Criticism Now

The Morning After - Minsk, 2011: A Reply to Kathy Acker

Belarus Free Theatre is a company in exile. Banned from performing in its homeland, its members have resorted to staging their inventive, incendiary productions in secret in Belarus. But the rest of the world has rallied around this revolutionary theatre company; ardent supporters from Tom Stoppard to Kevin Spacey have lent their voices to its cause, and its raw, poignant and unexpectedly humorous works have garnered awards and praise across the globe.

Minsk, 2011 is their urgent broadside on life in Belarus’s capital: a place where sexuality is twisted by oppression, and strip clubs, underground raves and gay pride parades pulse beneath the city’s surface. A place where silence is enforced by violence, and sex and pleasure seldom coexist. An impassioned, high-energy collage of personal testimony, raw physicality and stirring theatrical provocation, Minsk, 2011 is undaunted protest turned heart-wrenching confessional – a breathtaking, lyrical reminder of the revolutionary power of both art and love.

The Morning After: Minsk, 2011: A Reply to Kathy Acker. Our post-mortem discussion panel featured perspectives from writers Melissa Lucashenko and Amanda Lohrey, critic Cameron Woodhead and host Michael Williams. Equal parts enlightening, considered and entertaining; covering theatre’s political backbone, critiques of Acker and much more.

Responses

‘A Surreal Keyhole’: Minsk 2011

By Chloe Hooper

A microphone is at the front of the stage. A man approaches it to clap. A second man, to play the flute; a third to fly a rainbow flag. Each one is swiftly hurled away by thug-like government apparatchiks, while frock-coated women sweep up the mess of dissent. Now a red carpet is unfurled, men and women sit in a neat row of red chairs, with grainy footage of President Lukashenko playing the accordion behind them. Each has a red or green balloon — like a state-sanctioned speech bubble — bobbling up and down in their mouths, in time to the music. The balloons pop, they fall dead, and a man comes to the microphone and finally releases a stuttering scream: Mmmiiiiiiiinnnnnnnnsssssk!!!

Here are the Belarus Free Theatre with their fast-paced, poetic, absurdist Minsk 2011: A Reply to Kathy Acker, which riffs on the late author’s study of New York society through the city’s sexual life. This ‘reply’ stages vignettes from the lives of Minsk’s dissidents, activists, misfits, and queer community, taking us through a surreal keyhole into a world distorted by shame and repression.

Streetwalkers are released from detention after a snowstorm to sweep the streets so it will be more pleasant to again stand under street lights; a Bacchanalian sex club operates at night in what is by day a worker’s canteen; women nervously disrobe only to dance in raunchy black lace for a bureaucrat who will grade their work — when it’s deemed artistic, rather than demeaning or pornographic, these strippers cling to each other in relief and joy.

That the performers manage to keep this material so light and so engaging is testament to the sharp script, ingenious, bare-bones staging and wonderful performances by actors who in their homeland have been forced underground, putting on shows within private apartments, the woods, cafes: locations that constantly shift so they can escape persecution.

Ironically, one of the things which gives Minsk 2011 its huge warmth is the overwhelming affection many of the company’s actors clearly feel for the place. In the show’s final scene, the red carpet has become a river and the actors gingerly dip their toes into the water, then sit by it and discuss their connections to Minsk, and the way, despite their hatred of the regime, they’re drawn back to the city. It’s home. One exiled actor tells us he rings his mother from London a few times a month. She has dementia and thinks he’s still in Minsk and, he declares, she is right.

Later, I found myself looking up the Belarusian capital on Google maps, and was surprised to not recognise the places that appeared. With nine red chairs and a strip of carpet the actors had somehow brought the spirit of the city to life more richly than any photograph. After the show, their bravery lingered, as did a nauseating anxiety: to which version of Minsk would they each be returning?

‘The World of the Exile’: Minsk 2011

By Malcolm Knox

There’s a creepy assumption that underlies some attitudes toward refugees and what are now known as ‘illegals’, which is that they hate their home country and select Australia as a kind of off-the-shelf lifestyle choice. It’s hard to say to whom, if anyone, this hatred applies. I once worked with a former Sudanese child soldier, who had left his village as a little boy, fled a rebel army as a teenager and not been back for twenty years. He had walked through seven African countries before landing in Australia as a refugee. Yet when he was alone in Sydney, he spent every minute on his computer visiting Sudanese websites and online communities, living the language and the politics and emotion of a homeland he remembered all the more vividly for the length of time since he had seen it.

