Review: Burning Doors (Belarus Free Theatre/Luminato)

Maria Alyokhina in Burning DoorsBurning Doors is a difficult but deeply relevant play, now on the Toronto stage

Burning Doors, performed by Belarus Free Theatre, and currently being presented as part of the 2018 Luminato Festival is not an easy play to watch. In fact, if I had to describe it in one word, I would choose “painful.” It covers painful subject matter, and the performers must be in physical pain for large parts of the evening. But in spite the pain I felt watching it, I think it was an important play to see. Burning Doors highlights the power of art as political resistance. At a time when there seems to be an unending list of things to protest, it shines a bright, harsh light on both the risks and the necessity of doing so.

Burning Doors focuses on the real-life stories of three artists from Russia and Ukraine who have recently been imprisoned for their work – Maria Alyokhina, one of the members of Pussy Riot, performance artist Petr Pavlensky, and Ukrainian filmmaker Oleg Senstov. Alyokhina actually performs as herself with the company, reenacting scenes from her childhood, her imprisonment, and her eventual release. The play features transcripts of Pavlensky’s and Senstov’s statements before the Russian courts and examiners as texts. Almost all of the dialogue is in Russian, with supertitles in English projected on screen above the action.

The show is graphic, violent, and very, very physical. There are choreographed scenes of torture, much of it very realistic. In one scene, one of the performers holds the head of another underwater over and over and over again. And the performance makes extensive use of ropes and rigging from which the actors swing, hang, and are pulled. The action is confrontational and immersive. I found it exhausting to watch.

I also found the dialogue hard to listen to and sometimes hard to follow. Part of that was likely due to the fact that I don’t speak Russian, and I often find supertitles distracting. Part of was due to the volume. There is a lot of yelling and screaming — appropriate given the subject matter, but hard to hear nonetheless. And part of it was that much of the script is quite philosophical and really makes you think. In addition to the artists’ statements, the play features excerpts from Dostoyevsky and Michel Foucault (not the easiest of writers).

There are a few scenes which provide some mild comic relief in which two government flunkies discuss what a hassle it is to have to deal with these upstart artists and how they make the government look bad. But these moments are few and far between. The overwhelming impression I was left with was one of real violence and of real courage.

Belarus Free Theatre has been banned by its government for political reasons. Its founders have been forced into exile in the UK. Yet the company has a permanent (illegal) ensemble in Minsk where it continues to perform in underground spaces and where its audience faces potential arrest and detention simply for attending a performance.

Burning Doors is an in-your-face reminder that the freedom of expression we enjoy here in Canada is a fragile and shouldn’t be taken for granted. It’s hard to watch but very, very relevant.

Details:

  • Burning Doors is playing at the Joey and Toby Tanenbaum Opera Centre (227 Front Street East) until June 25, 2018.
  • Performances are at 7pm through Saturday, with 1pm matinees on Saturday and Sunday
  • Tickets are $78.32, Students/Youth/Arts Workers $32.25 and can be purchased online or by calling 416-368-4849
  • The show contains nudity and scenes of violence and torture

Photo of Maria Alyokhina by Alex Brenner