Burning Doors at Soho Theatre
The Belarus Free Theatre company, founded in Minsk in 2005, and illegal in its country of origin, has dedicated its efforts to creating “a theatre where you could say what you think and make art out of that”, to quote co-founder Natalia Kaliada.
Burning Doors is the company’s latest offering, which attempts to dramatise the fates of three political prisoners: Maria Alyokhina, a member of the punk group Pussy Riot, who became world famous in 2012 after the anti-Putin performance in Moscow’s Christ the Saviour Cathedral that led to their arrest; Petr Pavlensky, a performance artist who protested the band’s detention by sewing his mouth shut and burning the doors of the Federal Security Service Building; and Ukrainian film director Oleg Sentsov, sentenced to 20 years on unfounded charges during Russia’s annexation of the Crimean peninsula. The result, performed entirely in Russian and Belarusian with English surtitles, is a disturbing and challenging piece of theatre featuring a series of striking tableaux and scenes that relate the horrors all three were subjected to during their imprisonment.
The section dealing with Maria Alyokhina is especially poignant for the presence onstage of the former prisoner herself; a scene with her undergoing water torture is almost unbearable to watch. Another has four male actors contorting their bodies and grappling one another whilst each reciting a part of Petr Pavlensky’s interrogation transcript. The most experimental part of all comes when Alyokhina suddenly faces the audience and asks them to participate in a Q&A with her about the play. The representation of Oleg Sentsov’s ordeal is entirely wordless, with the cast of eight interpreting the director’s experience in prison through some athletic, dance-like choreography (by Bridget Fiske and Maryia Sazonava) that is beautiful in its harrowing, expressionistic visualisation of the mental and physical torture he endured.
Whereas Alyokhina, in her stage debut, hardly needs to act in order to get the point across – and remains relatively emotionless throughout – the meatiest role, and the most memorable performance, is given by Kiryl Kanstantsinau, who at one point tearfully recites Dostoevsky’s The Idiot and later performs a series of impressive acrobatic stunts, even urinating live on stage whilst hanging from his arms. The play is ultimately stirring and disturbing, with a vitally important message that it wishes to remind people of, though many may find the piece a little too abstract at times to fully appreciate it.
Photo: Nicolai Khalezin
Burning Doors is at Soho Theatre from 31st August until 24th September, for further information or to book visit here.
Watch the trailer for Burning Doors here: