Shocking, visceral and totally rough around the edges, Minsk, 2011 is a strikingly real portrait of life in the only remaining dictatorship in geographic Europe. The piece, devised by Belarus Free Theatre is part play, part documentary, but so real you feel uncomfortably close to the reality on the ground, or should I say underground, in Minsk. Based on a play by Kathy Acker that explored sexuality in New York, Minsk, 2011 is the Belarusian answer – exploring the sexuality of the city, and how the society today has developed around it.
It is impossible to separate the play from the politics surrounding it. The Belarus Free Theatre was formed in 2005 by husband and wife team Nicolai Khalezin and Natalia Kaliada, later joined by Vladimir Shcherban. In a country of media censorship and sexual repression, the members of the company and artistic team have been subjected to harassment and intimidation. To be part of it means being expelled from university, spending time in jail and, while I watched, I couldn’t forget that for a moment. In Minsk you cannot look people in the eye for more than a second, but as part of the audience you cannot look away.
We are introduced to the country’s capital by a string of loosely connected episodes. Skinheads drag flag waving political activists, a flute player and a man whose only crime was to look at his watch twice, off stage. Then minutes later we are watching an underground rave where it is okay to exercise your sexuality. The play is performed in Russian with English subtitles on a screen behind (translated by Chris Thorpe), but there is little dialogue and most of the talking is done through monologues from a microphone stand. The strength of their words and the clarity of meaning through expression and sometimes grotesque gesture, means that understanding is never an issue. Each actor has a presence on stage that is undeniably embedded in the fact they are acting out the reality of their lives in Minsk. With a nearly bare stage, it is the strength of their acting that carries the performance. It is, after all, a piece of theatre.
It is a show that is not for the faint-hearted. There is full nudity; one actress’s naked body is painted black before she is wrapped in paper, only to wield a whip terrifyingly close to the audiences’ head. But on the other end of the scale there are moments of touching softness – snow falling on stage, hiding the greyness of Minsk and the actors sharing their own, personal stories with the audience.
The presence of an unplanned heckler in the audience, who told us it was “all lies”, throws the power of political theatre into context. Minsk, as the title of the play suggests, is what it is all about. The actors talk of the city in an almost mystical way, having a hold on them that will always draw them back. They lift the lid on what is hidden and oppressed, and there are those who want it to remain unseen. So go see it. They want to show you and believe me you want to see it.
Minsk, 2011 is playing at the Young Vic Theatre as part of LIFT until 23 June. For more information and tickets, see the Young Vic website.