Banned in their own country, Belarus Free Theatre (BFT) push their audience squeamishly towards the edge of their seats with Trash Cuisine, part of their Staging a Revolution festival taking place in secret locations across London, in celebration of the tenth anniversary of the company. Replicating the experience that is authentic to a Belarusian audience (minus the police raids), BFT text us hours before the show, disclosing a street address and a time at which to meet. There, a company member guides us to the venue. This quirky meet-up style, and the arty warehouse at which we arrive, could easily be mistaken for the latest installation in London’s pop-up trend – were it not for the offer of a free drink on arrival and the ensuing performance of harrowing political theatre.
We find ourselves in a performance space invaded by the company at 6am that morning and impressively transformed to suit the minimalistic needs of Trash Cuisine in time for our 7pm arrival. Today marks the fiftieth anniversary since the abolition of the death penalty in the UK – so when better to stage a play that puts capital punishment itself on trial?
Clad in a simple array of sweatpants and suits, the cast commandeer the clean white set and wooden props; their stories dismember the death penalty and hang its horrors in front of us as a reminder that many countries, including Belarus, still actively support it. One of the themes explored by directors Natalia Kaliada and Nicolai Khalezin in Trash Cuisine is the disturbing relationship between gluttony and execution. In one visually striking sequence that brings bile to the throat, we witness two executioners – one from Thailand, the other from Belarus – giving detailed accounts of how they execute prisoners in their respective nations, whilst eating strawberries and cream and sipping champagne. Meanwhile in front of them, two prisoners crouch naked and degraded on the ground, before being booted into body bags. In a similarly gruesome scene later in the play, the actors smash nuts, grind coffee and fry a steak on stage, in tandem to a sickening account of cannibalism within the Rwandan genocide.
This theme of gluttony ties together neatly with a second theme: responsibility in legal wrongdoings. A surreal and uncomfortable atmosphere is created as the executioners sing opera to one another, and as the seemingly polite restaurant-goers mime a true account of a last meal and the following execution. Cleverly set to Arkadiy Yushin’s backdrop of discordant notes and smooth jazz, these moments accuse us of glossing over capital punishment, particularly when it’s not on our doorstep, in order to enjoy the luxuries of society guilt-free. This idea is realised more brazenly through the true stories involving execution of innocent prisoners, and in the excruciating two minutes of synthesised screaming, piercing our ears to replicate the sounds of the electric chair.
This is a play that is engaging, informative and interactive in all the right ways. Unlike the majority of BFT’s productions, which are loyal to their mother tongue or performed in Russian, Trash Cuisine is actually performed in English, allowing this challenging topic to be easily accessed. Once we’re seated and we’ve waved ‘hello’ to the Belarusian crowd on Skype, we join the online audience (BFT live-stream all their shows) in a vote on the death penalty. After the show, we’re offered a bowl of hearty beetroot soup and invited to a post-show discussion with civil rights lawyer Clive Stafford Smith. There’s a sense in the final scene of the play, as the actors are ruthlessly chopping onions and flicking the smelly produce at the audience, that they’re breaking down the barriers and throwing the responsibility back to us. A post-show talk is a fitting way to bring the topic of capital punishment back to reality, and as this passionate cast stand before us to take a bow, covered in flour and with watering eyes (from the onions), we owe it to them to stick around and get involved in the discussion.
Trash Cuisine played at a secret location on 8 November as part of the Staging A Revolution season. For more information and tickets, see the Young Vic website. Photo: Alistair Muir.