Thursday, June 8, 2017

Burning Doors at Theater Der Welt Festival in Hamburg

I'm in Hamburg, Germany at the moment attending the annual Performance Studies international conference. It has been programmed in conjunction with the biannual Theater der Welt Festival, which moves around different German cities every two years. Last night Richard and I attended a performance of Belarus Free Theatre's latest production, Burning Doors. As political theatre, it makes anything I've seen before in North America under that label pale by comparison, not least because BFT company members are clear that the stakes of their performance choices must match the stakes of the personal choices of the dissidents whose stories they are telling on stage.

Founded in 2005 in Minsk and banned from its own country on political grounds soon after, BFT works in exile from London, combining agitprop and physical theatre aesthetics in a manner that is at once virtuosic and visceral, making every moment seem as if it is a matter of life and death. For Burning Doors, the company is collaborating with Maria Aloyhina, one of the members of Pussy Riot. Inspired by the work of Michel Foucault, Fyodor Dostoevsky, and the painter Egon Schiele, the piece explores the relationship between the body, power, and art, focussing specifically on the stories of incarceration of three dissident artists in Russia: Aloyhina; the St. Petersburg-based performance artist Petr Pavlensky; and the Ukrainian filmmaker Oleg Sentsov, who remains in prison, serving a twenty year sentence. The production of Burning Doors is dedicated expressly to raising international awareness regarding Sentsov's detention.

As the performance was in Russian and Belarussian, with German surtitles, it is impossible for me to distill the entire narrative of the piece (although an English translation of the script was very graciously provided). That said, I could follow that each of the three artists' stories were being told in turn, and that these stories were likewise being juxtaposed with two additional layers of meta-narrative: one in which the Foucauldian routines of discipline and punishment inside the prison are clinically dissected for the audience; and one in which Russia's bureaucratic administration of political protest is played for existential--and scatological--laughs (most often featuring a pair of hapless Kremlin clerks, and accounting for the relevance of Dostoevsky as an authorial source). However, it is the scenes of extreme physicality that most affectively demonstrate how the brutality of dictatorial regimes is visited upon the bodies of its political dissidents. While these scenes occur throughout the piece, the last twenty minutes comprise a steady accretion of acts of physical extremity that in their duration and accumulation literally knocked the wind out of me: and repeated punches and kicks to the gut are indeed part of this sequence.

None of this is easy to watch, but it definitely conveys in a startlingly felt way that communicating the risks of protest demands similar aesthetic risks. I am so glad that I got to see the work of this brave and urgently relevant company.

Addendum: I just learned that Burning Doors will play Seattle's On the Boards from September 28-October 1. I urge folks in the Vancouver region to head down to check out this thrilling show.


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