November 2015: Pyotr Pavlensky sets the doors of the Russian security services building alight. Source: Facebook. “The madhouse was my first fully sensory experience,” Pussy Riot’s Maria Alyokhina calmly tells her London audience, in tones uncharacteristic of the rest of Burning Doors, a new play by the Belarus Free Theatre that seeks to draw attention to the plight of Russian artists and dissidents. The theatre, banned in its own country, does a relentless job of transmitting this “experience” to the stage as it documents the trials Russian artists have faced in recent years.
The Belarus Free Theatre is no stranger to the difficulties of trying to create art inside a dictatorship. Established in 2005, the theatre has no official premises in its home country, and is forced to stage plays in private apartments and public spaces. Performances have previously been stormed by police, with actors, directors and audience members arrested. The theatre’s founder and co-founder live in the UK with political refugee status. On top of that, the troupe has struggled with securing the funds it needs to survive.
The direction Burning Doors takes is palpable on entering the steep stalls. A projection being shown above three prison cell doors introduces the play’s sources of inspiration, beginning with Alyokhina’s personal experiences of incarceration. The second is the work of performance artist Pyotr Pavlensky, who sewed his lips together in support of Pussy Riot’s right to freedom of speech, and later nailed his scrotum to Red Square and set fire to the doors of Russia’s Federal Security Services (FSB). The third represents Ukrainian filmmaker Oleg Sentsov, who remains imprisoned on terror charges (unrelated to his artistic work but rather to crackdowns in post-annexation Crimea). Experiences which Alyokhina has consigned to the past remain a present-day reality for Sentsov, which is a jarring realisation.
Despite proclamations that the only viable option is “to obey” and resign themselves to inaction, the play’s participants wrestle every inch of their cell
The audience is introduced to one of Alyokhina’s typical days, beginning the play with the ritual humiliation of prisoners through sporadic forced nudity. Alyokhina narrates her experience from the outside as her role is acted by others — she is the object, rather than the subject, of her incarceration. The first space to be explored is intimate: a short history of the interior of her mouth. Alyokhina is tormented by a sadistic matriarchal warden who tells her, while probing it, what it must have seen: her mother’s milk, a sour gooseberry, a first kiss.
The violence escalates. Exhaustive use is made of space, speed, light and sound: facing away from one another, prisoners’ sole interactions are confrontations, and they shift between victim and abuser, regurgitating that which has been shouted at them at the next person with ever-increasing aggression and speed.
How space is interpreted is one of the key themes of the play — the actors exhaust all, moving in every possible direction. Later in the play, prison is defined as “the restriction of space for movement for a space of time.” These actors are temporarily prisoners in their own play.
The theatre as a prison or the prison as theatre?
Pavlensky took this message even further. In a statement released alongside Fixation — a performance in which he nailed his scrotum to Moscow’s Red Square in 2014 — he expanded the reach of Russia’s prison structure outside of its assumed setting. “As the government turns the country into one big prison,” Pavlensky wrote, “stealing from the people and using the money to grow and enrich the police apparatus and other repressive structures, society is allowing this, and forgetting its numerical advantage, is bringing the triumph of the police state closer by its inaction.”
Despite proclamations that the only viable option is “to obey” and resign themselves to inaction, the play’s participants wrestle every inch of their cell.
They move upwards, downwards, upside down. They clamber across and hoist themselves from rigging. They twist and contort, throwing kicks and punches — moves that are also filmed from above and projected behind them. The audience gets to witness it from a bird’s eye view. They also lurch towards you — on bungee cords. The “prisoners” clearly possess and require extreme agility, resilience and strength: one actress gets hoisted up by her arms and legs, as helpless as a puppet, and is jerked and throttled upwards and outwards towards the audience.
The play only tells a small slice of this story to the audience: while artistic freedoms are severely limited in Belarus and Russia, Pussy Riot and Pavlensky gained notoriety and maintain it
It appears excruciating, but, early on in the play, a pair of frantic government officials, sitting on two toilets positioned side-by-side (in an apparent reference to the mocking photographs taken of toilets during the Winter Olympics in 2014) discuss how Pavlensky is not a masochist and keeps his own pain to a minimum despite external appearances, rendering spectators uncertain about whether this might also apply to actors. The sheer physical toll the play must take on the cast is, or at least appears to be extraordinary.
The appearance of continual discomfort and exposure to shouting, dissonant noises, and on at least two occasions, uncomfortable and somewhat dazzling lighting, subjects the audience to secondhand malaise and raises questions of mind/body dualism, which are made more explicit towards the end of the play. A passage from Michel Foucault’s Discipline and Punish is projected onto the screen: “Old partners of the spectacle of punishment, the body and the blood, gave way. A new character came on the scene, masked. It was the end of a certain kind of tragedy; comedy began, with shadow play, faceless voices, impalpable entities. The apparatus of punitive justice must now bite into this bodiless reality.”
The kinds of torture imposed are both physical and target “the soul”. The latter is emphasised as being the backbone of Russia’s prison system, convincing prisoners that they have no option other than to obey. The actor-prisoners stand holding piles of plates with their arms outstretched, beads of sweat leaking from their strained faces.
Retelling old stories?
Burning Doors is both bold and shocking. But that shock factor may limit it, too — focusing on the stories of artists already relatively well known to western audiences. Nevertheless, the play does also draw attention to the plight of Oleg Sentsov and to a lesser extent others persecuted by the Russian state, such as Crimean Tatar Ilmi Umerov who has been incarcerated in a psychiatric institution since late August.
The play only tells a small slice of this story to the audience: while artistic freedoms are severely limited in Belarus and Russia, Pussy Riot and Pavlensky gained notoriety and maintain it. Those who continue to go undocumented are invisible to the audience. Indeed, one member, during a mid-show Q&A with Alyokhina, posed a question loaded with the assumption that there are no other contemporary political artists inside Russia.
“Because of your story… has artistic protest been silenced completely in Russia… because of what happened to you?” the audience member inquired. Alyokhina responded with a quip about her disappearing voice before expressing support, but also a degree of responsibility.
“We are alive. It’s good news. We are in Russia, and this is also good news,” Aloykhina said. “We are helping those people who are still in prison… I know artists who do the same in Russia, so this is just one of the chances to say ‘we exist and we want to show you what we are doing’.”
“Burning Doors” will be showing at Soho Theatre until 24 September, after which it will tour the UK. It will be livestreamed on 12 October, before being performed in Italy and Australia. More information can be found here.