Belarus Free Theatre is now a very different company from the one that first visited Britain in 2007. In those days it consisted of a group of Minsk-based theatre artists giving clandestine performances that served as protests against, and savage satirical indictments of, the last dictatorship in Europe. Since the company leaders were forced into British exile in 2011, the Free Theatre has become an international ensemble making work that is much more conscious both of perceived obligations to make more universal statements, and also aware of its status as a cultural brand.
Red Forest hits the internationalist buttons, in part, by containing no dialogue. There are occasional contextualising voice-overs delivered, live, from the sides of the stage where musicians are also working; location captions flash up on the environmental video projections across the top of the playing area; but the body of the piece consists of mime and movement work. This is principally representational rather than symbolic or impressionistic, intercutting the vague narrative of a young woman (Michal Keyamo) struggling to survive and provide for her baby with instances of the unkind world in which she moves. This unpleasantness takes the form of human violence, ecological catastrophe, or simply of unyielding nature.
The cast’s work under the direction of co-founder Nicolai Khalezin is intense and committed. It’s just that the piece has nothing coherent or original to say. When the company was documenting oppression in its own and other lands, there was an immediacy and genuine power to its work; I’ve seen Belarusian government plants attempt to derail a previous performance in this same Young Vic space a couple of years ago. But the present collage of disparate real-life testimonies from Africa, Latin America, Japan, the First Nations of Canada etc never coalesces into any message less vaporous than that life is tough in all parts of the world.
And the other crucial difference from the earlier, mordant work is that there is not a single laugh, not even a passing smile, no particle of either satire or self-deprecation, in these 80 minutes. When did Belarus Free Theatre undergo the bleak, crippling transformation from being a serious force to merely being earnest?