Paul Jenkins reviews Dogs of Europe, a timely production from Belarus Free Theatre based on a novel by Alhierd Bacharevic performed at The Barbican.
If you had a ticket to see ‘Dogs of Europe’ by Belarus Free Theatre at the Barbican last weekend, you’d probably want to congratulate the creative team on their urgent theatricalization of global events. But this sprawling dystopian epic, set in a near future where Russia has expanded its empire and built a giant wall splitting Europe back in two, was first staged in Minsk in 2019. Making this feverish theatrical vision a terrifyingly accurate predication of our nightmarish daily news.
The first half of ‘Dogs of Europe’ charts the increasingly authoritarian rule of a Belarussian village from 2019 – 2049, told through grotesque satire, carnivalesque set-pieces and a haunting vocal score. The narrative lurches around a young boy’s friendship with a Western spy who floats angel-like into the birch forests surrounding the village. The second half vaults us over the wall and onto a whistle-stop journey through Berlin, Hamburg, Paris, Prague – and finally back behind the new iron curtain to Minsk. I can’t say I fully digested the skittering narratives of the boy and the spy, the hunt for a dead poet and the burning of books; all overlaid with surreal projections (pandas climbing birch trees). Perhaps that’s the point, life in the shadow of dictatorship as an incoherent, bloody mess; yet the sheer theatrical ambition of ‘Dogs of Europe’ is blissfully overwhelming.
Adapted for the stage from Alhierd Bacharevic’s 900-page novel, Belarus Free Theatre’s co-founders Nikoali Khalezin and Natalia Kaliada have created a potent synthesis of theatre and activism. As the ensemble take their bows and unfurl a banner proclaiming “Belarus Free Theatre supports Ukraine” the audience feel like a regiment of recruits, committed to any mission Belarus Free Theatre should throw at us.
Natalia Kaliada, the artistic director, gives clear orders after outlining the barbaric human rights abuses that the people of Belarus, and members of their company, have endured over 28 years of dictatorship. “Write to your MPs” she pleads “ask them why so few visas are being issued, why it’s taking so long to get oligarchs sanctioned, why they have allowed Belarus to continue as a dictatorship … we tried to warn you”.
On reflection, I wanted to add some more to the letter to my MP: Why an inquiry into Russian interference in UK politics was refused by Boris Johnson, why independent journalism at the BBC is under threat, why a bill is currently going through parliament that would control and limit our right to protest.
With ‘Dogs of Europe’ Belarus Free Theatre have created that most needed thing at a time of crisis – an artwork that channels our collective outrage and acts as a civic call to arms.
Paul Jenkins is a theatre director who has lived and worked in Moscow, Berlin and Sofia. Collaborators include Belarus Free Theatre, Munich State Theatre and Alma Alter Theatre Laboratory. He now lives in Cardiff and is the co-founder of Theatr3 with playwright Tracy Harris.