What is the role of art within our broader political landscape, and what happens when artists are silenced? It is a timely question, and one that Belarus Free Theatre – a company now based in London after being banned in their home state – asks simply by continuing to exist. The company’s latest offering, Burning Doors, is an anarchic mosaic that, in a nutshell, is a battle cry in defense of human rights.
Burning Doors, created by BFT in collaboration with Maria Alyokhina, uses the true story of Ukrainian filmmaker Oleg Sentsov, who was recently imprisoned for 20 years for his art, to explore the human rights violations being carried out in the Ukraine against artists who dare use their art to speak out against the Putin regime.
This show is essentially a string of short scenes, each strikingly different from the last. It tells the story of artists in prisons – usually real, though sometimes figurative. There are dozens of unforgettable imagery in this show, built and presented so that viewers must confront their hearts being suddenly in their throats, their bodies flinching involuntarily; their shoulders tensing in anticipation. There is verbatim testimony from Sentsov’s trial, intertwined with text taken from the works of Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Mikhail Bulgakov, Michel Foucault and Paul Eluard. Men and women are hung from ropes, and bungee themselves into the audience. The show balances its Brechtian roots with scenes of deep empathy and humanity, resulting in some gorgeous moments of connection and understanding. It is a harrowing night of theatre, and the message seems clear: This onslaught is not going to stop, so you’d better start accommodating it instead.
It is a show that requires supreme commitment and physical skill, and the ensemble present as a beautifully unified group. The unbreakable bonds forged through their encounters with police, and the human rights violations they themselves have experienced, give Burning Doors an urgency, earnestness and rage that is impossible to manufacture. It is this quality that is the show’s greatest strength. There are scenes that feel too long, or as though they don’t belong, or that aren’t pushed as far as they could be, or perhaps descend too far into anarchy. But the emotional force driving each scene, deeply connected to the personal experiences of every performance on the stage, ensures that the piece remains gripping throughout.
Burning Doors centralises the body in its examination of the role of art within politics and protest. Not only the existence, but the physical strength of each of the performers feels in itself a statement against those who dare to silence them. As Artistic Director Natalia Kaliada said at the end of the performance: “The success story is that [the performers] are alive.” The performers share their bodies’ capabilities almost as offerings to the audience in this show: they demand to be seen, they demand we don’t hide from the issues they represent, and they demand that we do something about it.