This review was written for the Londonist
What do you know about Belarus, that landlocked state in Eastern Europe that borders Ukraine and Russia, as well as Poland, Latvia and Lithuania? Did you know it ranks as one of the worst countries in the world for press freedom? That it has been called Europe’s last dictatorship? That the government wants to bring back serfdom?
Freedoms in Belarus are so restricted that the Belarus Free Theatre, founded in 2005, was forced to flee in 2011 and has been working with political asylum in London ever since. It’s a compelling back story that loads productions the company makes with a particular potency. Its latest piece — Red Forest, presented during this year’s LIFT festival at the Young Vic – is theatre as documentary, like much of the company’s work before it. It brings narrated first person testimonies to life with great physicality and emotion.
We follow the fortunes of a pregnant woman forced to flee her village, whose symbolic journey allows her to experience refugee-making disasters, both natural and manmade, in Ivory Coast, Algeria, Japan, Brazil and Chernobyl. Moving through an effective set of red sand and water, the choreographed cast enact the devastation without words. The voices we hear — collected first hand during research trips made by the company — are both pre-recorded and read out live by black-clad narrators.
The performance is a blend of joyful scenes that can border on cheesy and others that are utterly brutal. It’s less a story from beginning to middle to end than a relentless repetition of simple happiness crushed, again and again; a repetition shot through with a mother’s screams, finally culminating in a searing gang rape on the Spanish border.
We ventured into the Red Forest and left wondering if happiness will always be such a fragile thing, and if there’s anything much to be hopeful about.