How do you explore your sexuality, when you live in a city where sex is ruled by the state? How can you connect with people when eye contact in public is illegal? What does it mean to be a human being in Belarus, the last dictatorship in Europe?
Minsk, 2011: A Reply to Kathy Acker takes its title from a text by Acker, which explores sexual identity in America. Belarus Free Theatre has taken this text and used it to craft a complex and confronting depiction of sexual identity in Belarus, a city where lap dancers are tolerated so long as they have government approval, yet prostitutes are used to clear snow in the street, and gay pride marches are savagely disbanded.
Belarus Free Theatre is banned in its home city. Facing persecution if they are caught, the actors and directors stage their works for free in secret underground locations throughout the city. In fact, Belarus Free Theatre was prevented from leaving the country to come to Melbourne for the Festival, as authorities purposely delayed the performers’ train so they would miss their flights. Thankfully, Melbourne Festival arranged new flights for the company, but it goes to show the sort of battle these artists must go through daily in order to express themselves.
The performers (Viktoryia Biran, Kiryl Kanstantsinau, Siarhei Kvachonak, Pavel Radak-Haradnitski, Yana Rusakevich, Yuliya Shauchuk, Aleh Sidorchyk, Dzianis Tarasenka, Maryna Yurevich), who also wrote the work under the skilful direction of Vladimir Shcherban, show remarkable focus throughout the performance. All of the actors take on multiple roles and explore a wide range of political and personal subjects; it is their commitment to the performance and each other that makes Minsk, 2011 such an engrossing piece of theatre.
The first scenes of the show start a little slowly, with the pace really picking up halfway though, after it begins to snow onstage (beautifully executed by Stage Manager Svetlana Sugako) It is after this that the vignettes from earlier in the piece come together in a tragic yet tender portrait of Minsk, and Belarus.
A particularly striking scene is the depiction of a naked woman being painted black, then wrapped up in paper like a parcel, and breaking through her wrappings defiantly brandishing a whip. This scene is underscored with a haunting Belarusian folk song, which evokes a moving portrait of both personal and national identity.
The piece concludes with the actors – speaking, finally, as themselves – relaying personal stories and feelings about their city of origin. Again, this is a lovely portrayal of the dialogue between individual and national stories, and how these stories can fit within the wider world.
Minsk, 2011 walks the line of political and personal theatre beautifully; it is a demonstration of the importance of theatre in illuminating and fighting against oppression. Belarus Free Theatre has constructed a remarkable piece that is unflinchingly honest, at times heartbreaking, but Minsk, 2011… is ultimately a love letter full of hope and affection for the city it depicts.