In-your-face political immediacy
Presented by: Belarus Free Theatre
Reviewed: 2nd March, 2023
Good political theatre is a potent agent of change. By this measure, The Dogs of Europe is set to effect seismic shifts in realpolitik, ignite protests and pose uncomfortable questions. Just what good political theatre should do.
Incorporating elements of European folk tales, agitprop theatre, Brecht, theatre of the absurd and a dash of dada, this play is based on Sabaki Eŭropy (Dogs of Europe), a prescient 2017 satire by Belarusian novelist Alhierd Bacharevič. (This book is banned by the current Belarus regime; all copies explicitly condemned to be destroyed by ploughing them via tractor into a field.) Theatre director Nikolai Khalezin, a frequent collaborator with Bacharevič, used the novel to form the basis of a theatre piece, first performed in Minsk in 2020. With Co-director Natalia Kaliada and Co-dramaturg Mariya Bialkovich, Khalezin has shaped this white-hot apologia for freedom. This is hot-off-the-press theatre of protest, with both cast members and creatives able to give personal testimony to political repression, imprisonment, torture and the many knock-on effects from the lengthy Ukrainian invasion (since 2014).
It’s tempting to list memorable coup de théâtre moments throughout this densely-packed performance, but that would be to simply reduce the play to a series of entertaining novelties. Its polemic seethes throughout, frequently almost incoherent with rage. There is always humour, but of the blackest kind. The speed with which English subtitles are projected onto the back-screen can barely keep pace with the vehemence and force of the Belarusian dialogue. Scenes flip in and out. Oddities occur. You’d need to view the piece a number of times to gain a thorough overview of everything that’s happening on-stage. And that’s the idea, particularly in the first act, where black-clad chaos forms the core of the action. The second half, swinging through a dizzy succession of major European cities, brings more light, colour and a sliver of hope, modified by the admonitory last projected text: “Where the books were burned, the people will burn.”
A tight-knit company of ten multiskilled Belarusian performers bring roller-coaster intensity to the show. Adept physical theatre work, movement (choreographed by Maria Sazonova) ranging from folk-dance to brawl, powerful vocal work, feats of physical endurance, illusions and a range of acting conventions from Brechtian bravado to intimate realism – they achieve all this whilst working as an integrated company.
Outstanding for both their skill and sensitivity are Ukrainian musicians Mark and Marichka Marczyk (of Balaklava Blues fame). Providing superb rhythmic and melodic accompaniment on multiple instruments, as well as Balkan-style vocal work remarkable for its power and pin-point accuracy, their contribution is central to the success of this emotionally persuasive production.
Continual projection forms a backdrop to the action. The creation of lighting and video designer Richard Williamson, it has a huge input into the look and feel of the show. Resembling a video game gone rogue, on occasions, it’s overwhelming. It’s supposed to be. Sometimes it’s coy, cute, quirky or just plain weird. It is never banal.
The many moving parts of this theatrical engine rarely combine to create a coherent summary of its rationale. That’s the idea. Outrage and indignation rarely chat quietly over a cuppa. This is brawling, dystopian theatre for today’s world. And the ending of the show reminds us that Australians may not be as far from the front line as they may imagine.
Reviewed by Pat. H. Wilson
Photo credit: Linda Nylind
Venue: Dunstan Playhouse, Adelaide Festival Centre
Season: 2nd – 6th March, 2023
Duration: 3 hours (incl. interval)
Tickets: $109:00 (Concession $87:00)