Dogs of Europe at the Barbican review – Belarus Free Theatre deliver a fantasy that feels nothing like fiction

The show was first staged in Minsk

© Linda Nylind

Alhierd Bacharevic's epic novel, upon which this shatteringly powerful new piece from Belarus Free Theatre is based, was published in 2017 but feels horribly prescient in the light of current world events. It's mid 21st century and Russia has invaded and occupied its neighbouring countries, uprooting lives, throwing civilisation into disarray; nuclear weapons have been used and the new Western European union has been established (conspicuously not including the UK in Roman Liubyi's dramatic, stage-filling animations) while the gigantic new Russian Empire extends from what used to be Scandinavia, all across Eastern Europe, into the Middle East and well into Asia.

Against this chilling backdrop unfolds a richly imaginative story that is part thriller, part identity mystery and part travelogue through this ‘new Europe'. In Bacharevic's (somewhat) alternate universe, Belarus and other neighbouring states no longer exist, subsumed in the brutal expansion of Russia. Free expression and thought have been driven underground, something that the collective of remarkable artists that comprise Belarus Free Theatre, exiled for the time being from their own troubled country, understand only too well.

Ramshackle stacks of books occupy the Barbican fore-stage, symbolising unfettered thought under attack. The image of burning books is a recurrent theme, notably in a heart catching final sequence that quotes the 18th century German poet Heine, volumes of whose work were famously incinerated by the Nazis: "wherever they burn books, in the end will burn human beings".

Nicolai Khalezin and Natalia Kaliada's frequently playful, sometimes overwhelming, staging often feels more like a grim pageant than a play. Extended sections from the novel are solemnly recited at us before giving way to passages of furious, frantic movement, but in filleting a 900 page text down to a manageable stage duration (and at over three hours, some will still find Dogs Of Europe punishingly long), it's probably churlish to expect much more than that. If there are moments when Maria Sazonova's adrenalised choreography verges on the banal, or when having the surtitles (the whole thing is performed in Belarusian) prove an unwelcome distraction from Aliaksei Naranovich's mesmerising central performance, these quibbles are more than compensated for by the sheer brilliance of the stagecraft on display here. It is overlong, but the energy and invention are irresistible.

Khalezin, Kaliada and their team throw everything at this story, in a sometimes bewildering, but more often galvanising multimedia assault on the senses. The imagery at the end of the first act, which sees the whole company, bar one, prone in a heap of black-clad, butchered humanity while fire and blood rains down around them, is unlikely to be forgotten by anybody who witnesses it.

The astonishing genre-busting versatility of the 16-strong cast – actors, dancers, clowns, tumblers, Foley artists – is another source of wonder. The musicians, Marichka and Mark Marczyk, also known as Balaklava Blues, are also integral to the production, their contribution thrumming like a tapestry of sound through dialogue before exploding into joyous folk anthems, or driving, uneasy dancebeats, or, most potently, into guttural expressions of wordless pain and suffering, her extraordinary voice lamenting and ululating through the stage air like shards of breaking glass.

Visceral, courageous and demanding, this re-mounting of Dogs Of Europe (it was first performed in Minsk in 2020, in defiance of the dictator Lukashenko) comes at a very apposite time in modern history. It examines what happens when we cease to think about the world we are living in, and it's both a warning and a call to arms. This is the very opposite of theatre as escapism, a point rammed further home by Marichka Marczyk taking her curtain call draped in the Ukrainian flag, and an impassioned, essential speech by Natalia Kaliada, directly eliding the real life stories of some of the talented people whose work we were just enjoying, with the atrocities happening right now on the other side of Europe. For all its fantastical elements, Dogs Of Europe feels like anything but a fantasy: it barely feels like a work of fiction.