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Burning Doors review at Soho Theatre, London – ‘intensely physical but lacking in articulacy’

Kiryl Kanstantsinau and Pavel Haradnitski in Burning Doors at Soho Theatre. Photo: Tristram Kenton

In 2012, Russian activist Maria Alyokhina was sentenced to two years in prison for “hooliganism” in her work with feminist punk-rock protest group Pussy Riot. In 2015, Ukrainian filmmaker Oleg Sentsov was given 20 years on fabricated charges of terrorism. In the same year, performance artist Petr Pavlensky was arrested and fined 500,000 rubles for setting the front doors of the Russian Security Services alight.

Burning Doors, by Belarus Free Theatre – the Belarusian underground theatre group, now based in London – is a devised response to these three instances of state brutality, and a protest against the suppression of political opposition in Russia and Belarus in general.

Part verbatim play, part expressionist dance, part Artaud-esque piece of performance art, it is a stylish and surreal 100 minutes of intensely physical theatre that brims with urgency and anger but fails to find any lasting articulacy. You actually learn more about the plight of political resistance in the former Soviet Union from the programme than from the piece itself.

Maryia Sazonava and Maria Alyokhina in Burning Doors at Soho Theatre. Photo: Tristram Kenton
Maryia Sazonava and Maria Alyokhina in Burning Doors at Soho Theatre. Photo: Tristram Kenton

Nicolai Khalezin and Natalia Kaliada’s energetic, sweat-drenched production attempts to fuse a wide range of inspirations, from interrogation transcripts to Dostoyevsky extracts, and never really succeeds. Comically casual conversations between generic government suits rub uncomfortably alongside ritualistic recreations of Alyokhina’s experiences behind bars. An ill-conceived ad hoc press conference in which the audience are actually invited to ask questions is plonked awkwardly halfway through the piece. It’s all a bit jarring, a bit incoherent.

Burning Doors is strongest when it forgoes this bruising plurality and relaxes into a single style. A lengthy, progressively more interpretative recreation of state torture techniques becomes increasingly mesmeric – and increasingly shocking – as it grows in complexity. A concluding call for positive action, delivered with chilling simplicity by Maryna Yurevich, is galvanising in its stark directness. It is during these sequences that Khalezin and Kaliada’s directorial decisions start to feel a little less arbitrary.

The eight-strong cast, which includes the released Alyokhina, move with the slickness of a well-oiled machine and Khalezin’s design – a cold, square space in front of three anonymous cell doors – evokes the terror and the harshness of unjust incarceration well. And everything occasionally comes together to provide some startling, searing visuals: a woman being aggressively dunked in a water-filled bath, another tied up and tossed about like a child’s plaything; a man strung up and forced – literally, apparently – to wet himself on stage.

There are numerous frustrating obstacles to overcome before one can begin to appreciate Burning Doors, rapid surtitles, superfluous nudity, dissonant tonal shifts and impenetrable streams of garbled pop psychology among them. Underneath all that, there are glimpses of authentic comment on the ethics, obligations and taboos surrounding radical protest and unjust political imprisonment. But you have to really dig to find them.

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Belarus Free Theatre's intensely physical protest against political suppression lacks articulacy