(Jansson J. Antmann’s article appeared in Limelight Magazine, 3/2/2023; Photo: Dogs of Europe. Photo © Adam Forte, Daylight Breaks.)
Exiled from their homeland, the performers of Belarus Free Theatre deliver an urgent warning against complacency in the face of rising authoritarianism.
Dunstan Playhouse, Adelaide Festival Centre
“Intellectual disgrace stares from every human face,” wrote WH Auden in his 1939 poem In Memory of WB Yeats; its “dogs of Europe” left barking in a nightmare world where poetry no longer unites nations.
In 2019, Belarusian author Alhierd Bacharevič drew upon this canine lament for the title of his sprawling, award-winning novel, which has been brilliantly adapted for the stage by Belarus Free Theatre. Both the book and the troupe have since been banned by the authoritarian government in Minsk, with most of the performers now residing in Poland.
The fabric of Bacharevič’s magnum opus comprises several interwoven storylines, but BFT’s co-directors Nicolai Khalezin and Natalia Kaliada have largely focused on the stories of the young Belarusian Mauchun and a German investigator Teresius Skima, both played by Pavel Haradnitski.
Beginning in 2019, a teacher instructs his class to bury a time capsule. The play then fast-forwards to 2049 and a Europe once again divided. We learn that Russia has invaded Ukraine and, after a brief nuclear war, established the New Reich. This includes much of the former Soviet Union, including the Baltic states. The remaining countries fall under the European League, and the two blocs are physically separated by the latest iteration of the Iron Curtain, now called the Great Wall.
Not that the New Reich and the European League are all that dissimilar. This is a world in which a literary upbringing is a thing of the past, and the literate middle-class has been erased. Depending on which side of the wall you find yourself, books are either burned or simply rendered obsolete by the digital age.
In their place, an alcohol-infused, hyper-sexualised world is split between Russian traditionalism and a more inclusive, ‘Westernised’ hedonism. It’s very much a case of ‘same, same, but different’, and like dogs, the inhabitants on both sides are only too happy to urinate on the place they call home.
If the two blocs differ at all, it is in the New Reich’s rudimentary medical care and education system, which exists solely to breed mistrust, informants and spies. The setting of the first act is the fictional Belarusian border town of White Dews – a nightmarish Pieter Bruegel painting come to life, with people too drunk to recognise how disadvantaged they are.
The play takes place in 2049, but for those familiar with the remnants of the former Soviet Union, this is no dystopia. Barely 25 years after the fall of Communism, industrial towns like White Dews can still be found frozen in time, their Soviet infrastructure rusted, decaying and desperately in need of a capital injection that will never come.