Time of Women, part of Staging a Revolution festival

Maria Studio, Young Vic Theatre, London (****)

© Nicolai Khalezin

© Nicolai Khalezin

Theatre can be a fantastic teacher. It’s hard for British theatre audiences to comprehend the sacrifices made by artists, writers and practitioners in the name of free speech and artistic expression. Apart from the occasional politically charged cancelled performance – Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti’s Behzti (2004), Jim Allen’s Perdition in 1987 spring to mind and a handful of other opera/theatre productions considered to be either too pro-Israel or anti-semitic – since the end of censorship in 1968, British theatre has sailed along concerned only where the next funding axe might fall (painful enough) or what star rating the latest show might garner.  But really, We don’t know the half of it!

In the 1980s, my generation was `educated’ about apartheid by plays from South Africa. Since then, it has been the Palestinians and most frequently the Belarus Free Theatre, now staging a two-week festival, Staging a Revolution in one of their most ambitious visits to date, appearing in different, sometimes secret, `underground’ venues, live-streaming on social media, who are `educating’ us afresh.

© Nicolai Khalezin

© Nicolai Khalezin

Time of Women (interestingly developed at Falmouth’s University of Music and Theatre Arts) graphically recounts the story of three brave female journalists and human rights campaigners – Irina Khalip, Natalya Radina, Nasta Palazhanka – imprisoned by the authorities, noting in parenthesis that after Time of Women’s first performance in a Belarusian apartment block, the company lost the apartment as a performance space.

Using video-cam and stage interrogation, Nicolai Khalezin and Natalia Kaliada’s production exerts a strange, visceral sense of both actuality and surrealism where the women’s reconstructed time in a prison cell is concerned. As Khalip (a gaunt Maryia Sazonava), dubbed ring-leader by their KGB interrogator huddled on her top bunk bed puts it, `it’s like lying in a coffin’. And so it does.

In between, Colonel Orlov (Kiryl Kanstantsinau), by turns terrifying and cajoling, attempts to break the women down, typically, through mental torture with reference to their loved ones – mothers, husbands, family.

Once again, it’s a story that brings home the banality (and cruelty) of state repression but exemplifies the extraordinary resilience of women who find strength in solidarity even as privacy (toiletries are carried out behind a white sheet) is lost.

Poignantly, what is most recalled – and missed – are the simple things, smells, a mother’s dumplings, their homeland.

Catch them while you can. The Festival, Staging a Revolution, continues to Nov 14, 2015.

© Nicolai Khalezin

© Nicolai Khalezin

Review first published in Reviewsgate, Nov 2015 and slightly amended here.