10 March 2022
DOGS OF EUROPE (Barbican Theatre) Review
It is very difficult to write an objective review here. The Belarus Free Theatre company has been around for almost 20 years, and its members are political refugees in their own homeland. I understand the activism, the sacrifices, the importance of their message. Lots of famous people in the arts (most notably Pinter and Stoppard) collaborated with and praised the company in the past. The company has also picked up countless awards over the years. It’s difficult to do anything but heap praise over them.
And yet it’s important to separate the company itself from the play, production, direction, acting, etc. A closer look at the awards highlights the fact that they were given for the spirit of fighting, the message, the opposition to government oppression, and so on. That’s a very different proposition from a brilliant staging of a good play.
The play was advertised as being “based on Dogs of Europe“, a 900-page 2017 novel by Alhierd Bacharevic (a Belarusian novelist now banned from the country). All I knew about the book is that it’s set in a dystopian future (harking back to the themes of 1984) where the European continent has been essentially divided between the new Russian empire (i.e., Russia who occupied most of its neighbours) and a union of countries in the west (remnants of the EU). Given what’s happening in Russia and Ukraine at present, this is a rather timely piece of theatre.
And yet, at 3+ hours, it’s too long, muddled, utterly pointless, and falls completely flat. The play has two halves that appear to be connected, but, in the end, aren’t really. I couldn’t believe that the writing behind the play won all those awards and has had been translated to countless languages. And then my friend with whom I was seeing the show (and who had actually read the book) told me that the play is set in the universe of the book, but doesn’t really follow the book other than that. That’s when things started to click. What I was looking at was a piece of avant-garde theatre with its own ideas, messages, and language that seems to have borrowed a setting from the book in question. That’s a bit rich given that we were actually shown the image of the book at the start of the play.
Again, I am not saying that the play doesn’t cover important themes or doesn’t have an important message/warning. Of course it does. But the writing is bad, the acting is largely dreadful, and direction is baffling. The two friends I was with (one hailing from Belarus originally, the other one from Russia) said that I was foolishly trying to analyse the play to death, and I should just focus on the message and the metaphor. Weeeeeell…. There are great many ways to communicate a message, and there is no reason why it can’t be coherent and cohesive.
Whilst I do like lots of absurdist plays, I’m not that keen on avant-garde. My reivew of Lava wasn’t exactly glowing. But dear me, Richard Foreman is rolling over in his grave. If your message is that “everything will become pointless, and your culture will cease to be if you don’t fight for it”, is drinking vodka out of a goose’s arse (no, really!), gratuitous nudity, and loooooong stretches of screechy singing with slow-mo dancing really the way to make it stick?
Nicolai Khalezin and his wife Natalia Kaliada co-directed the production, but Khalezin is also listed as the dramaturg for the production. Sorry, but there is no excuse for a play that’s tripping all over itself like this from a company of such tenure. I suspect that acting would’ve been better with better direction also. The only positive thing I can say about this show is that the animation (continuously providing set and background) by Roman Liubyi is unbelievably brilliant. Not only did it look like a fantastic piece of visual art that one could easily expect to see at a major gallery, but it was also clever and funny and actually lifted the play.
It’s worth saying it again (and again and again) that the circumstances are tragic. Kaliada came on stage at the end of the show to talk about the company’s support for Ukraine. She said that the husband and wife pair who wrote and performed music in the show had family in Ukraine who were killed in the war as the show went into rehearsals. More or less every member of the company had been arrested and/or imprisoned for speaking out. The auditorium had every seat covered with a photo of those imprisoned or dead as a result of government atrocities. So yes, everything that Belarus Free Theatre had to say was important. But I think we all would’ve been better off if it was said in 2 hours by a play that had a coherent plot, not just a message.
Cheapskate enjoyment value: -£5 for the play (but obviously +infinity for the importance of what they’re doing).