August 18, 2019

Belarus Free Theatre Review – Red Forest at the Young Vic puts #firstworldproblems in perspective

Search Twitter for the hashtag #firstworldproblems and you’ll find some of the things that Westerners worry about. When I checked the feed @nubsyy was telling the world of his latest dilemma: Waking up after 11 and not knowing if I should eat breakfast or lunch. Or there was @ashmc_xo’s complaint: Not having enough space in your driveway to park all the vehicles.

These sorts of issues can seem important (@KiWi_TW: My tea is just slightly too hot and it’s making it not enjoyable), until you are reminded of the issues that really are important. Underground, exiled theatre group Belarus Free Theatre is currently performing their new piece Red Forest at the Young Vic. If you go in with Western attitudes to what constitutes a disaster,(@paulinacepeda: that really depressing moment when your new phone doesn’t fit into your workout arm band) when you leave you will have very different views on what to worry about.

Belarus Free Theatre was formed in 2005 by Natalia Kaliada and Nicolai Khalezin and were soon joined by Vladimir Shcherban. Forced to flee Belarus, often called Europe’s last dictatorship, in 2011 they received asylum in the UK. A documentary about this time in their lives premiered at the Human Rights Watch festival in London last year – you can read the Flaneur review here. The founders still work with the rest of their ensemble who remain in Minsk, but have created a new part of the company in London. Red Forest is undeniably an ensemble piece and the performers and contributors who have developed the piece include Pavel Haradnitski, Kiryl Kanstantsinau, Michal Keyamo, Stephanie Pan, Francesco Petruzzelli, Jeremy Proulx, Maryia Sazonova, Nastassia Shcherbak, Philippe Spall, Andrei Urazau and Eleanor Westbrook.

The stage is divided into thirds, a wide strip of sand down the centre, shallow rectangles of water on each side. Behind the actors, high on the wall is a large letterbox shaped screen. Almost as wide as the stage and over a metre tall it mostly shows abstracted images, though at times they become over-literal. Barbed wire appears over a refugee camp scene. Rain falls during a tsunami episode.

Before the performance starts we are warned that what follows is based on real stories, interwoven with myth and legend. This embracing of fiction leaves us uncertain which parts of what follows are real and takes away some of the power of the stories.  But the events are all dated and titled on the big screen. We visit a string of suffering people, whose tales are told in actions and sometimes voiceover. There is no dialogue from the performers on stage. Instead when necessary voices sound from the darkness at the sides of the stage, speaking over the action.

Red Forest does not focus on Belarus, though it does feature – the country suffered 70% of the fallout from the Chernobyl disaster. Instead it is a trip around disasters and human rights abuses around the world. For three weeks the BFT team travelled around the world, recording interviews with people who had suffered. For example Bridget Fiske travelled to Australia to research the Black Saturday bushfires. Natalia Kaliada and Nicolai Khalezein went to Morocco, hearing awful stories about civil wars and appalling executions.

Focusing on these horror stories points out the absurdity of a world where some worry about the temperature of their tea and others have to feed children polluted water. This is serious polemic dressed in contemporary physical theatre.

Over the course of the performance we are taken well out of the comfort zone of people who think it’s a problem when it’s too hot to get out of my air-conditioned car. We visit Algeria, where instead of arresting people the police merely took all their belongings and left them to die in the searing desert heat. The Spanish border, where a rape is enacted too elegantly on stage. Japan, where tsunami survivors tell of their heartaches. All of these tales, and several more, are recreated eloquently. The company is at its best in physical theatre, creating beautiful images from a floating foulard or feathers. A wicker basket becomes a pregnant belly, books are literal stepping stones to safety.

Simple torches and perfectly choreographed movements somehow make horribly accurate bulldozers, destroying peoples lives. Helicopters are superbly reproduced,the effect heightened by the sound effects, part of a vibrant soundscape built up by the musicians throughout the piece.

The different scenes are linked by the journey of Aisha, who pops up in all the scenes. She is an embodiment of all the sufferers interviewed or,  as she flees from here, only to experience brutality or natural disaster there,  the unluckiest woman alive.

The screen and its images synced with action below must have taken a lot of preparation, but they are the weakest part of the production. The screen is too high, forcing the viewer to either be looking at the performers or the electronic images. For the most part the performances do not need the addition illustrations above. It works better when white sheets are lowered towards the stage and the projection becomes more encompassing. Otherwise it is a false step, a very Western placing of production values over content or necessity.

Will Red Forest do more than instil an evening’s guilt in Western audiences? Its content is almost completely unremittingly bleak, although it is presented in a beautiful, human manner. The performers are athletic, balletic and bring gracefulness to the action no matter how horrid. But the piece has no humour to lighten the litany of disasters, man-made and natural. There are no solutions, just a long reminder of the horrors others have to endure. It is too wide ranging for anyone to come out thinking we must do something about the situation in X, which might have been the case if it had been more focused.  By introducing so many tales of brutality and disaster it leaves a sense not that something must be done, or could be done, but of resignation.

Red Forest puts a lot of Western issues in perspective, yet is at times beautiful and poetic. Should I enjoy seeing a play about the world’s suffering? That’s definitely a #firstworldproblem

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