By Yusef Sacoor
Buoyed by the presence of Pussy Riot’s Maria Alyokhina amongst its cast, the Belarus Free Theatre culminated its five week residency in Falmouth with a performance of the raw and trousers-down politics of Burning Doorsat the Academy of Music and Theatre Arts (AMATA) on Penryn Campus.
Tackling the unrelenting physical and psychological violence of the Russian penal system, the play samples the true accounts of three political ‘artivists’ who have faced, or still do face, the Kremlin’s steely attitude to creative dissidents. Alyokhina’s story is joined by those of Petr Pavlensky, a political artist most famous for nailing his scrotum to Red Square, and Oleg Stensov, a Ukrainian urrently still imprisoned by Putin’s Russia.
Burning Doors is less satire than documentary or essay. Barbed with direct samples of interrogation transcripts, classic Russian literature and Foucault’s theory, the piece bombards the audience with factual information and primary resources, exemplified by Alyokhina summarising her own experiences of prison life. This is taken to the extreme as BFT brilliantly knock a passage through the fourth wall, switching from subtitled Russian to an English language Q&A that asks the audience to directly question Maria on band names and the pursuit of freedom.
This direct style of delivery wavers between powerful and heavy-handed. The repeated throwing of prisoners to the ground becomes exhausting quickly as they continually get up from being struck down, way past the point at which the audience understood the action’s meaning. Rare glimpses of relief and comic satire rely on the suited clichés of two Russian bureaucrats, as Putin’s pen pushers, engaged in literal toilet humour as they discuss art like Philistines in adjacent cubicles.
Burning Doors is best at its most bleak and concise. Outstandingly acted monologues, most notably of a section of Dostoevsky’s The Idiot, are naked in their primal, desperate wails for freedom, as actors strip back their clothing until they are left as stark and bare as the minimal staging behind them. Members of the ensemble sling a noose round their neck and nearly drown on stage, completely willing to torture their own bodies to portray subjugation and oppression, questioning our comfortable tendencies to ignore certain worldly injustices. When building to a crescendo, even long-repeated shouts and movements become less tiring and more painful as they embody the unrelenting struggle against censorship faced by the depicted artists. In spite of its reliance on factual material, the play thus successfully turns cold information into teeth-gritting emotion. Nobel attempts to connect its wide and eclectic source material with multiple theatrical techniques may fail, but Burning Doors’ consequent inconsistency and clunky pacing is redeemed by these powerful individual moments of clarity in expressing the emotions of entrapment. It may sometimes be jarring, but then so must be the experience of entering prison for the first time.
Burning Doors is then a fractured mosaic of a play, which struggles with narrative flow, but is steeped in emotive, political feeling. It is a call to arms, a reminder to protect the freedoms we have, and a strong suggestion to fight for the freedoms of those who do not have them. But it is also an uneasy mix of text-focused and physical theatre. Whether you come out moved or politicised, or worn down by its length, depends on how willing you are to accept it as one succinct, enthralling piece. It is hard to view it negatively when the creators understand their subject so accurately; The Belarus Free Theatre work in exile from their home country.