Belarus Free Theatre is an extraordinary company. Political dissidents working in exile, making performance that fights oppression and dictatorship in their home state, many of the members of the company have suffered at best job loss and at worst arrest, detainment, and threat simply as a result of their choice to use theatre as the public platform for free and open speech against injustice that it always ought to be. Their two earlier shows in London, Minsk 2011: A Reply to Kathy Acker and Trash Cuisine, were critical and popular smash hits, and established BFT’s reputation as a company with both a political heart and a lyrical soul.
So I jumped at the chance to book a ticket to Red Forest, their offering at the 2014 LIFT (London International Festival of Theatre). And I was enormously surprised not to be impressed; in fact, I was shocked at my tremendous disappointment in the show.
Red Forest tells the (apparently) interconnected stories of human suffering and environmental degradation in a number of different communities across the globe. Starting in North America/Turtle Island, with a voice-over monologue delivered by Jeremy Proulx, a First Nations performer from Ontario, the story travels through Africa, Australia, Brazil, China, India, and beyond. Its touchstones are Proulx – whose role appears to be that of a kind of mythical ancestor to all of the show’s sufferers and (rather perplexingly) combines Anishnaabe (also known as Ojibway) and Lakhota identities – and Aisha, a young, pregnant African woman on the run from civil unrest, played by Michal Keyamo. Aside from Keyamo (who is black) and Proulx, the roles of all the other “global” sufferers in the show are played by White members of the company, from Belarus, England, and Italy.
Red Forest is a devised work; that means it’s not based on a pre-existing script, but rather on the shared creation labour of the whole company. Devising is a fairly trendy contemporary mode of theatre-making, and at its best produces powerful, passionate, often unexpected material based as much or more on gesture and soundscape as on words or text. It is collaborative and democratic (again, at its best), and thus embodies the spirit of theatre as public, social practice. But it can also, just as easily, create work that looks amazing yet lacks nuance: shows can be aesthetically glorious and incredibly visually compelling, impressing with the committed and passionate work of the company, while also leaving audience members confused, uncertain, even angry about those issues, ideas, and underlying assumptions not paid proper attention during the devising process. How much you care about these kinds of loose ends, relative to the pleasure of the aesthetic spectacle, has everything to do with how much you’ll love or hate a devised show that falls into this kind of trap.
Regular readers of this blog know that I’m not interested in writing “bad” performance reviews for their own sake; I love to celebrate good work (as I did recently here, and here, for example). But a show like Red Forest isn’t just not especially accomplished, despite the proper acclaim of BFT; in the story it has devised it also elides identities, communities, and experiences of globalisation-driven hardship in ways that are not politically helpful. These elisions in turn risk generating overly simplistic messages about non-Westerners for Western audiences – which on the night I attended included a very large contingent of secondary school and university-aged students, many of whom seemed happy to be seduced by the production’s lovely visuals, gorgeous singing, and attendant sentimentalising of the hybridised “other peoples” on offer. Given the risk of this result, I feel compelled to speak publicly about why I did not like this show, and about why its choices need to be interrogated.
My surprise at not liking my first ever live Belarus Free Theatre show was followed closely by my surprise at not being alone: I posted my unhappiness to my Facebook page and was quickly supported by colleagues from the UK and beyond. Further, when I investigated reviews of the show online, I discovered that mainstream critics were also not on board. Lyn Gardner’s piece in the Guardian sums up the mood well:
…too often this show looks and sounds beautiful in a poetic way yet fails to create context. … The danger is that the show becomes so much aesthetic hand-wringing rather than a call to action. The design and use of voice exacerbate the sense that we are watching a travelogue with a focus on suffering. Two shallow pools of water and a strip of sand provide a playing space where the actors are reduced to adding illustration to the voiceovers and projections that offer up soft-focus images of refugee camps with barbed wire or sunsets and sunrises. There are times when it feels as if you have switched on the National Geographic channel by mistake.
Like Gardner (along with Jane Shilling in the Telegraph, and Fiona Mountford in the Evening Standard), I found the overarching problem with Red Forest to be a lack of clear context for each of its interlinked stories, which is another way to say that the show didn’t really bother to detail, or even pause to think much about, the specific material circumstances of each of the communities represented in the show – what makes these communities different from rather than simply similar to one another. It chose instead to sweep bathetically from one person, community, and experience to the next as though all of the characters and contexts it presented were on some level the same, and thus deserved the same sorrow/admiration (but perhaps not much more, as Gardner points out).
