'Minsk, 2011' represents a wake-up call to the realities of life in 21st century Belarus and challenges our complacency about the state of democracy in a forgotten corner of Europe.
Belarus is a little known, little talked about country – in Britain at least. It is a hangover from the Soviet Union, run by a repressive regime which seeks to control its people through draconian measures. This is an all too familiar story but one that many would be surprised to discover continues to occur within Europe's borders. Yet, just as dictatorships come to rely upon brute force to retain power, they are just as likely to create an environment in which creative opposition persists and flourishes.
It is against this backdrop of repression that Belarus Free Theatre – an underground home-grown theatre group – created Minsk, 2011. The production's genesis was the protests against the rigged 2010 Presidential election which lead to an even greater crackdown on human rights than before, including absurd restrictions on gatherings of crowds and clapping in public.
Facts alone go some way to highlighting the plight of the country. Belarus is the only country from the former Soviet Union which retained the use of the Russian name 'KGB' after its dissolution. It is the only country in Europe that still uses the death penalty.
At the heart of the play is the statement that, because Belarus does not benefit from the 'glamour' of other equally stricken countries, it attracts far less attention from the international community. It is not striven by famine or civil war. It has limited objective beauty. Even neighbouring Ukraine is currently experiencing a much greater degree of scrutiny than it is used to due to the Euro 2012 football championship. Belarus' only resource is its people. And it is this resource that Minsk, 2011 puts to good use.
A sense of helplessness pervades the production. The citizens of Minsk have limited means by which to improve their lives and little to do when not working other than drink potent home brews. Only freshly fallen snow gifts them relief from the brutal starkness of their lives and enables them to, briefly, start afresh. Even in the twenty-first century, the city is cut off from the western world; one young girl doesn't know what the Beatles look like.
Sexual exploitation is commonplace. Meek young women, who remove their modest floral dresses to reveal stripper outfits, are emblematic of the great contradictions and inequalities in Europe's last dictatorship.
It is the refusal of the activists to give up which imbues Minsk, 2011 with hope. The actors – risking political exile themselves – give the play a sense of energy and activism rarely felt on the stage.
Minsk, capital of Belarus, is described as being like an old man who no longer has anything original to say. The same cannot be said of this production, which is raw and provocative. At times its abstractness is challenging to watch. At other times it is incredibly powerful; for example, when portraying the moment of the 2011 explosion on the Metro system.
The production values could be improved; the English surtitles, translating from Russian, didn't always match the dialogue. However, this just adds to the authenticity of the proceedings.
Minsk, 2011 is at its strongest when its actors, speaking as political exiles, recount their memories of and hopes for Minsk. The lines between art and reality blur. The play does not shy away from provocation and it may be too politicised for some.
One Russian member of the audience felt the need to speak out at the end, to accuse the actors and director of political propaganda. The vast majority of the audience demonstrated their disagreement with this sentiment by giving the cast members multiple rounds of applause.
Minsk, 2011 reminds us that the stage truly can act as a window on the world. It is unlikely to be the best theatre you'll see this year but it will perhaps leave one of the greatest impacts.