You don’t have to be a climate change fanatic to see the point of Red Forest. But then again, you do have to applaud the very existence of Red Forest, coming as it does from the Belarus Free Theatre, a company whose founders and performers have had to run the gauntlet of political censorship and imprisonment by Belarus authorities simply in order to present their work.
BFT are now firmly established favourites at the Young Vic having already brought Minsk 2011: A Reply to Kathy Acker and Trash Cuisine. They also happen to be hugely admired by LIFT’s artistic director, Mark Ball, who called Minsk 2011 `one of the most moving evenings’ he had ever spent in a theatre. BFT’s Red Forest, then is part of this year’s LIFT2014.
I have to confess I was expecting something more hard-wired and political from them. The politics is certainly there though not of the confrontational in-yer-face variety which I remember from one of their previous productions, Being Harold Pinter. Instead, Red Forest depicts a world and a planet squandering its resources in excess and greed, forgetting its essential relationship to the earth itself, with a style more reminiscent of other Young Vic productions where physical and visual representation takes precedence over textual.
The text in this case, apart from solemn words from Jeremy Proulx’s indigenous Canadian figurehead, comes mainly from voice-overs, testaments and interviews with ordinary people in various trouble spots where flood or famine or plain brutality have taken hold.
Using a group of extraordinarily committed performers/singers/actors and musicians, Belarus’s directors, Nicolai Khalezin and Natalia Kaliada plunge their company into sand-filled boxes, soaking rain and mud to evoke the various environments – Ivory Coast, Morocco, Brazil, Algeria, Chernobyl, Japan and the Spanish border – through which Michael Keyamo’s remarkable emblematic mother moves.
Hers is a story of stoic motherhood, loss, and inevitably and horribly, rape (at the Spanish Border) as she travels through the world exemplifying the trials and testimonies of those who have suffered from tsunamis, nuclear fallout and livelihoods ruined by oil excavation.
Seven years ago, Forkbeard Fantasy, a rather remarkable British company from the 1970s and still going, presented a similar themed show, Invisible Bonfires. They too touched on our capacity to denude the planet’s resources in the name of progress and `modern civilization’. But they did so with archetypal ‘70s satire and anarchy which amounted to a full frontal attack on capitalism itself.
Red Forest, more elegiac and personal presses us in the same way to remember our custodial role but also the voiceless round the world and calling instead upon ancestral spirits and the power of Nature to redeem us.
Keyamo, it has to be said, in her first lead role – and one that makes painful physical and vocal demands – is mesmerising. I hope we’ll see much more of her. As indeed Belarus Free Theatre.