I should note here that BFT devised this show after collecting a substantial number of stories told first-hand to company members in communities all over the world; there is a lot of documentary-style research behind Red Forest, which is a tremendous strength. But how this research has finally been theatricalized frames the problem here: rather than recognising the words of their interlocutors as a starting point for further thick research and detailed creation (or even further collaboration with those interlocutors), the company seems to have felt that the words they gathered alone – along with their obvious compassion for the speakers’ plights – was enough to drive 80+ minutes of theatre. The result is a show mostly based on the BFT company members’ experience of what they have been told by the “others” they met, and their troubling alignment of that telling with their own experience as political dissidents not welcome in their own nation. It’s as if they’ve swallowed the words whole, rather than, perhaps, properly listened to them.
On the surface it might seem like there’s nothing wrong with this kind of alignment, like it’s a gesture toward solidarity. And it can be – don’t get me wrong. I don’t want to suggest that finding ways to empathise with others in not-dissimilar situations does a disservice to BFT or their audiences. But there are risks associated with this kind of empathy, especially as a starting point for theatre-making: as tempting as it is to say, “hey! Your pain is just like our pain!”, in reality pain is never that simple, especially when it’s driven by a complex mix of political, economic, and cultural factors that are often unique not just to individual nations but to specific towns and villages within those nations. To say that what BFT’s members have gone through to make their work in the last few years is analogous to what, for example, a fisherman in coastal Brazil goes through as his community adapts to the twin effects of climate change and resource mining is, simply, disingenuous. Further, and most important, this kind of casual elision diminishes our ability to generate credible, specific, political resistance in both cases.
This problem of “experience elision” is especially troubling to me, as a Canadian scholar who has worked directly with Indigenous performance creators, in the case of Proulx and Keyamo’s roles in the show. As I noted above, these two are the only racially “marked” performers in Red Forest; that means that Proulx is charged with standing in for all Indigenous communities everywhere, while Keyamo becomes all black women (indeed, all black persons) everywhere. The piece makes no bones about this larger elision: it’s clear from the way the story is constructed (and from the way his appearances are paced and framed, as he turns up to dance spookily around different sufferers at key moments) that Proulx’s character “Jeremy” is some kind of mythical Indigenous ancestor to all the characters in the show. (This, incidentally, is a not especially sophisticated rendering of the familiar “noble savage” trope that we can trace from the writings of Enlightenment France all the way up to Dances With Wolves and beyond. Ask an Indigenous person what s/he thinks about the noble sufferings of super-natural pow-wow dancing people and watch him/her spontaneously combust.) Aisha in turn is tasked with moving through nearly every scene as she tries to scratch survival out of the unforgiving desert, inserting her black maternal body into the stories told of Chernobyl, China, Morocco, etc. She becomes an earth-mother figure, conveniently “birthed” (like archaeology’s mythical first human) by the sub-Saharan community portrayed at the top of the show. To top it all off, in the penultimate scene she is violently raped, in a moment that made me anxious I was witnessing the show’s final and most upsetting elision: of all black women, everywhere, with inevitable violence and victimhood.
So neither Jeremy – despite his claim during his opening voice-over that he is not the “stereotype” of the “Indian” we might be expecting – nor Aisha get to be individuals; their stories always have to stand in for other stories of hardship, longing, pain, and (every so often) celebration. And, of course, those other stories in turn stand in for the story of Belarus Free Theatre: in the end, I could not shake the feeling that this entire work was constructed by BFT as a metaphor for their own company and personal experiences. (I was only sort of surprised to find that, on the BFT website, the “Red Forest Campaign” link takes you to a petition that asks you to “Stand with Belarusian campaigners facing intimidation and arrest!”, not with, say, Brazilian fishermen facing ecological disaster.)
As a company BFT have a specific, urgent story to tell about Belarus: its many, diverse communities and those communities’ lack of freedom right now, in a moment when visual spectacles like the recent uprisings in Ukraine determine whose stories get told in the media, whose stories attract political attention, and whose go unspoken. They do not need to see their mandate as a burden to tell others’ stories in broad, pretty brush strokes; they do not need to pretend their suffering is the equivalent of someone else’s suffering. It does not need to be in order to be worthy of our attention. Hopefully, next time they encounter others’ provocative stories, BFT will consider collaborating with some of the outstanding artists and companies doing not-dissimilar anti-colonialist work to their own; from my own small experience I’d direct them immediately to Canada’s outstanding Native Earth Performing Arts; to its former Artistic Director, actor and playwright Tara Beagan; and to the longtime performance maker and feminist Indigenous activist Monique Mojica. The results, I suspect, would be more honest, more provocative, and more politically effective.
Until next time, then, BFT –
(Weesageechak looks forward to a call from Belarus. Image: www.nativeearth.ca.)