A naked man in a helmet is circling a man dressed in black; he’s having pieces of his clothing violently torn off and thrown into the air; a woman spins in a hoop above them, looking down while screaming in opera. All takes place to a marching drum beat and against a backdrop of black and white video imagery of Russian political events.
These disconcerting scenes are from the radical new play by Belarus Free Theatre. Burning Doors is a striking production recounting the degrading prison experiences of Pussy Riot’s Maria Alyokhina’s as well as artist Petr Pavlensky and Ukrainian film-maker Oleg Sentsov, other creatives targeted by the Putin regime. The production is surtitled Russian and Belarusian and takes a surrealistic form of re-enactments of actual events, interpretations of government tape-recordings and extracts from Russian literature including Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita and Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot. Maria Alyokhina stars in it herself, which heightens the sense of realness and urgency of the play’s political message. The latter half is much more physical and becomes decidedly violent. In one particularly physically gruelling scene, two men take turns throwing themselves at each other before then being thrown across the stage in an almost Marina Abramović-esque sequence. There’s a lot of use of props, most notably suspended ropes that appear on stage in different scenes which the actors climb on, hang upside down from, double up as nooses and also act as a device in which to hurtle actors into the audience in the more dramatic scenes. Sometimes hard to watch with such shocking and macabre imagery conjured by the troupe, you are drawn in by the sound of the loud recurrent and repetitive drum marching beat reminding you there is no escape.
I returned home, immediately wanting to read more about what I had just seen. The reviews were in and as I scanned a few I gleamed the general critical consensus was that the performance had been powerful in parts but towards the end as the spoken parts became more sporadic and there seems to be a lack of structure. I can understand this view if the piece were to be taken as a play one simply sat back and watched but for what it is and unashamedly so; a form of activism. Most important is the message of the performance -as Alyokhina stated in the impromptu Q&A half way through – is to continue making known to the rest of the world the atrocities imposed upon those living under the Putin regime.
The people of Russia have a voice and the fight isn’t over.