Eurepica Airlines are our hosts for this evening’s
entertainment, flying us to a range of international destinations to explore,
among other things, the immigrant experience; personal understandings of
nationalism; the pitfalls, both humorous and otherwise, of cultural
stereotypes. The airline device frames 12 dramatic snippets, a combination of
monologues, short plays and work with a decidedly performance art flavour.
The show is the brainchild of Belarus Free Theatre (BFT), a
company formed in Belarus in 2005 in response to the state’s culture of
censorship and ideological pressure. All theatre in Belarus, a country which
holds the unfortunate record of being Europe’s last surviving dictatorship, is
run by the state, and therefore subject to strict control. The
goal of BFT is to open up a dramaturgical dialogue, for theatre to exist as a
forum for discussion and socio-political commentary. For the moment, though,
the company is forced to perform underground in Belarus, its members barred
from working within the state-run theatre.
You couldn’t call the playlets that make up Eurepica.
Challenge. – each written by a different international writer – timid in terms of their political
engagement, but watching them in the knowledge of BFT’s back story undeniably ups the
ante. Very funny and well observed is Aaron Landsman’s take on America’s unique
blend of selfish consumerism and professed concern for the state of the world. Paul Jenkins
turns the cast into human puppets to satirise life in Britain in a highly
original and entertaining way. Özen Yula’s piece sees foul-mouthed sock puppets
play out a story of addiction and sexual abuse in Turkey.
Some of the most successful pieces of the evening are those
that use humour to temper the ugly truths of the situations they portray, but
not all the works rely on this tactic. Angelica Liddel’s piece, which explores
domestic violence and the psychological effects it has on its victims, is full
of striking choreographed tableaux that leave you awed by the way that human
beings treat each other.
With the addition – or more often, the removal – of an item
of clothing, the ever-smiling staff of Eurepica Airlines are transformed into
prostitutes, janitors, playwrights, wife-beaters, soldiers, beggars and poets.
The cast, most of whom are Belarusian and therefore able to draw upon direct
experience of the cultural tyranny of life in Belarus, are an able and
versatile bunch, despite not always being terribly clear in their diction.
Almost every one of the 12 pieces would benefit from
judicious editing, particularly those that involve extended monologues. Too
often the impact of a scene is lost because it is allowed to go on too long to
maintain a proper dramatic pace. We become numb to – or worse, bored by – the
story we are being told, and switch off, looking to the next scene for further
gratification. The decision to place Michal Walczak’s wilfully challenging
piece on Poland immediately before the interval, at the end of an overly long
first half, is a bizarre one. Several people left at this point last night,
presumably too exhausted by the sight of simulated sex and the sound of crying babies, to come back for the second half. It was their loss, as
the pieces after the interval were some of the strongest of the evening, but I
can understand their frustration.
Eurepica. Challenge. is not the easiest
show to watch – I can’t imagine what the Almeida’s usual, non festival audience would make of
it – but in some ways, that’s precisely the point. BFT exists to challenge the
cultural norms of a country where theatre is anything but free. If, in the
process of doing that, they’re creating work that pushes boundaries elsewhere
too – formally, if not in terms of its content – then so much the better.