The Belarus of Minsk 2011 is like that Sudan: far away yet embedded deep in the heart, a grey barrenness yet the only home the players know. In the personal stories with which the performance ends, told simply by each actor, one says he now lives in England, by which he means he escapes his flat to go to Tesco’s three or four times a week to stock up on supplies before locking himself up again with his computer to go back to his virtual Minsk.

As a performance, the group’s work starts with an agitprop bang – free speakers kidnapped and mugged, women abused by their secret police jailers, the atrocities of the holdout dictatorship condemned. Yet as it goes on, it consolidates into a hectic but controlled rhythm and starts to twist the shape of the lost country into something more complicated. The police are dupes, prisoners of their own stupidity and lust. The incarcerated streetwalkers may not run the show, but they run a show. The snow, the elements themselves, are free, they belong to everyone, and memory cannot be locked up or reduced to a slogan.

In a final crescendo, a woman’s naked body is inked and ‘printed’; but she cannot be bound for long, emerging as she does with a vengeful whip. After a bustle of language, the denouement is a simple, sequential, individual storytelling session. This same woman has a four-year-old daughter in Minsk whom she cannot see. An act of graffiti, the word ‘snow’, has itself been snowed over by the white paint of the censoring authorities; Minsk is full of such white squares on grey walls. This is a fine and moving assemblage of images, showing the ambivalence of exile, the love and hate entwined. The audience travels, not really to Minsk but into the world of the exile, which is much closer at hand.

‘The State Confronts the Body, The Body Answers Back’: Minsk 2011

By Shane Maloney

Let’s face it. More often than not, the theatre means a long night and a numb bum.

Which is pretty much what I expect when I fronted up to Minsk, 2011: A Reply to Kathy Acker. Who is Kathy Acker, for a start, and why did she warrant a reply in Belarusian? I braced myself a dose of Brechtian polemic, possibly crossed with Eastern European absurdism and sexual theory, in some sort of Pussy Riot in-your-face provocation.

How wrong I was, I’m glad to say.

Minsk is the capital of Belarus, the place the Soviet Union went to die, then didn’t. President, Alexander Lukashenko, rules with an iron fist he borrowed from the corpse of Stalin. Public protest is forbidden and repression the norm. In such an atmosphere, everything becomes political. Belarus Free Theatre, effectively a company in exile, confronts this reality with a wit and invention that had me glued to the set.

It starts with a sort of joke. One of the actors approaches a microphone stand and opens his mouth as if about to say something. Before he can speak, a hugger-mugger of thugs bustle him away. A man glancing at his watch gets the same treatment. We are immediately in a place where the expression on your face can get you worked over by the cops. From there, the show proceeds as a sort of helter-skelter cabaret. One minute, the actors are bouncing their heads in time with footage of Lukashenko singing a folk song, red and green balloons gripped between their teeth. The next, we are in a police station after a gay pride march. Now a performer is counting his scars, marking them with a red pen. Here, a commonplace scrape from his boyhood. There, the results of imprisonment and torture. Some girls think scars are sexy, he says. If so, Minsk must be the sexiest city on earth.

Adapted from the texts based on the experiences of the actors and directed by Vladimir Shcherban, the show is a whirl of motion and ideas. Creepy bureaucrats write precisely detailed regulations for lapdancers and send convicted prostitutes to sweep snow off the streets. A workers’ canteen by day is a sex club by night. Plastic chairs turn into a subway carriage. A naked woman is painted with a roller, then wrapped in a paper cocoon. The state confronts the body, the body answers back.

The actors negotiate this choreographed chaos with black humour and a kind of sweet vulnerability. Minsk might be unfree, but it is their home. In the final scene, the exiles sit in a row and relate their personal stories, poignant as spurned lovers. Then, as snowflakes fall, they sing a folk song. It is both nostalgic and a paean of hope. Try as tyrants might, certain things simply cannot be repressed.

As the Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers said, back in the day, ’While you’re out there smashing the state, don’t forget to keep a smile on your lips and a song in your heart!’

‘Alive, Powerful and Exciting’: Minsk 2011

By Melissa Lucashenko

A young man appears on stage. He tentatively approaches the microphone stand at front and centre, but then hesitates, and can’t bring himself to speak. When he looks about and cautiously opens a red and white flag instead, a squad of police charge in and haul him away to an unknown fate. Similar things happen again and again to various individuals, none of whom can speak. Finally, the police surround a man who is doing nothing more sinister than checking his watch in public. He too is dragged away to the cells. This introduction tells us a lot about what we need to know of the play’s intent: to expose the punitive nature of modern Minsk, and the ways its population is fighting bravely against being beaten down into total silence.

