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Review: Burning Doors (Soho Theatre)

The exiled theatre company stage their latest work with Pussy Riot's Maria Alyokhina

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
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The title of this piece from the exiled Belarus Free Theatre is a reference to Russian artist Petr Pavlensky's work where he set alight to the front doors of the Russian federal security service in 2015. It got him a prison sentence, but it's not the most extreme piece of art he has created. He's nailed his scrotum to the floor, sliced his earlobe off, and, in 2012, he sewed his mouth shut in protest at the incarceration of members of the Russian band Pussy Riot.

One of those locked up, Maria Alyokhina, appears onstage in Burning Doors, as part of the ensemble of the Belarus Free Theatre. The theatre company are themselves refugees in the UK, seeking sanctuary from their dictator-run country, where, if they return, they face trial and possibly prison. The piece revolves around the stories of Alyokhina, Pavlensky and also Ukrainian film-maker Oleg Sentsov – still in prison after being convicted of ‘terrorism'.

The company and the artists it focuses on are at the sharp edge of art and risk. They use their practice to shed light on abuses happening in their countries. The piece, therefore, is a forceful, intense excavation of freedom, of control and of the right to protest. Over a hundred minutes the company perform vignettes: there is naturalistic role-playing and segments of text from Foucault and Dostoyevsky are played overhead. The cast's bodies are swung on ropes, manipulated and pushed to the extremes of physical strength - they are beaten, held upside down and almost drowned. The company demonstrate both metaphorical and literal representations of oppression.

At one point two government officials discuss what they are to do about the Pussy Riot woman, at another we hear a transcription of an interview between Pavlensky and an interrogator after his arrest. As the piece progresses it becomes increasingly and relentlessly physical and Burning Doors itself becomes an act of endurance; an embodiment of the violence enacted upon Sentsov, Alyokhina, Pavlensky and indeed, in the way they are being suppressed, the population of their countries.

It is gruelling to watch but after the first half, Burning Doors becomes too abstract to feel relevant. It is a pity: several of the images conjured up – a woman forced under water, the smug chatter of politicians, who decide people's fate while sitting on the toilet – are shocking. The show is admirable and real and often enlightening, but it is also muddled and willfully obscure where it needn't be.

Still, watching the piece – and realising that Sentsov has only served one year of a 20 year sentence - is a stark reminder of the real human cost of art in places that are not that far away.

Burning Doors runs at Soho Theatre until 24 September.

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