This riveting piece by Belarus Free Theatre (BFT) tells the story of the scarred capital of Belarus, from the perspective of its disenfranchised citizens. Minsk is the epicentre of what the programme notes describe as “Europe's last surviving dictatorship”. Throughout the piece, the presidential baritone is heard intermittently via a loudspeaker, stopping the actors in their tracks as they bow their heads and look attentive. And scared. Fear is the backdrop to every scene – every interaction, we learn – and it is at its must useful as a tool of oppression when combined with sex.
Taking inspiration from the experimental punk writer Kathy Acker, Minsk, 2011 describes itself as “a creative exploration of the sexuality and asexuality in Belarus today.” Stories combine to create a patchwork portrait of the city. Each one compellingly told, often with one actor narrating and others acting, miming, being a chorus and providing detail. One story is about Katya, a good looking university student whose dream is to become a dancer in a club. She is taken advantage of by a pair of thugs who, while getting her drunk, lead her to believe they have industry contacts. She narrowly escapes rape. Her aspirations (although pretty squalid themselves) have been trampled on and we learn – briskly and in the play's typically spare language – of her deterioration into anorexia.
This is one anecdote among many and, like most of the other stories, it features physical abuse. The life of the city is not just told through individuals' stories, it is told through their bodies: emaciated, blown-up or abused. In an early scene a young man gives us a tour of his scars, marking them with red pen and telling us how each one got there: normal things like falling from a wall or walking into a door frame mix with skinhead blows and fractured ribs at the hands of the police.
The play is serious and direct but it is also energetic. The use of video footage of real demonstrations and gatherings in Minsk brings an immediacy to the drama, so that it feels for a moment as though our actors have been plucked out of the real-life crowd at random. The cast, who have also devised the piece, have the assured look of a company dedicated to what it is doing, and the surtitled translation of the Russian doesn't distract from the intimacy between cast and audience.
That said, there are moments when the intimacy turns, and we find ourselves implicated instead; threatened. When, in silence, the brilliant and beautiful Yana Rusakevich (pictured) begins slowing swinging a whip in throbbing circles above the heads of the crowd, it is a fraction too close for a London audience. People flinch.
Minsk, 2011 is showing at the Young Vic until 23 June 2012. It is produced by Fuel as part of the LIFT 2012 festival.