Burning Doors – Soho Theatre, London

Writer &Director: Nicolai Khalezin
Reviewer: Deborah Klayman

A stark set, evocative images and an oppressive soundscape await the audience for Burning Doors – and that is merely the pre-set. Before the play-proper even begins, the auditorium is awash with claustrophobia and uncomfortable truth, with half the height of the set given over to projected imagery with sobering surtitles, and the other half punctuated by three prison doors.

The doors represent the three stories explored in the piece: that of Pussy Riot’s Maria Alyokhina, who performs and gives her own testimony in the early part of the play, of the Russian performance artist Petr Pavlensky, and the currently incarcerated Ukrainian film-maker Oleg Sentsov. These are woven together by excerpts from Foucault and Dostoevsky, verbatim accounts and evocative traditional music. This truly is Theatre of the Oppressed, and those who cannot be present (due to their imprisonment) are given voice.

Alyokhina’s story is the most familiar, yet her experience once imprisoned is truly shocking. At times lyrical, at other times brutal, her testimony is brought to life with terrifying dynamism and amazing physical feats by the eight-strong company. Like all of life, there is a respite from the darker material with lighter satirical vignettes that illicit welcome laughs and wry recognition. Discussions about the prisoners, the interest in their plight by the world media and celebrities, and football failures all frame the darker material. If there was an award for the best scene change, the surprising appearance of “toilet paper terrorists” armed with torches would surely be the winner.

The hardest sections to watch are those involving interrogation, abuse and systematic violence. In addition to their physical prowess the company use rope, aerial and suspension work to drive the narrative home: images of prisoners tethered by elastic, water-torture, and the eponymous burning doors are ones that will be hard to forget.

This is bold, striking, searing performance art: part narrative, part physical theatre, and part endurance test. The literally tortuous sections – particularly one focusing on the gradual change from oppressor to oppressed – are uncomfortably long, giving a UK audience some idea of the tense, stifling and onerous atmosphere experienced by both the named activists and those performing for and supporting Belarus Free Theatre back in their home country. Never has your own freedom felt so precious.

Runs until 24September 2016 | Image: Nicolai Khalezin


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