Mayfest is upon us once again, Bristolians, so last night I hotfooted it over to the Tobacco Factory, where the Belarus Free Theatre are putting on Minsk 2011: A Reply To Kathy Acker.
The performance, directed by Vladimir Shcherban, runs until Saturday, May 26, and is presented in Russian with English subtitles. Think that’s intimidating? That’s the least of your worries...
"Right rib, left rib, sternum and the rest of the ribs. In 1996, at a ralley on Chernobyl Way, I was seized by riot policemen and brought to the KGB inner courtyard. I spent three hours being stretched wide open against the wall.
"Scars adorn a man. Many girls find it sexy. In this regard, Minsk is a beautiful and very sexy city. Welcome to Minsk! The sexiest city in the world!"
Dzenis Tarasenka, member of Belarus Free Theatre
Strip clubs, underground raves and gay pride parades pulse beneath the surface of a city where sexuality is twisted by oppression. If scars are sexy, then Minsk must be the sexiest city in the world. Minsk 2011 is billed as a response to American artist Kathy Acker’s piece about sexuality in New York, NYC 1979. However, Minsk 2011 takes a more twisted slant on this, highlighting the brutal repression of personal and sexual expression in Belarus.
Performed by a nine-strong cast, Minsk 2011 is the angriest piece of theatre I’ve ever seen. Many of the cast have served time in prison, gone into hiding or been exiled… largely for nothing worse than attending a protest (Natalia Kaliada, Nicolai Khalezin, Svetlana Sugako, Yana Rusakevich), and many have lost their jobs or been heavily fined simply for being a part of the Belarus Free Theatre.
It is the knowledge that the stories are performed by people who have experienced the hell they describe that makes Minsk 2011 all the more chilling and compelling. Because while this is a blunt and aggressive performance, Minsk 2011 is also an important piece of political theatre, sharing the grim reality of life under Europe’s last dictatorship to the privileged UK. For many people, Minsk means nothing more than the remote-sounding city where Phoebe’s scientist boyfriend moves to in Friends.
The audience is confronted by aural aggravation (distorted feedback, human screaming, glass clanking, endless thumping)… and by uncomfortable visual spectacles (violence, degradation, a woman stripped naked and painted entirely in black ink before her shape is printed on paper). Perhaps the most heart-breaking scenes are the ones where the female cast members simulate lap dances for a male actor, under the desperate illusion that what they are doing is art and will fund their lives. Couple this with the story of a woman, inexperienced with men and consumed with self-hatred, who invites strange men into her home, where she strips and dance for them in the belief she will be respected. Together, they form the most soul-destroying images of women forced to sell their bodies in order to exist and feel like they are worth having faith in.
This belief becomes even sharper towards the end of the performance, when we hear that mayor Mikalai Ladutska decreed in February of this year that 42 sex workers who were serving time in Minsk prison be released during the harshest, coldest winter to clean the impacted snow from the streets. Ladutska joked that the sex workers were making the streets a nicer place for themselves to work on when they were released from prison.
While Minsk 2011 is a grim and often confrontational piece, it is also extremely well done: well performed, well devised, well directed and a piece of political theatre that is well worth seeing. Not least to broaden your own knowledge of what is going on in Belarus.
Please click here for more information. Minsk 2011 is also touring the UK, so even if you’re not in Bristol, please check to see if it is coming to your city.