Belarus Free Theatre (theatre in exile), brings us a bitter yet paradoxically affectionate letter to their hometown, the aesthetically dismal and violently oppressed city of Minsk. Belarus Free Theatre was formed by Natalia Kaliada and husband Nikolai Khalezin in 2005, to bring the world's attention to the fact that only a couple of hours by plane from London remains, in Belarus, the last European dictatorship.
Minsk is ruled in the old-school soviet style, secret police, artistic, intellectual and cultural censorship, political repression, state executions even. None of the performers can work in Belarus and most are based elsewhere, predominantly the UK. Minsk 2011 is so called because protests in December 2010 saw the arrests of thousands of citizens. 'In Minsk you can't look people in the eye for longer than three seconds, and after 2011 duration of a look got shorter.' The stories you see played out on stage are true – these things happened to the actors. The production gives you a strong sense of a city in stasis and decay where, despite the efforts of dissenters, frustration with the system and powerlessness translates into an aggressive despairing misogyny swaggering hand in hand with homophobia and an abject exploitative commodification of raunch. Sexuality concerns itself with sensuality least of all, it seems. A telling scene set in a sad and desperate sex club takes a look at the internalised self-hatred of gay men and their mistrust of each other. It's as though sexuality, seen as a form of protest, actually turns against itself.
However, powerful as these stories are, they're not as well served by this production as you'd hope. I was expecting an original approach to theatre making, with some boldness of form but this isn't the case. The opening had one performer struggling to vocalise the word 'Minsk'; that was good. But on the whole Minsk 2011 is unsophisticated storytelling; it lacks finesse, subtlety or flow. The theatrical conventions are 70's in style, the sort of symbolic energetic choreography beloved by drama classes, a row of chairs forming a train, for example (which I've just seen in a student production), there's a lot of dashing about with images, movements and tableaux but it's too rushed and obvious; not enough is left for us to imagine. The text is overwritten – we're reading English surtitles and much of what we read is unnecessary exposition, telling rather than showing that which we could pick up from the action. Their energetic punky, albeit dated, approach would work better if what we read was presented less conventionally. Minsk 2011 doesn't concern itself with original presentation, linguistic or otherwise.
A river once ran through the city of Minsk, now it's imprisoned and drained under the streets, a metaphor for the life energy of its citizens. To wrap up the performers sit in a row danging their feet in the water. The show gets sentimental at the finale. The actors are named at this point so we expect truthfulness when they talk about why they're still so attached to such a god-awful city. Family and cultural ties aside, after seeing their show I can't understand how anyone wouldn't be delighted to get out; it's as though there's some sort of fatalistic Slavic masochism in their psychologies: a cliché but you have to wonder. The group sing some dour folk songs which helps create that impression then Dzianis Tarasenka undoes the whole thing by claiming that he's going to return to Minsk with his band as a cock-rock god and fuck all the women like a rampaging train. It's horrid, and you don't know whether he's being ironic or not. The play is subheaded A Reply to Kathy Acker (punk poet, novelist, underground activist and supremely uncompromising feminist) so you have to hope that he is. The highlight of the show is the climactic scene with the astonishing Yana Rusakevich. Her emotional presence takes your breath away at the end and gives the closing images permanency. All power to them.
Melbourne Festival in association with Ziyin and Carrillo Gantner AO present
Minsk, 2011: A Reply to Kathy Acker
Belarus Free Theatre
Director Vladimir Shcherban
Venue: Fairfax Studio | Arts Centre Melbourne
Dates: 24 – 27 Oct, 2013
Tickets: $59 – $25