Animal Doctor USA

Aliaksei Naranovich and Raman Shytsko in Dogs of Europe. Show caption A necessary affront … Aliaksei Naranovich and Raman Shytsko in Dogs of Europe. Photograph: Linda Nylind/the Guardian
Theatre

Barbican, London Fairytale imagery is mixed with absurdist humour in this prescient political thriller in which Russia has become a dictatorial superstate

Given the political history of the Belarus Free Theatre and its overt references to the war in Ukraine in this production, Dogs of Europe cannot be seen as theatre alone. It is art, activism and theatrical disruption, at once.

Having been performed clandestinely in garages and warehouses in Minsk, it feels released on this large-scale stage. Like a genie escaping from a bottle, there is a magnificent eruption of sound and spectacle. Big, haunting, discordant songs and music by Mark and Marichka Marczyk of Balaklava Blues expand to fill the auditorium. Maria Sazonova’s choreography is arresting in its acrobatic drama, with movements like orchestrated military exercises or assaults, and containing a fierce, fulminating physicality. A back screen for projections (with video design by Richard Williamson) begins as a roving camera from a computer game, which gives the show an unstable, lurching quality and seems designed to discombobulate its audience.

Every member of the ensemble has spent time in jail and their orchestrated movements play out street protests, battles, rape and murder. Inert bodies are dragged off stage, time and again. Deliberately cartoonish violence shows characters shot at point-blank range and bouncing back up.

Pavel Haradnitski (centre) and from left: Maryna Yakubovich, Ilya Yasinski and Stanislava Shablinskaya in Dogs of Europe. Fierce physicality … Pavel Haradnitski, centre, and from left: Maryna Yakubovich, Ilya Yasinski and Stanislava Shablinskaya in Dogs of Europe. Photograph: Linda Nylind/the Guardian

Based on a dystopian novel by Alhierd Bacharevic which is banned in Belarus, the story moves from 2019 to 2049 and depicts a world in which Russia has taken over several countries to become a dictatorial superstate. There is a clear sense of a connected landmass that underlines the fact that Belarus – and Ukraine – are not separate geographic entities under siege but part of the observing world around them.

The script is characteristically meandering, with scenes that appear more like a series of skits. Surtitles display a stream of words, barely stopping for breath. Fairytale imagery is mixed with absurdist humour and oblique dialogue which has the disjointed sense of a fever dream. These elements feel like disruptions – mirroring the illogicality of dictatorships – but the overall effect is breathtaking in spectacle and full of a gruelling tedium, designed to frustrate and defy logic.

The end of the drama segues into a postscript about Ukraine with a direct address from Natalia Kaliada (who directs alongside Nicolai Khalezin) about what Britain could – and should – be doing in response. Like the show itself, it feels like an urgent, enraged, frustrating and necessary affront.

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