“Harrowing” and “intense” are not words you would usually use to describe a good evening, but Minsk 2011 is the exception. As disturbing as many of the scenes undeniably are, one can’t help but think this brave young company is spreading an important message, and it makes compelling viewing.
I first encountered the Belarus Free Theatre company in 2010, when I was an intern at Index on Censorship. I was moved to tears as they spoke of their terrifying experiences at that year’s Freedom of Expression Awards. So I was moved to support their latest venture, especially when it came to the Young Vic theatre.
Minsk 2011 is a fearless depiction of life inBelarus under President Lukashenko. It takes its name from a bombing on the Minsk underground, which killed 15 people. The government said it was a terrorist attack, but it seems this explanation was not universally accepted.
The cast portray the city as a seedy underworld whose inhabitants lived in fear of the authorities, who make arrests on dubious grounds, without warning. The play opens with a series of examples, such as a man playing a musical instrument, and another waving a rainbow flag. Each is brutally carried off stage, including the final actor who is taken away before he can even say anything.
The people of Minsk seem to breathe fear, and it runs in the water. Even the police are motivated by fear – fear of public rebellion, and of punishment from higher orders. They have all been scarred by their experiences. Another scene begins with a man who says girls find scars “sexy”, before baldly showing the audience his own and explaining how he got them. The one which marked his “first experience with the KGB” was especially chilling.
The company repeat their ironic refrain, “Belarus is sexy”, throughout scenes of prostitution and attempted rape. At one point some use thick rollers to paint a woman’s naked body black then wrap her in paper, whilst the others sing traditional Belarusian folk songs – a stark representation of the suffocation and sexual damage she has suffered.
Their youth makes their disillusionment simultaneously tragic and somehow hopeful. There is still time for them to escape their chains and build new lives.
As my traumatised looking boyfriend remarked, this gave real meaning to the word “catharsis.”