Sitting on the Victoria Line as the tube wound its way towards the end of the line, two women, well-dressed and weighed down with bags, were busy working out their frustrations over the complexity of French employment law when it came to hiring locals to work in their second home. One of the pair wondered whether their 20-year old daughter was old enough to live alone in London.
As I sat and listened, I found it hard not to imagine Liam Holden. Liam Holden? I hadn’t heard of Liam Holden until about two hours earlier. On the 21 June 2002 Liam Holden conviction for murdering a British soldier in Belfast was quashed. In 1989 he had been released from prison having spent 17 years in jail. During his interrogation at Black Mountain Primary School he was waterboarded 6 times, he was stretched up against a wall and beaten for 2 minutes. He had a gun put to his head and told if he didn’t confess he would be shot and have it blamed on the loyalists. By 2002 he had spent almost 70% of his life accused of the murder of Frank Bell, the British paratrooper. Liam Holden was 18 when he was convicted of murder.
I thought to myself that twenty is probably old enough to live alone in London.
Belarus Free Theatre should need no introduction. They are a banned theatre company in Europe’s last dictatorship. Having said that they need no introduction it is likely to be depressing to find out the percentage of people who do not know that Europe still has a functional dictatorship. That a country in Europe still has the death penalty. That theatre companies can still be banned.
Their theatre is raw, angry and political but it avoids polemics and comes alive in its contradictory nature. Trash Cuisine does not have a narrative but it tells many stories. Stories that are intensely local but have a global reach. Stories that are not new but that you have not heard before. Stories that tell of human action but not of humanity.
This could easily sink into the theatre of the righteous. Sub-par Brecht that preaches to the converted and ends with a self-satisfied slap on the back. Belarus Free Theatre has too much at stake and too much talent to allow this to happen. With no state funding they are, in the most literal sense, singing for their supper. With this hunger comes a razor sharp sense of purpose.
They spin steel into their silken storytelling. Scenes unwind into absurdity and farcical slapstick but their messages slice through the levity. Want to hear impressions of different types of death penalty? Well the impression of an electric chair – two minutes of screaming with a ten second break – is an impressive counterpunch.
As the stories unspool one after another like tapes in a broken recorder, each finds a way of piecing together its own meaning. Throughout they mix together a playful sense of the unexpected with a reality that is brutally grounded by the horrors of the language.
The story of Nicky Ingram told through the inhabitants of an American nightclub is a beautiful juxtaposition of the everyday lives of American liberals with the final hours of Nicky Ingram, an inmate on death row. Nicky Ingram was one of Clive Stafford-Smith’s very few failures. 300 death row case and a 97% success rate. Nicky Ingram is one of the unlucky ones. For not getting off, and for being born in one of the very few western democracies that routinely kills adults under the auspices of its legal system.
Belarus Free Theatre is never going to win the Audience Choice award. Trash Cuisine is without doubt a harrowing experience but could it be anything less? For the play to succeed it should fill the audience with a sense of outrage that can’t be quelled in the bar after the show. Not every element is entirely successful. Meaning can’t be gleaned from every tableau but as the performances unfold, the company’s idiosyncratic style overwhelms all and beneath the discordant surface an underlying structure reveals itself.
And that structure is built of anger. Anger at the deaths of Vladislav Kovalyov and Dmitry Konovalov, both 26, both executed in Belarus last year, both protesting their innocence. Anger that the death penalty remains in use in 94 countries across the world. Anger that the state-sanctioned violence can lead to a situation like Nyarubuye in Rwanda where 28,000 people were killed by their fellow citizens. Nyarubuye, where it is said only six people survived. That is something everyone can get angry about, and rightly so.