-artistic director Natalia Kaliada comes and addresses the audience directly about the war in Ukraine, revealing its impact upon the company on stage, notably that their musicians have had family members killed, and that Liubyi – who did the videos and animations – is currently off fighting the war. Finally, each audience member is issued with a picture of a Belarusian citizen imprisoned by the Lukashenko regime for political protest, which we raise at the very end. Of course, all of this is just a gesture, but it’s deeply emotional and extremely necessary, an almost incomparable moment of raw humanity to ground the wild energies and emotions of this remarkable odyssey.