The cast are seated on plastic chairs miming train journeys, police interrogation and nightclub politics. Minsk, 2011, named after the capital city of Belarus, is being played out in 90 minutes of devised theatre. Each scene is set somewhere new and Russian dialogue is explained in subtitles. Vladimir Shcherban directs this piece that has been developed from personal experiences of a large ensemble of charming and committed actors of Belarus Free Theatre too large to name here personally, but each character inspires.
There is violence and tenderness in each movement of the free flowing actors as they sweep the stage and portray their life back home. It is only at the end we learn their exact connection to Minsk and why they must return. At this point, and towards the end, a red carpet is used as a river that seeks revenge on all the inhabitants of Minsk whilst the actors pretend to splash each other and take a look at Minsk in their mind’s eye and from a distance. There is genuine affection and loyalty to the city that by this company’s own admission ‘is the only country in Europe where there is no sea and no mountains’ and is ruled by a dictatorship. These politics directly affect the cast, they long to perform this show back home but will struggle to do so.
Whilst there is no central plot, two main themes emerge to tell the story of a brutal city. Sexual politics run boldly through the show and form the basis of the show’s reply to New York’s prominent feminist, the late Kathy Acker. Strippers in black lace bras and big knickers emerge out of dowdy floral dresses to show a government inspector their routine. Nothing is cheap in this show as profound messages abound and so I learn when you sell yourself for sex you sell your creativity. The strippers’ routines are judged to be erotic but not pornographic by the inspector whilst the women give up on their dreams.
The many stories that make up the show are vivid. I attend the show with native Russian speakers and I envy their more immediate connection with the text. One of the ideas I feel watching this show is how grateful we are in a non-dictatorship for the chance to communicate with each other freely. After a recent rally of young people acting out a protest it becomes prohibited in Minsk to stand with others and do nothing. Graffiti is immediately painted over with grey paint and one scene shows how a neighbourhood policeman is no longer a protector but someone to be feared.
One of the vivid scenes recreates the recent bombing of Minsk’s underground railway station where hundreds are killed. The recently built rail network is made from two interconnecting lines. The Soviets put Stalinist Imperial images of buxom farm workers and marble busts of leaders at the stations. After the supposed terrorist attack, the granite becomes blood stained from the explosion and three bags of sugar that were queued for during a food shortage are photographed, found amongst the bodies. This is played out simply and with strong emotion, with bags of sugar being poured in a mesmerising style.
Props are thoughtfully used; bubble wrap is used as a blanket over a man that has been picked up by the police in a van disguised as an ambulance at a nightclub. The bubble wrap is then popped slowly to suggest prolonged, sharp pain. Snow is sprinkled during scenes to create magical moments to link to the finale where we learn a new story can now be written about Minsk as the cast look forward. After hearing such a convincing need for change the human responsibility to help grows in the stomach. In the show, we see that every morning the pop up nightclub on 6A Partizan Ave turns back into a canteen for factory workers as the huge iron door closes. Although the audience do not have to go home we can’t stay here. Some shows belong in the soul.