Friday, June 22, 2018

Burning Doors - Belarus Free Theatre

8 a.m. and the sweet garden air wafting into the kitchen makes me swoon. The whole city, as I bike around, smells like jasmine. Beautiful days, sunny but not too hot with a cool breeze.

So it was hard to leave the pleasures of the garden and go to the theatre last night, especially as I had an inkling of what awaited at "Burning Doors", a Luminato show from Russia. Well, no, performed in Russian but from Belarus - the Belarus Free Theatre, "the only theatre company in Europe banned by its government on political grounds." This, not surprisingly, is a play about repression and imprisonment of artists, about rage and protest and the meaning of freedom. One of the actors was a member of the famed Pussy Riot.

Years ago, I invented the term "theatre of mess" for productions in which, when directors aren't sure what to do, they get actors or designers to toss stuff around and wreak havoc. Last night, we saw a kind of theatre I call "theatre of torture." To show us the horror of having to live under an authoritarian, repressive regime, this director tortured his impressive, incredibly dedicated actors in myriad ways. They were strung up by pulleys, one by her neck, others naked - in fact, they were often naked, both men and women. They wrestled each other into exhaustion, screamed at each other until I was sure their voices were gone. How they survive doing that show after show is incomprehensible.

So fun it was not, on a beautiful June night. It was at once the most physical and the most cerebral of experiences, as only a Russian production could be - long passages quoted from Dostoyevsky or Foucault, or from the interrogation of a dissident artist (after which, we learned, the interrogator quit his job and became a defence lawyer for dissidents!) - long arguments about philosophical or political issues of which I had the barest understanding, followed by more wrestling, leaping, crawling, hanging.

At the end, we were told about the imprisoned Ukrainian filmmaker Sentsov, who is extremely ill after a hunger strike, and learned that one of the musicians who'd composed the brutal score, and journalist Masha Gessen, were in the audience, and there was going to be a discussion. I confess that I escaped into the perfumed night of downtown Toronto, where we have massive problems, but we are not torturing our artists. Or, most of the time, our audiences. I hugely admire this group's ideals and their ferocious, unrelenting commitment.

(And remembered seeing Mikhail Baryshnikov performing the poetry of Brodsky a few months ago; this is the second show I've seen performed in Russian THIS YEAR. What a city.)

Last week another kind of protest, the documentary "Women, Art, Revolution", about the struggles of women artists in the U.S. for recognition. It was scattered and overlong, with a narrow focus, not one mention of another country, another set of female artists anywhere else in the world.

On Tuesday, dinner with two great women artists who were not protesting anything - Jessica and Suzette, friends since university days in Ottawa, one a curator and impresario of modern art, the other a successful and very busy screenwriter. Jessica and her photographer husband Geoffrey sold their big Victorian house last year and moved to a modern condo just built a few doors down, with a roof deck that gives a panoramic view of the city and the lake beyond. We ate, drank, and talked under a vista of limitless sky that I, the inner city mole, rarely get to see, as the sun set and light glinted red in distant skyscraper windows.

This week, the news was especially unbearable. My daughter has been distraught, in tears, as more photos emerged of imprisoned children and even babies. She is organizing an event to take place Saturday and will still take place, despite Trump's change of ... can't call it heart since there isn't one ... or mind either, for that matter. Change of direction. She has invited everyone to her house to create art and letters for the children, to send to the detention centres in Texas and elsewhere. Messages of support with words from grownups, pictures from children. I don't know what else to do, she said.

We try to make a difference in our different ways - the Belarus Free Theatre with violent, powerful theatre, my daughter with hospitality, generosity, and love. May you find your way to make a difference today.

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