Political theatre at its most powerful, Minsk, 2011 is a collection of angry voices combining sexuality and politics as Belarus Free Theatre attempt to come to terms with the dictatorship that still holds their country in its grasp. The theatrical result is a mixed bag, but can such passion really be critiqued outside of its political message?
A series of vignettes over a coherent narrative, Minsk, 2011 is subtitled 'A response to Kathy Acker', specifically a response to her text about 'exploring society through sexuality'. As such, the vignettes are often overtly sexual - there's an element of shock tactics as the audience are subjected to a large number of naked bodies and rather directly crude language, but the crassness of each moment is entirely in keeping with the powerful anger that pervades the whole piece. Delivered entirely in Belarusian (with subtitles, thank heavens) and often in monologues to the audience, the piece thrives entirely on its directness, be that from a man drawing his various scars onto his body; a naked, ink-smeared, whip-cracking woman; or the entire cast, sat casually at the front of the stage, recounting their own personal stories.
It's difficult to review this as theatre, let alone as entertainment. I don't particularly want to get drawn into a political debate, and the fact that a member of the audience (on the night I saw it) was so affronted by the company's portrayal of Belarus that he said so during the final bows attests to how fraught the situation in Belarus Free Theatre's home country is - as far as I understand it, it's reached a point now where the cast would be (and, in some cases, have been) arrested or exiled. I find that deplorable, personally, but this is a piece of theatre, at its basis entertainment, and I feel I should review this as such.
And as a piece of theatre, Minsk, 2011 has some wonderful moments. Scenes about the bomb on the subway, elegantly shown with burst bags of sugar, are poignant and fascinating, as is a delightfully comic scene where two characters try and identify all four Beatles (and another where a culture minister decides that striptease dancers are sexual but 'not pornographic'). But too much of the play is a cast member angrily shouting poetic political rhetoric into a microphone. While their message is an important one, especially if they can't speak their mind at home, I just found it a little off-putting and gauche.
However, this is all couched within an important political tirade - it's undeniable that Belarus is currently in turmoil, with the populace in need of a voice outside to tell their story. In no other production would I watch a woman strip naked, be doused in ink, rolled in newsprint, give birth to herself by ripping the paper into a bizarre dress-like-garment and then proceed to crack a whip over the audience's head, without smirking - but in this case it was powered by such anger and resentment that it was spellbinding. The problem here is that it's all so firmly connected to the politics - the final 10 minutes features the entire cast telling 'their' stories while sitting at the front of the stage, which is pretty dull but adds even more detail to the truth behind the piece.
Open-mindedness and seeing different angles to a story seem to have become anathema to political theatre, and I wonder if such theatre is a fantastic forum for discourse if the argument only travels in one direction. In other scripts, this would certainly be something to criticise. Minsk, 2011 is definitely worth seeing, and will be an important talking point, but don't expect more than a political rant - I think that might be all that it is.