jpegIncredibly difficult to watch, Belarus Free Theatre’s Trash Cuisine is a hard-hitting and haunting 90 minutes that will stay with you long after you leave the theatre. Introduced as “a cook’s tour of the Globe”, the uniformly superb company use food, cooking and eating as a route into discussing human rights abuses and atrocities the world over.

It’s a surprisingly funny show some of the time, although a large amount of the giggling feels nervous, but the touches of humour also serve to highlight the horror that the cast discuss and depict on stage. Having spent time travelling and talking to people, it’s truly chilling to know that all of the stories shown on stage are true, from the breath-stoppingly awful story of a Tutsi woman in Rwanda, to the casual execution of political prisoners in Russia and the bleak mundanity of the death penalty in the USA.

The use of movement is distressing and dark, saying what words sometimes struggle to do; the movement sequences articulate the awful things that human beings do to each other in subtle and shifting ways. As the lighting switches suddenly and repeatedly from gloom to dazzling, interrogating light, Belarus Free Theatre foreground the things that we usually try not to think about. They don’t shy away from brutality – cast members are stripped, bound, manhandled – but the violence is never allowed to feel gratuitous. Even a water-boarding scene, carried out live onstage, feels vital, despite being awful to watch.

Amongst these scenes of abuse and torture, there are quiet moments where the statistics are allowed to speak for themselves, to great effect. The numbers (of political prisoners, of years spent in prison, of murdered Tutsis, of people who’ve “disappeared”) are powerful in their context without any additional trappings. What’s so impressive about Trash Cuisine, apart from its boldness, is its scope. The USA comes in for just as much criticism over its use of the death penalty as any other country, and death-by-electric-chair is explored in upsetting detail.

Parts of the performance are gut-churningly awful to watch and genuinely horrific. I’m pretty sure I stopped breathing at one point. But the trust that the performers show each other makes the piece confrontational without being alienating – it lectures and provokes without ever patronising or preaching. If the last scene is a touch long, well, one can’t help but feel that Belarus Free Theatre have earned the right to hammer their point home. An intensely powerful piece of theatre, Trash Cuisine is brutal, bold and brilliant.

Trash Cuisine is at the Tobacco Factory in Bristol as part of Mayfest. For more information and tickets, visit the Mayfest website.