23rd August, 2016
*Please note that this was the first performance of Burning Doors and there were some technical difficulties with the surtitles projector, unless this was meant to reflect the themes of censorship, in which case, great job! Furthermore, I wrote about Stoppard’s Every Good Boy Deserves Favour earlier this month which may be a worthwhile accompanying piece.
‘Do you recognise me?’ a woman asks at the start of Burning Doors. ‘How about now?’ she says as she puts on a coloured balaclava. The image of course conjures new stories of Pussy Riot being arrested in 2012 for performing in a Moscow cathedral. Burning Doors brings together stories of Russian and Ukrainian artists including Pussy Riot’s Maria Alyokhina, Petr Pavolvsky and Oleg Sentsov who have been persecuted for speaking against the state. It is presented through a hotchpotch of different forms, some more enduring than others, but the result is an (often) extraordinary kaleidoscopic exploration and dissection of the oppression that contemporary artists suffer in some parts of the world.
It is not every day that a piece of theatre is performed by people so invested in the piece’s subject matters, thus making for a piece of very intense and rewarding theatre. At times, the cast go to extreme lengths to evoke the artists’ stories. It is this line between performance and reality that runs through Burning Doors. The scenes vary between dialogue, physical theatre, literary extracts and verbatim, so we can go from watching scripted scenes (I suppose something we’re more familiar with in British theatre) to hearing real bits of uncomfortable testimonial and seeing slides of extreme protest art. Using multiple forms like this suggests that art can go from the comfortable world of an exchange between two characters in a clearly defined setting to very dramatic and public forms of performance art that can resemble protest and sometimes be perceived as hooliganism.
And so it is unsurprising that many of the scenes in Burning Doors are shocking not only visually but also in the limited ideas about art expressed by two Russian officials. In one scene, they chat whilst sat on the toilet. It is this striking, if crude, setting which frames their opinions on art for the duration of the scene. ‘Before Picasso’, one says, ‘art was normal’. The pair then wipe their arses with the paper on which Petr Pavlensky’s statement defending his act of setting fire to a government building’s door is written. There’s a difference, they see, between art as in paintings and art that is nailing your scrotum to a public square or setting fire to something. What are the limitations of art and when does it stop being considered art? Elsewhere in the performance, someone recites a poem (the surtitles of which we are aptly denied) in a bath whilst another performer repeatedly tries to drown her. It is uncomfortable to watch not least because it is clear that her head is apparently forcibly underwater for some time. Later, there is a prolonged section where two men fight, a birds’ eye view of which is projected onto the screen. It isn’t too forceful and is perhaps choreographed but the energy and physicality afforded to it and the subtle application of an ice pack afterwards suggests that it was more ‘real’ than perhaps first thought.
Burning Doors also gives insight into how, for the artists, daily life can be as suppressive as prison life, and it goes one step further by suggesting different forms of torture are commonplace in Russia. We hear an introspective account of one person waiting to be executed by shooting range before being let off – a similar situation to that of Dostoyevsky apparently. Later we see three men forced to hold piles of plates, visibly sweating and struggling to do so. The piece also impressively incorporates a lot vigorous physical theatre, ranging from aerial skills to convey the brutality of the Russian prison system to choreographed ensemble work to conjure the media circus surrounding Pussy Riot’s trial. Another effective scene shows the interrogation and torment that the artists can suffer, repeating itself over and over, getting louder each time until they’re shouting.
Burning Doors is vital theatre. The final image of three flaming doors is a reminder of the symbolism of the gates of hell and the difficulties of artists in Russia being labelled political dissidents and enemies of the state because of their art.
Finally, as the applause died down at the end of the play, a northern man from the balcony shouted: ‘Gail, Gail, I’ll meet you out front’. I’m unsure whether he enjoyed it or not but it was a joyous reminder that theatre can be revolutionary but is also often divisive and surely much more rich for it.
Burning Doors plays at Curve, Leicester until 27th August before playing Soho Theatre, London from 31st August to 24th September. It then tours nationally and internationally until 3rd December. It will be screened online on 12th October.