In case you forgot, there is a war going on. A war not only of annexation of Crimea by Russia, which Ukrainians are resisting, but also a war against the artists and others who protest the Russian annexation as well as the totalitarian measures enacted within Russia on their people.
Belarus Free Theatre make their Luminato (and I believe Canadian) debut with a piece of theatre centred as many of their pieces are around the imprisonment of artists under current totalitarian regimes. Unlike some of their other work, however, the stories told in this piece not only come from artists like Pussy Riot's Maria Alyokhina who is now free (and joins the company in the creation and performance) but also in artists still sitting in Russian prisons, like Ukrainian filmmaker Oleg Sentsov.
The work is urgent. Using their language of extreme physical exertion, the company are led by artistic Director Natalia Kaliada and Nikolai Khalezin in the creation of a performance that is demanding. One that doesn't allow the audience to sit back and watch, but requires them to endure, much like Sentsov continues to as he endures day 37 of his hunger strike. What I always find striking in their work is the inclusion of humour. Dark and biting, their portrayal of the Russian yes-men as selfish and idiotic, while completely flippant about the lives of others is the perfect counterpoint to the extreme images of physical abuse and torture we see elsewhere in the production. Images of bodies dangling from circus ropes, or thrust out into the audience unsettle and inquire. Repetition of gesture defamiliarizes, seducing us into seeing the actors as just bodies, then jarring us into remembrance that these are real, living, breathing people.
For many, the work is too extreme. The actors work like athletes, and have the physiques to show it. Hurling themselves through space, lifting and carrying one another. What's amazing is to see the reactions of a North American audience to this kind of dangerous physical work. While this tradition is far more common in Eastern Europe in the tradition of Grotowski and Barba, in North America this is foreign.
Their work is not for everyone. It is difficult to watch, and causes some to shut off. I believe, however that it is this intentional polarization that makes the work so evocative. They don't just politely ask us to act, they require it.
If you haven't seen their work, you should. But prepare. This is not easy watching, no matter how prepared you think you are.
For more on Oleg Sentsov and the campaign to free him, visit the joint statement issued by Luminato and TIFF earlier this month.