Political theatre can sometimes come over as an enjoyable intellectual exercise: a chance to confirm or test your views against the world portrayed on stage. Not in the case of Belarus Free Theatre. The company’s latest piece, presented as part of the London International Festival of Theatre (LIFT), is urgent, angry and eloquent. Most striking of all, it becomes clear that it is driven by a deep affection for the performers’ native land.
Everyone on stage has been sacked, harassed or even arrested for their activities with the Belarus Free Theatre because the company speaks out against the country’s oppressive regime. Their retort is to remain creative. Here they explore repression in their capital city, Minsk, through a series of vignettes loosely depicting attitudes to sex, sexuality and the sex trade (as the title suggests, the show is a response to Kathy Acker’s writing about sexuality in New York).
Directed by Vladimir Shcherban, the show unfolds like a revue, a succession of vivid physical scenes that speak of double standards, secrecy and fear. So we see the workers’ canteen that is transformed late at night into a secret, wild and gaudy gay club. We watch as a trio of women slip out of their flowered overalls (the overall becomes a recurring symbol of cover-up and repression) to perform an erotic dance for an official who will formally declare whether their work is officially erotic or illegally pornographic. There’s a scene about a gay pride march that was brutally broken up, another about ambulances that are in fact disguised police wagons, a third about the cheap wine that offers oblivion.
Some scenes are extraordinarily powerful in their simplicity. In an account of the 2011 explosion on the Minsk underground system, one actor recalls the spilt bags of sugar soaking up blood from the dead and wounded, as she walks around the stage pouring sugar from a bag. And the show opens with one performer after another attempting to reach a microphone to wave a flag, speak or simply clap, and being bundled off the stage before they can make their point: a succinct, witty depiction of censorship.
Most telling of all, however, is the final scene, when members of the company, to the accompaniment of a Belarusian folk song, take turns to talk of their personal relationship with their city and their love for the place: a moving finale delivered more in sorrow than in anger.