A three-hour long play at the Barbican may sound daunting to some, but when it’s by the Belarusian Free Theatre about a fascist, dystopian Russia, I implore you to see what is essential, rebellious theatre given the current circumstances.
I say this as someone who found the first act of Dogs of Europe, an epic based on the Belarus-banned book by Alhierd Bacharevic, dizzying and staggered. Short chapters – chapters like the book from which it takes inspiration – are accompanied by seat-shuddering, thundering electronica, or gentle orchestrations from Mark and Marichka Marczyk (the duo behind Balaklava Blues). Equally impressive is the ensemble’s sound effects contributed from the sides of the stage, with unusual sources. Often, their lingering in the corner alludes to something occurring before it has happened, such as a jug of water being used for drinking or urinating, or a knife and a balloon to symbolise a gunshot, ahead of anyone actually being shot yet.
While absolutely fascinating in their physicality, the routines’ symbolism is hard to ascertain in the moment. It’s only in the second act – after actor Aliaksei Naranovich runs around naked, tirelessly, in circles, for the entire interval – that we learn the significance of it all. Meaning is finally given to the abstract and its impact is masterful and engrossing.
From the outset, however, we are told that he resides in The New Reich of 2049, a super-state formed after Russia occupies several countries in Europe and Asia. In opposition to the fascist regime is a reformed European Union, known as the League of European States. The most powerful and chilling dystopia only has a slight deviation from reality, and with the political divide of Europe being caused by a war from 2022 to 2025, the horrifying prospect of the fictional future coming to life is not lost on audience members.
In the second half of the production, Narovich is clothed as investigator from Berlin, tasked with finding out more about the murdered protagonist (whose demise is unclear when so many deaths are exaggerated and metaphorical in their framing – one character is shot only to talk to his murderer shortly afterwards). The stark contrast in the two sides of European politics, now that we’re on the other side of ‘The Great Wall’, can be noticed in the choreography. What were restrained, clamouring movements in scenes set in the New Reich are now routines which show dancers supporting each other physically, their autonomy as individuals respected.
Another striking motif in Dogs of Europe is a man pushing a giant ball of books along the stage, before he is eventually murdered by a group of people in all-black clothing. Those familiar with mythology – something a friend tells me is present in a fair amount of the BFT’s production – will notice similarities to Atlas, tbe Titan doomed to carry the world on his shoulders. His death on a pile of books can both be seen as the death of the world, and of language itself, as we learn that modern languages have been altered in this dark future. The subtitles, in addition to being there for accessibility purposes, gain an additional meaning against the backdrop of burning books and language degradation, and scenes or cut-out/paper animations projected on a giant screen on stage tap into the focus on words and texts in this production.
As Teresius Skima finds out more about our protagonist found murdered and dead with a goose feather and a book in his possession, we too see what came before, in the first act, in a new light. We too are solving the mystery, and it is gripping and immensely rewarding.
During his investigation, a woman tells Skima that “poetry changes you. It chases you; it riles you up”. It is one of many remarkable lines uttered in the production, and it’s certainly true within the context of Dogs of Europe. Furious, gritty theatre, complete with powerful symbolism – multiple books are burned on stage throughout – the Belarus Free Theatre production really is poetic in its staging.
It doesn’t just change you as an audience member, it moves you. It doesn’t just rile you up, it makes you furious. Belarus Free Theatre’s play is a vital and urgent call to action, and a daring celebration of expression, and it needs to be seen by everyone.
Dogs of Europe is now playing at the Barbican Theatre until Saturday 12 March. All performances are in Belarusian with English subtitles.
Production Images: Linda Nylind.
Disclaimer: I was invited to watch ‘Dogs of Europe’ for free in exchange for a review of the press performance as a member of the media. I did not receive payment for this article and all opinions are honest and my own.