On Theatre

Art as resistance

This Belarusian play at the Barbican is timely and urgent

This article is taken from the April 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

It says something about the plight of Europe in 2022 that the play and company which seems most relevant to all our concerns is an exiled experimental theatre troupe from Minsk, with a dystopian play, set in the middle of the twenty-first century and featuring a chaotic cast of humans (and a saggy stuffed goose) under the heel of an authoritarian regime which has conquered large parts of Europe and Asia by force.

The BFT describes itself as a “cultural resistance movement”

The Belarus Free Theatre company has long been a beacon of the bravery of the arts — an experimental company tireless in its challenge to tightening autocracy in its homeland under the Kremlin-satrapy of Alexander Lukashenko. It has moved productions underground, built a support network via social media and used digital performances to keep its flame alive during lockdowns. 

The company’s founders and key actors are now in exile, many of them having been arrested and their families hounded for their participation or support.

The decision by the Barbican theatre to host the company’s latest production, Dogs of Europe, probably looked like a smart mixture of support for beleaguered theatre and a reference to the recent violent quelling of protests in Belarus.

Alas, the timing is even more horribly perfect than envisaged. Wedged between Poland, Ukraine, Russia and the southern Baltics, Belarus is now in effect a forward operating base for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and a focus of “false-flag” operations including aerial attacks intended to draw the country into the war against Ukraine.

The BFT describes itself as a “cultural resistance movement”, which in this case is a boast to be taken seriously. It’s also a pre-Zelensky example of how social media engagement can keep audiences intact — last-minute performances are scheduled in garages, private houses or outdoors.

Tom Stoppard is a prominent supporter, and the black humour of his work on Communist Eastern Europe pervades the troupe’s fate, including a loophole by which the company had been officially “dissolved” and thus could not be accused of mounting illegal performances, since it (theoretically) no longer existed.

It is also a story of the importance of asylum in the UK, where many of the company are now based, along with colleagues in Poland and the Baltics.

Dogs of Europe, premiered in Minsk in 2020 and directed by the group’s founders, Nikolai Khalezin and Natalia Koliada, is a dystopian cat-and-mouse between an oppressive military state and a gaggle of dissidents. And at the heart of Alhierd Bacharevic’s novel lie the questions which haunts dictatorships from the Third Reich to Putin’s aggressive Russia — how much are “ordinary” people responsible when authoritarianism takes root and what have they squandered on the way to disaster?

The result is a stylistic homage to Bruno Schulz’s Street of Crocodiles and Complicite — a mix of absurdism and expressionist moments (when blood flows in the streets or revenge-killings, it is represented by long streams of chiffon ribbon disgorged from imaginary wounds.) It can be beautiful too — a marching group moves caterpillar-style with sectors interlocking their shoulders and arms and legs to
create a strange mix of humanity and collective colony.

The Barbican has a laudable commitment to staging European plays

CGI images on a giant background screen headline events in an endless-war plot which is more allusive than entirely coherent. We know that a “Greater Russia” is in control of territory from Ukraine to Afghanistan and that “United Europe” has made its peace with the fruits of conquest.Brexited Britain, which is not a favourite topic for the Free Theatre, seems to have drifted off into a US sphere, with or without a trade deal. That part, at least, looks overly pessimistic as the West finds renewed purpose in rallying against the barbarism of the invasion, for all its fractures.

The performance is in Belarusian with English surtitles, but that’s not really the barrier to comprehension here. The “thriller” element is harder to follow than a journey through the oddities of human interaction under the heel.

The company’s strengths are movement and a thumping post-punk soundtrack which unites the resistance in defiant song as they meet on an odyssey. It’s also playful — the shabby goose carted along by one of the characters is a reminder of the region’s agrarian roots and the clash of modern European values with the folklore and historic lineage of a country frozen between East and West since its creation in the great map redrawing after the First World War.

The Barbican has a laudable commitment to staging European plays which don’t fit neatly into the National’s repertoire or the West End and provides the wide stage that lent itself to an outstanding performance of Simon McBurney’s “The Master and Margarita” a decade ago.

This play does not come close to the major league of theatre opposing authoritarian takeovers. But it is urgent, committed, and a flag for cultural resistance raised in Minsk that is capable of packing out a large theatre for three nights in London.

Its founders remind us of Orwell’s vision of tyranny: “Imagine a boot stamping on a human face, forever”. That future is here — and our own theatre-makers will need to find something new to say about it.

For one thing, a Putin-centred version of Max Frisch’s The Arsonists would be a smart commission. I wonder too if an era of self-preoccupation and pretty dull intellectual recipes on the political stage might just have had a rude wake-up call via Moscow. That would be something.

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