Belarus Free Theatre is a company in exile. Home under the dictatorship of Lukashenko (no relation) is far too dangerous a place for them to perform. Their city is one where it is illegal to be gay, or political. It is a place where legitimate worker canteens turn at night into highly secret queer venues; where ambulances might be either vehicles of rescue, or sinister tools of the establishment coming to kidnap and torture the deviant. The play (‘an urgent broadside’) speaks eloquently and honestly of what it means to be from a society where any straying from the norm is savagely punished.

A great deal of the impact comes from the connection to the real stories of the actors themselves. ‘I love Minsk’ says one towards the end, proclaiming himself a patriot, ‘but Minsk doesn’t love me.’ This absence of love is expressed in terrifying ways. A protester under interrogation is threatened by police: ‘I’ll show you what a chair leg is for.’ We are left to imagine the rest. Her offence was to ask for a chair so that an elderly lady in her cell could sit down. A gay man holding the rainbow flag is interrogated about taking part in Pride. “And who do you think will protect you from skinheads?” the police bait him, in barely veiled threats. Most of Minsk:2011 is alive, powerful and exciting. In an early scene an actor stands and accuses the audience: What the fuck are you looking at? The night I attended, the audience, hearteningly, yelled back. Since the language wasn’t English, I don’t know what was said, but the message from the seats was clear. We are listening to you, and what you say is worth retaliation. The play is obviously touching on something very real about what it is to live under the present dictatorship. This kind of political engagement in Australia theatre can only be applauded. (I felt like clapping the audience at this point, too.)

The terrific beginning is matched by a tender, equally evocative conclusion. Here the company members line up on wooden chairs and briefly tell their personal stories. The play shifts over eighty minutes from complete totalitarian repression, through some pretty wacky avant garde action, to a hopeful conclusion where expression is possible and stories can be told. The central third of the play (containing a nude woman painted black, wrapped in butcher’s paper, then given a whip and released as a kind of artistic sadist, or crypto-fascist) is rather baffling, though. At first I decided this was simply the foul narcissistic hand of Kathy Acker reaching beyond the grave to taint an otherwise excellent show. But on reflection, I decided, maybe crazed libertarian excess might be part of the answer after all. Perhaps a police state as fucked up as Lukashenko’s needs the mad energy of Acker-like deviance to begin to shatter it, to wear away at its rigid hypocrisy. And even though I’m from Campbell Newman’s Queensland, a minor Australian dictatorship in the making, I am more than willing to learn from the experts – the brave and talented mob in this very good play.

Angrily Oppositional and Wistfully Nostalgic: On Minsk 2011

By Amanda Lohrey

Europe has a long tradition of Agitprop theatre (agitation and propaganda) that arose in part out of the absurdist Dada movement early in the 20th century and was soon co-opted by Left political movements and especially the Communist Party in the old USSR. Its most famous practitioner was the German playwright and lifelong Communist Bertolt Brecht who founded the still extant Berliner Ensemble and developed Agitprop into a high level of theatre. In its essentials, however, it remained a method that relied on minimalist means so that it could be performed if necessary in workers’ canteens or on street corners. Like the commedia dell’arte form that preceded it, Agitprop set out first to entertain with satire, jokes, songs and inspired improvisation. It was often angry but rarely earnest.*

The members of the Belarus Free Theatre have adapted the form with great success. All ten members of the company have at some time been detained by police for their theatre activities and several of them are in exile from Belarus as political refugees. With the minimum of props – red plastic chairs, a strip of red carpet, some ink and paper – they create a kaleidoscope of settings with an almost ballistic energy and conviction. Structurally Minsk is a series of sketches, some simple in form, others more visually complex and poetic. Some are angrily oppositional, others wistfully nostalgic for a lost home; together they create a vivid portrait of a beloved country betrayed by what Britain’s Guardian newspaper describes as ‘Europe’s last dictatorship’.

The role of the US punk writer Kathy Acker (1947-1997) in all this is ambiguous and she is not referred to in the production itself. Indeed, much of the performance is ambiguous in its political message. At times it appears to treat the free expression of sexuality as the frontline of all political freedom – the old 60s slogan, the political is the personal - and this makes strong sense in the current climate in Eastern Europe where gays are actively persecuted. It also makes sense that in a country where a dour Soviet form of collectivist ‘community’ is enforced by the state from above, an extreme libertarianism will suggest itself as a form of resistance. (In western countries where radical personal freedoms have existed for many decades now, the opposite is the case and individuals are seeking new forms of community.) Acker’s work often deals with the relation between sexual repression and violence; there is a scene towards the end of Minsk where a woman actor strips naked, is painted in black ink and then enclosed in a roll of white paper. When finally she breaks free of her cocoon she strides the stage with a whip, appearing to make a point first developed by Wilhelm Reich in Vienna and then Berlin in the 1920s and 30s, when he warned that rigid sexual repression would create a quasi-mystical totalitarian politics that offered sublimated erotic satisfactions and created sadomasochistic personality types. In other words Minsk is an intensely European piece in which pre-World War II issues still burn hot among those bedevilled peoples like the Belarusians, who have for centuries been subject to a succession of authoritarian rulers. Finally with Glasnost they got their chance at a free democratic nation, only to have a tyrant like Alexander Lukashenko impose his will for two decades and argue for some form of reunion with Russia.

There is, however, another sense in which Minsk could have been conceived as a reply to Kathy Acker, a response tantamount to arguing that sexual freedom in and of itself makes no impact on the authoritarian state and is condemned to an underground life of anarchic Dionysian escapism. Early in the performance there is a frenetic scene where a dreary workers’ canteen by day is transformed into a sex club by night and it’s a scene open to a number of readings. Acker made claims for herself as a feminist and liberationist but most of her work is neurotic and nihilist. So which Acker is at play in this performance? And does it matter if we are unable to judge? The official programme claims: ‘Our sexual identity is indivisible from our social self; it is inherently political.’ Well, yes and no. There are a range of sexual identities and practices in all political camps and sexual avant-gardism of the Acker kind is a guarantee of nothing in the political sphere. In the US it has resulted in a pervasive pornography that has in no way undermined the political influence of fundamentalist moralism. On the other hand, official state attitudes to gays do tend to be a marker of the degree of personal freedom available to the individual under any regime. In this regard the political pitch of Minsk does not follow a clear trajectory such that the audience is able to read its response to Acker one way or another. Though it borrows stylistically from Agitprop, Minsk is not an ‘argument’ piece, more a collage of the actors’ responses to their contemporary dilemma; anger at political repression, sadness at a bombing in the newly built Minsk underground in 2011 (this is never explained and hence it’s not clear why this element is incorporated into the production), nostalgia for home and a youth blighted by police brutality.

It was interesting to see a production of Minsk in the same week that I watched The Shadow King at The Malthouse. Both brought home to me the role of language in any performance and I don’t mean here its literal meaning but its power to suggest the resonance of a culture purely through its own distinctive sound, its inherent song. The Shadow King integrated a number of indigenous languages into its English text and the entire performance of Minsk is in the actors’ native language which I assume was Belarusian and which sounded to my untutored ear very like Russian. In the latter instance, supertitles in English were projected onto a back screen and this device worked wonderfully. I cannot imagine that a performance in English, even by the same actors, would have had anything like the same effect on an English-speaking audience; the actors’ native tongue sounded so densely European, so potently Slavic that even just on the sensory level it conjured a whole history.

Agitprop is a form rarely deployed in Australian theatre, despite the great success in the 1970s of Michael Boddy and Bob Ellis’s The Legend of King O’Malley*. This lively piece of folk theatre succeeded in dramatising two dominant strains of Australian politics, embodied in the utopian idealism of O’Malley and the cynical opportunism of Billy Hughes. Why is it never revived?

Reviews

The Belarusian folksong that echoes throughout is a constant reminder of the actors’ nostalgia for a place that they love to hate, or hate to love.

Minsk, 2011: A Reply to Kathy Acker (Belarus Free Theatre): Hardly ‘Rochelle, Rochelle’. #melbfest

Minsk, 2011 is not the grim piece of political commentary you might expect. That is to say, it is certainly about the repression there, but it also about a longing for home and family and a spirit that refuses to be quenched. And there are welcome flashes of humor.

Minsk 2011: a reply to Kathy Acker is amazingly powerful and moving! Go see it #melbfest

It is the knowledge that the stories are performed by people who have experienced the hell they describe that makes Minsk 2011 all the more chilling and compelling.

…while I walk away from Minsk 2011: A Reply to Kathy Acker more aware of the problem of oppression in Belarus than I had been, I don’t necessarily understand its intricacies much better.

Minsk 2011 glorious agitprop but was it really a reply to Kathy Acker? Moved me last 15mins. Would’ve liked to see it on a street #melbfest

MINSK was powerful, beautiful and produced a really vivid picture of the city. You feel their love and heartbreak. #melbfest

Far from betraying their country, these actors, brought to us by the London international festival of theatre, are speaking of it with badly bruised love.

AMAZING! - The Belarus Free Theatre company takes on the dictatorship which prevails in their country. #RN http://ow.ly/q7xlq

After detailing all the problems, they speak in touching and personal ways about how they dream of returning home to wives, husbands or children left behind. It’s a powerful moment that builds in intensity until the lights dim.

Conceived and directed by Vladimir Shcherban, the production offers a jagged mosaic of vignettes that portray a world in which violence enforces silence, and sex and pleasure are seldom synonymous.

@BelFreeTheatre Loved, loved, loved Minsk. Last 20 mins exceptionally powerful theatre #melbfest

Minsk 2011:A Reply to Kathy Acker- provocative, political and powerful. It’s the work of Belarus Free Theatre, a company in exile #melbfest

Vladimir Shcherban directs with fluidity and simplicity, creating vivid theatrical images at every turn.

Just saw “Minsk: 2011” by Belarus Free Theatre from Eastern Europe. Seriously amazing performance.

I would like to have seen a few more moments when the actual stories were centre-stage and allowed to speak for themselves, instead of sometimes being over-shadowed by the (albeit impressive) action on stage. Moments of simplicity and silence were powerful but under used.

I thought Minsk 2011 was brave, thoughtful, fierce, unrelenting and so important. #melbfest

Go and see MINSK at melbfest! Wow

Minsk 2011: a reality check for my complacent complaining compatriots who take democracy and civility for granted. Wrenching @MelbFestival

@BFreeTheatre’s Minsk, 2011 is great. A friend commented that we are not used to such politically forward work. #MelbFest

Minsk 2011 by Belarus Free Theatre, thrilling performance. Genuinely moving and daring dissident theatre. Young Vic this week. Go see.

Belarus Free Theatre’s compelling Minsk, 2011: A Reply to Kathy Acker is the most powerful work I’ve seen at #melbfest yet. A must see.

Each cast member tells us who they are, and what Minsk means to them. They can’t leave it, even in exile, but they can’t live there freely either. It’s more than nostalgia, it’s an open wound.

This is less theatre than performance art. The theatrical comfort blankets of character, narrative and invention are removed from the audience, replaced by a stark, simple approach to image making and direct engagement. They use their own names. They talk to us. They do not all possess the silky skills of drama graduates – they’re not pretending to be real. They are real.

Interestingly, it is the individual stories told by the BFT cast members, identifying themselves by name, that has the most profound and lingering impact on audience members. The anecdotes create an aching bond that transcends culture and language.

Toward the end, when the actors line up on a row of chairs and each speak of their complex relationship with Minsk, there’s no mistaking the bittersweet notes. This is excellent theatre, passionate and moving.

As a theater critic, I’m accustomed to connecting to performances through stories and characters, even in untraditional forms. Maybe that’s why I was so moved by, and involved with, the Belarus Free Theater’s “Minsk 2011,” a poignant example of true political theater.

Minsk, 2011: A Reply to Kathy Acker was inspiring & brave @MelbFestival #Belarus #Theatre

Belarus Free Theatre @MelbFestival thrilling, passionate, edge-of-the-seat stuff, not to mention important. #minsk2011 Next up: Life & Times

There’s a sense of pulsing frustration from the talented cast but the most poignant section comes last, when the actors offer simple first-person confessions.

Just saw Belarus Free Theatre’s Minsk 2011 @MelbFestival A shot of political theatre right to the fucking eye. Brilliant.

The performance from Belarus Free Theatre tonight was gut-wrenching and full of stories that must be heard. #melbfest

#MelbFest MINSK, 2011: A REPLY TO KATHY ACKER …made me cry. No dead dolls, and no humility.

However, powerful as these stories are, they’re not as well served by this production as you’d hope. I was expecting an original approach to theatre making, with some boldness of form but this isn’t the case.

The crucially harsh themes notwithstanding, it is the beautiful, hopeful sections of this show that lodge themselves most determinedly in one’s head.

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