I can’t imagine living in a country where theatre is censored for criticising the government, and theatre makers who create politically subversive work risk arrest, torture and death. But this is the reality of Belarus Free Theatre. Its three founders, now refugees living and working in London, risk imprisonment if they return to their home country. They stubbornly continue to make work that’s ferociously critical of the Belarusian and Russian governments, and aggressively eye-opening for audiences like us who do not live under an oppressive dictatorship.
Unadulterated rage and brutal experiences at the hands of the Belarusian and Russian judicial systems underpins Burning Doors, a nearly two-hour long collage of striking visual theatre. BFT tries to do too much here though, and it’s totally overwhelming. Though the show will undoubtedly linger for some time, a narrower selection of content and narratives explored more in-depth would have more personal impact.
Featuring Pussy Riot member Maria Alyokhina and her experiences in prison, the piece has a focus on the true stories of activists at the hands of the government. Dostoyevsky and Foucault also inform the piece, though there is the sense that there is much more at play than three individuals’ stories. There is a disconnect between the experiences shown, making them feel like isolated incidents rather than a sample of widespread persecution. Some wider context is provided, but there is little sense of the world these activists live in. It feels like it would be helpful to have more knowledge of Russian and Belarusian politics, and not having this knowledge is somewhat alienating.
That’s not to say that the show isn’t powerful. The company’s fearlessness in using extreme physical performance to show the brutality of the regimes is admirable and courageous. The final half hour or so is an extended movement sequence using acrobatics, rope work and combat utterly horrifies – there is no doubt that the depicted of torture and abuse has happened and continues to do so in prisons all over Russia and Belarus. This section is by far the strongest.
The ensemble cast of seven work together seamlessly and have a fantastically watchable rapport. Their unwavering commitment and passion makes for compelling viewing. Their precision is enhanced through Joshua Pharo, Nicolai Khalezin and Richard Hammarton’s design.
Though Burning Doors huge ambition and absence of a through line ultimately do the show a disservice, it’s bold portrayal of government sanctioned torture against its own people is radical, challenging and necessary.
Burning Doors runs through 24 September, then tours nationally and internationally through 3 December.
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