A Reply to Kathy Acker: Minsk 2011, 4 stars
Pleasance Courtyard (Venue 33)
The Fringe, as always, has thrown up a host of shows dealing with urgent contemporary questions, whether it's Zinnie Harris grappling with war in The Wheel at the Traverse or Emma Jowett considering headline news in Snap. Catch. Slam. at the Pleasance. For all the merits of those fine shows, however, there's no denying the special frisson you get when performers speak from personal experience.
Such is the case with the Belarus Free Theatre whose very presence on stage is a miracle of resistance, perseverance and determination.
Outlawed by the repressive regime of Alexander Lukashenko, Europe's last standing dictator, and now exiled in the UK, the actors are lucky to be alive, never mind able to perform.
Even so, if this was all the company had to offer, it would only get so far. Worthiness and commitment aren't enough to sustain a whole show. Which is why it is thrilling to report that the company is premiering a show in Edinburgh that is as politically astute and theatrically dynamic as the performers' personal situation is bleak.
Although Belarus Free Theatre earned its reputation with work that was not overtly political, A Reply to Kathy Acker: Minsk 2011 is highly charged. In a collage of punchy actor-centred scenes – funny, unsentimental, explicit – the play makes the connection between a dysfunctional society and a dysfunctional attitude to sex.
Taking inspiration from the late American iconoclast Kathy Acker, Vladimir Shcherban's production considers what it means to live in a society in which police can break up a gay pride march after only 15 minutes and in which people are so alienated from each other that to look someone in the eye for more than a second is considered an act of aggression. As in many places, women come under pressure to sell their bodies in strip clubs, but in a city such as Minsk where people have been arrested simply for clapping in public, this sexual alienation seems to be symptomatic of an even deeper malaise.
That this remarkable company shares its experiences with such wit, intelligence and theatrical imagination is a tremendous testimony to the power of creativity in the face of appalling repression.
Until 29 August
© Mark Fisher 2011
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