Red Forest at the Young Vic
Facing persecution, imprisonment and seeking political asylum are not the usual results of creating theatre, yet for Belarus Free Theatre this is a reality. Formed in 2005 under Europe’s last surviving dictatorship the company have been at the forefront of protests against president Alexander Lukashenko’s thirty-year reign. Now working in exile at the Young Vic, their gritty, intrepid performances have dazzled British audiences while illuminating their struggle for free speech and creative freedom in a country where all expression is restricted.
Red Forest, billed as “an epic new legend for the 21st century”, spans the globe telling stories of suffering and displacement. Traversing across countries and time frames, Michal Keymo plays the tormented everywoman linking each location – Cote d’Ivoire, Algeria, Spain, Chernobyl – with her muted anguish and pained asperity. Through first person testimony, spoken in aside voiceovers, the real-life accounts of Japanese Tsunami survivors, an African refugee gang-raped at the Spanish boarder, the wife of a Chernobyl victim and a fisherman who has no livelihood due to polluted water are played out by actors on a slip of sand bordered by shallow pools of water.
Nicolai Khalezin’s direction produces some spectacularly poignant moments. Paired with Bridget Friske’s adroit choreography, scenes of helicopters billowing down upon the Ivory Coast and four-by-fours bulldozing shanty towns jump morbidly to life through the performers’ cleverly executed movements. Arkadiy Yushin’s musical score provides a powerful accompaniment of thrashing drums and yowling choruses perfectly connoting the pain of each devastating scenario.
Yet this powerful staging crumbles amid the play’s lack of cohesion and context. Bounding from one scene of devastation to the next the production favours poetic licence over fact and we are left lost in scenes of baffling symbolism and unexplained meaning. At times the actors appear only as embellishments to clichéd monologues, while the emblematic American-Indian white bison which frames the performance boarders on reducing the play’s many real life terrors to mere sentimental fable.
Although there is no doubting the well-meaning at the heart of this anguished drama, Red Forest becomes a bleak, confusing mesh of grief, favouring picturesque sentimentality over rousing activism.
Red Forest is at the Young Vic theatre until 5th July 2014. For further information or to book visit the theatre’s website here.
Watch the trailer for Red Forest here: