'Profoundly unsettling.' Pavel Haradnitski and Nastassia Shcherbak in Red Forest
'Profoundly unsettling.' Pavel Haradnitski and Nastassia Shcherbak in Red Forest
© Simon Annand

Catastrophes that shatter human lives are often difficult to comprehend from a distance, simply because the enormity of their consequences is almost beyond imagining. In Red Forest, Belarus Free Theatre dramatises the horrors of natural disasters, war and rapacious industrialisation by sharing the real-life experiences of powerless individuals who've suffered unbearable pain and loss, but whose stories have been either ignored or buried by political expedience in an un-free world.

The result is a profoundly unsettling and uncompromising show.

There is some singing but no dialogue on stage. Instead, narrators deliver songs, poetry and testimonies gathered from the company's travels throughout the world, and their tales are acted out in chilling detail.

After a rather ponderous start, we meet an expectant mother (Michal Keyamo) whose husband is killed by militias in the Ivory Coast, and gives birth in the desert. She becomes Everywoman, and wanders through a world of suffering, clutching the baby she is ultimately unable to save. The Japanese tsunami; the despair of Brazilian fishermen whose waters are poisoned by industrial bullies; the gang rape of a refugee at the Spanish border - all are told here.

Most poignant for this company, who are barred from performing (and some even from living) in their homeland of Belarus, are the slow, dreadful deaths from radiation sickness that followed the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster.

Director, writer and stage designer Nicolai Khalezin uses an imaginative range of theatrical devices and choreographed movement by Bridget Fiske to create scenarios with real power - like the brilliant depiction of a bulldozer destroying a shanty town, using only flashlights and sticks. Yet with the narrative of Red Forest shifting restlessly through time and continents throughout, the peformance has a strangely disjointed feel.

One of the great successes is its music, much of it played live by composer and virtuoso guitarist Arkadiy Yushin, and Ignatius Sokol. Stunning vocal harmonies create a haunting, ethereal sound to accompany the most heartwrenching scenes. And superb video and lighting design by Andrew Croft is key in creating the right ambience throughout.

Khalezin's set is also very cleverly designed for maximum adaptability. Its simple sand pit, flanked by water on either side, serves as coast, desert and city. But you have to feel some sympathy for whoever's responsible for getting the costumes clean after 90 minutes of rolling about in wet sand.

Belarus Free Theatre is a company of wholly committed performers telling stories of despair and disenfranchisement, with glimmers of hope stitched on at the close to confirm that, though the human spirit may be crushed, it can rise to live again.

But a cheerful night out, this is not.

Red Forest continues at the Young Vic until 5 July 2014