“Burning Doors.”

Direction and dramaturgy: Nicolai Khalezin, Natalia Kaliada
Choreography: Bridget Fiske, Maryia Sazonava
Stage design: Nicolai Khalezin
Sound design and music: Richard Hammarton
Percussion: Alexander Lyulakin
Light and video design: Joshua Pharo
Production Manager: Andy George
Featuring: Pavel Haradnitski, Kiryl Kanstantsinau, Siarhei Kvachonak, Maryia Sazonava, Stanislava Shablinskaya, Andrei Urazau, Maryna Yurevich
Original testimony and guest performance: Maria Alyokhina
Producer: Belarus Free Theatre
8 June 2017, 19:00
Kampnagel
Theater der Welt, Hamburg, Germany

“One of the safest places to be in the world is the stage.” – Frank Langella

As I greatly admire Pussy Riot, I was very excited when I saw the trailer for Belarus Free Theatre’s “Burning Doors,” featuring Maria Alyokhina. I was nervous that I would not be able to follow, since the play is in Belarusian and Russian with German subtitles. Luckily, English translations of the script were handed out to audience members who do not understand Russian, Belarusian, or German. I managed to scan about half of the script before the performance started, but to my delight, the production relies very much on physical theatre and it was possible to become completely immersed in the performance with only a vague idea of what the dialogue is about.

In fact, this was possibly the most impressive performance I have ever seen in my entire life. This is the type of performance that I usually only get to read about, but have never had the privilege to see; and that from the centre of the first row. To me, the performance was so thrilling and effective because it used the conventions of the theatre to its utmost to drive home, in a visceral – yet intellectual – manner, the cruelty and actuality of dictatorship, persecution, and torture. It shows the audience what imprisonment does, not only to the body, but also to the mind, as Alyokhina puts it so hauntingly in the second scene: “It’ll be six months before I realise I can say ‘no’ when the guards say ‘bend over’.”

The play is mostly set in a prison space. There is a white square on which the action takes place, with three doors in a wall upstage. Scenes of incarceration and torture are accompanied by testimonies and memories from the lives of Alyokhina herself, and Oleg Sentsov, among others. These scenes are interspersed with the banal conversations of politicians and government officials who are wheeled in on platforms. These conversations convey the inevitable absurdity of dictatorial regimes and the ways in which it becomes impossible to keep the system in place without using bizarre levels of physical force, violence, and spin doctoring. The action becomes increasingly more and more physical towards the end, almost like a battle of endurance, and ends in Belarusian songs sung by the ensemble.

The audience is repeatedly reminded that the events on stage, although performed, are not fictional. The line between theatre and real life is transgressed time and again, much to the discomfort of the audience. The fact that Alyokhina is featured in the play as a non-actor disrupts the suspension of disbelief that usually allows the audience to remain in the safe, dark space of the auditorium, easily able to distance themselves from the fictional events on stage. This idea is reinforced with metatheatrical references, as when Maria does not want to put on her costume in Scene Four, claiming that it is a prison robe. This again happens in Scene Six when the players attempt to recreate a scene where a baby is taken from a prisoner and handed to Alyokhina. When Yurevich asks Alyokhina to hand her the baby, Alyokhina replies: “Marina, I can’t just go backstage and return with a child. This is a theatre – a child isn’t waiting for you here like a prop.”

The refusal of the play to allow the audience to disappear into the safety of fictionality creates an intense awareness of vulnerability and danger. The events happening on stage are dangerous on various levels. Firstly, the theatre company faces persecution in their home country because of their involvement with Belarus Free Theatre. Secondly, the actors could get hurt during the performance. Thirdly, there is danger, in a social sense, in the breaking down of theatre’s fourth wall; in the refusal to let the audience retreat into comfort. The presence of water on stage further unnerves the audience, as water is one of the elements that resists the fictional and stubbornly remains its unpredictable self on stage, as Bert O. States (1985:377–8) suggests. In Scene Twelve, Masheka and Alyokhina sit in a bathtub filled with water. As Masheka gets out, Alyokhina recites a poem. Masheka returns to the tub and violently grabs Alyokhina by the neck and holds her head under water. Masheka pulls her back up to force her to recite the poem again and again. She is immersed for periods that become increasingly longer. This elicits an anxiety in the audience that very appropriately aligns with the real world events on which the play is based.

The play furthermore uses nudity very effectively. From the onset the players, as prisoners, are exposed as the guards search them. In Act Five, as Alyokhina narrates how she is first denied tampons or pads and then subjected to a gynaecological exam. During this narration, one of the players is suspended on ropes and splits. As the examination is described, a doctor shines a flashlight into her eyes, mouth, and crotch. The actress’ pubic hair is clearly visible on her panty line. In Scene Thirteen, Masheka tells of a man who was sentenced to death and was sure to die within twenty minutes when he was reprieved and given a different sentence. The tale of how the man coped with the certainty of death is told as Masheka is first completely naked, and then slowly dresses. First his shirt, then his socks, tie and jacket and lastly his underpants and pants. He cries throughout the monologue. In the last scene of the play, Masheka is suspended on ropes, only wearing underpants, during a scene of torture. Unable to bear it any longer, he starts urinating. These intimate scenes do not only point to how persecution and imprisonment robs people of their dignity but also requires a level of vulnerability from the actors that is astonishing.

Furthermore, the play must be incredibly taxing on the actors on a physical level. In one scene, three actors burst through the three doors, running full speed toward the audience, yelling. Just as they reach the first row, with their arms outstretched, almost touching the audience, they are yanked back by harnesses and pulled back. They break free and run towards the audience again, just to be yanked back once more. This sequence happens numerous times. As I was sitting in the front row, it was quite frightening to have the actors sprinting towards me. Their desperate hands, trying to clutch at me was unnerving. There is also a sequence near the end of the play where one of one of the actors tries to get another in a headlock. The second actor escapes the headlock time and again, but the first does not give up. The actors repeat this sequence for several minutes. While it must surely be exhausting for the actors, it also becomes difficult to watch. At some point I, as an audience member, felt that I was not able to look at the events on stage any longer. In this uncomfortable state, the cruel realisation sinks in that nobody is supposed to have to endure so many assaults on the body. And yet, Oleg Sentsov has eighteen years left to serve as I type this.

However, “Burning Doors” achieves so much more than raising awareness. The audience are more than mere spectators. They become part of the visceral experience of the performance. By making supposedly safe space of the stage – and by implication the auditorium – unsafe, Belarus Free Theatre conveys injustice and cruelty in the only way possible.

Sources:

States, Bert O. 1985. Great reckonings in little rooms: On the phenomenology of theater. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Belarus Free Theatre. 2016. “Belarus Free Theatre: Burning Doors with Pussy Riot ‘s Maria Alyokhina (trailer).” YouTube, 6 September. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sGiSsKSys7U (Accessed: 7 July 2017.)

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