Belarus Free Theatre has been established in exile in the UK for more than a decade, but their uncompromising work makes few easy concessions to charm a fickle British theatre audience. Sometimes punishingly violent, it straddles the boundary between the safe space of conventional drama and the risky territory of performance art. For anyone raised on Bennett, Stoppard and Pinter, this show demands a jump in perception. The bruises and bodily fluids are as real as in a performance by Marina Abramovic.
Burning Doors, written and directed by Nicolai Khalezin, is nonetheless a direct attempt to raise awareness here of the repression suffered by creative artists who directly challenge the Kremlin in Vladimir Putin's Russia. Maria Alyokhina, one half of the Pussy Riot duo, joins the cast to act out the story of her two years in a prison camp after her punk rock group's famous 40-second performance in Moscow's Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in 2012. Burning Doors is a reference to one of the actions of St Petersburg artist Pyotr Pavlensky, who set fire to the doors of Russia's security police HQ, the Lubyanka, for which he was arrested and fined. His actionist art uses his own body as a canvas; he has sewed his mouth up with thread and nailed his scrotum to the ground in Moscow's Red Square.
Before my trip to the Soho Theatre last night I knew about Pussy Riot and about Pavlensky, but was completely unfamiliar with the third artist whose incarceration is the theme of the last and most punishingly physical part of the show. Oleg Sentsov, a Ukrainian film director from Russian-occupied Crimea, is serving a 20-year sentence in Siberia on charges of 'terrorism' which his supporters say are entirely false.
Khalezin uses a dazzling array of theatrical techniques including mime and movement. In the scenes of torture and mistreatment, his eight performers aren't acting; the kicks and punches delivered to the hooded persioner are real and painful. Health and safety give way to physical suffering as naked and half-naked bound bodies dangle from ropes, clash like demented wrestlers and collapse perspiring on the stage. From my seat in the front row, I found it a gruelling experience.
Luckily the pace varies; there are a couple of conventional sketches featuring two male Kremlin officials wondering how to deal with these pesky half-lunatic artists who have taken them on. Their conversation in a toilet in the bowels of the Kremlin, framed by a bombastic double-headed eagle, comes to a halt with a plaintive shout when they discover that somebody has failed to supply any toilet paper.
Khalezin and his team know how to breach the fourth wall at moments when the audience least expects it; suddenly Alyokhina is seated behind a table with a moderator, playing herself and inviting live questions from the audience in English. At one point I lost my pen to a particularly powerful lunge by an actor into the audience's space. At another moment scraps of black clothing are thrown into the audience.
In this rich reservoir of theatrical techniques, there are one or two things that look a bit old hat to a western audience. The use of a hand-held torch to illuminate a face in darkness is a stage trick I first saw in Yuri Lyubimov's productions at the Moscow Taganka theatre back in the 1970s. The writhing and pulsating bodies recall the pioneering 'body art' of American theatre and performance pioneers in the 1960s. It's visually powerful stuff, and obvious why one of the artists from whom Khalezin has drawn inspiration is Egon Schiele.
There are literary antecedents as well, with a nod to Michel Foucault's writings on prison and punishment, and a much bigger debt to Dostoyevsky's The Idiot and Brothers Karamazov. Dostoyevsky's riveting psychological account of a man sentenced to execution in Tsarist Russia and then suddenly reprieved at the last moment was based on his own experience, and would be very familiar to a sophisticated Russian audience. There are times in this production where the words and the devised actions that go with them seem to be running on parallel tracks rather than coming together.
Alyokhina, like her Pussy Riot partner Nadya Tolokonnikova, comes across as a very smart and media-savvy performer, balancing the conflicting demands of political activism and art with sophistication and skill. Khalezin's other actors, knocking each other over like ninepins and glistening with sweat, convey the physical brutality of the new Russia rather than its psychology. Human rights are everybody's business, though both Mr Putin and the current UK government seem to share the opposite view.