Dogs of Europe, Barbican

by Zahid Fayyaz

This is the UK Premiere of Alhierd Bacharevic’s epic political and fantasy thriller, by Belarus Free Theatre. The original novel is banned in Belarus and the theatre company are now based in the UK, after seeking asylum following the Belarusian authorities attacking them for their plays and politics. It originally ran in 2019 in Minsk, and then across Europe in secret venues. The Barbican show – postponed from 2020 – is on a much larger scale, which works wonderfully with the epic feel of the show. The Russian invasion of Ukraine is present in mind whilst watching the show, making it seem even more prophetic than it may have been a couple of years ago.

The show is set over a number of seemingly unrelated sections. The prologue tells of a grandmother who is kidnapped and forced to marry the major of an island. The second prologue section, also set in 2019, focuses on Belarusian schoolchildren burying a time capsule. The next chapter then starts the story proper, jumping to 2049 after the formation of a Russian super state, ‘the Reich’. Belarus no longer exists, and in the village of White Dews a young school pupil finds a German spy he tries to hide. After an interval, in which the lead actor runs around in circles naked, the plot then moves to Germany. There, Teresius Skima from the Department of Unknown Entities tries to find out the identity of a dead man in a hotel, aided only by a book and a feather. This quest takes him to various bookshops in different countries, populated by madmen, nymphomaniacs and fascists, before coming to a hallucinatory conclusion. The epilogue is a moving speech by co-founder Natalia Kaliada in support of Ukraine, and asks the audience to raise photos of Belarusian political prisoners in solidarity.

The company has done well to turn a 900-page novel into a 3-hour play. However, the plot isn’t as important as the atmosphere and performances within it. The whole cast gives a committed performance, throwing themselves into the physical and emotional requirements of the work as necessary. The visuals and sound, with songs from the Balaklava Blues band punctuating the action, are outstanding and help to enhance the mood and punchiness of the show. The show is a feast for the eyes and ears, and immensely thought-provoking and moving at the same time. The depiction of an oppressive future state and the importance of literature and art in keep threats at bay to some degree.

There are only four performances, but it is certainly an important production which deserves as wide an audience as possible. As stated in the pre-show discussions, the Belarus Free Theatre are unfortunately in a precarious position, and are very much in need of a permanent home and of funds. Please contact them if you can help them, and donate here if you can afford to do so.

Dogs of Europe runs through 22 March.

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