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Left to right: Maryna Yakubovich, Pavel Haradnitski, Kiryl Kalbasnikau, Yuliya Shauchuk and Ilya Yasinski. Show caption ‘A surreal, punitive, unforgettable marathon’: left to right, Maryna Yakubovich, Pavel Haradnitski, Kiryl Kalbasnikau, Yuliya Shauchuk and Ilya Yasinski in Dogs of Europe. Photograph: Linda Nylind/The Guardian
Theatre

Barbican; Ambassadors theatre, London The exiled Belarus Free Theatre offers a frightening, timely vision of a divided Europe, and Taron Egerton brings emotive power to Mike Bartlett’s exploration of sexuality

Sun 20 Mar 2022 10.30 GMT

In a pre-show talk, directors Nicolai Khalezin and Natalia Kaliada, founders of the company Belarus Free Theatre, who left their country as refugees 12 years ago to escape Alexander Lukashenko’s regime, sounded subdued as they talked about brutality in Belarus and the escalating war in Ukraine and warned us of what we were about to see on stage: “It’s not an easygoing show, it’s very metaphorical, it makes you think, you will not be relaxed.” With a wan smile, Kaliada recommended we have a drink beforehand.

Dogs of Europe – at the Barbican for four performances – is three-and-a-quarter hours long: a surreal, punitive, unforgettable marathon. Performed in Belarusian with English surtitles, it is based on a dystopian novel published in 2017 by Alhierd Bacharevič, set in 2049 and now banned in Belarus. A text projected on to the back of the stage explains there has been a “war of 2022-2025” after which the European continent has become “politically bipolar” with a League of European states opposed by a New Reich – a frighteningly plausible fantasy.

Directed and rehearsed on Zoom, this cataclysmic drama was first performed underground in Minsk in 2020 and even with the hi-tech finish of the Barbican production retains the feverish urgency of a street protest. Everyone in the cast has, at some point, been imprisoned and some have been tortured by the increasingly repressive Belarusian authorities. The show’s musicians have had family members killed in Ukraine and their animations designer has left to fight in the war.

The first half is set in the east – within the Russian Reich – the second in the west. A schoolboy, played by the show’s dynamic star, Aliaksei Naranovich, befriends a spy until co-opted by an oppressive major to hunt that spy down. There is a rare glimmer of absurdity as the two high-step across the stage in unison and the major explains that his impeccably white suit confounds those who expected him to look like dirt.

In the second half, Naranovich plays a German agent in pursuit of a dead Belarusian poet. But there is to be no narrative reprieve. For this is a saga of shattered stories; it is about what happens when the human plot line goes missing. And if its incoherence is frightening and bewildering, one imagines that it conveys something of what it is to live under totalitarianism or to be a refugee, trying to make sense of life. “What year is it?” is a question that keeps resurfacing. It makes one see how displacement and amnesia belong together.

The show is vertiginously miscellaneous, with Pythonesque graphics, cut-out clouds, burning books, a hovel in the woods – the setting for a rotten fairytale. At one point, Goya’s The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters floats jauntily overhead. But reason is to be presumed dead. Dogs of Europe comes across as a series of SOSs from an unravelling world, accompanied by the agitated music of Marichka and Mark Marczyk (AKA Balaklava Blues). At the end of the first half, Naranovich runs naked round a bare stage and continues to run throughout the interval. He is as fast as any hunted animal, his plight continuing whether we are watching or not, the significance of which should not escape us.

Taron Egerton, second from right, is ‘judiciously and brilliantly exaggerated’ in Cock, co-starring (from left) Jonathan Bailey, Phil Daniels and Jade Anouka. Photograph: Brinkhoff-Moegenburg

When Mike Bartlett wrote Cock in 2009, he derived his inspiration from the sport of cockfighting to explore an adversarial crisis between three lovers. His play has a bravura theatricality and was a hit at the Royal Court when first staged. This revival takes place on an empty stage with burnished steel walls (by designer Merle Hensel) within which John, played by Jonathan Bailey with mercurial angst, is tormented by an inability to decide whether or not he is gay. Is he more drawn to his boyfriend M (Taron Egerton) or his more recently acquired girlfriend W (sparkily played by Jade Anouka, her lustful propositioning arising from out-of-control loneliness). The evident intention is that Cock should address us freshly, as gender and sexuality issues are more complicatedly nuanced than ever before.

Marianne Elliott’s immaculate production moves seamlessly between the lovers’ conversations as they unpick desire, unhappiness and the challenges of commitment. But its greatest pleasures are wordless. There is wonderful, hyperbolic choreography between conversations, to express lust and anguish. At one point, John swoons backwards from the waist as the stage’s revolve carries him full circle. At another, he is contorted by desire and, in a third, he is drawn into M’s arms like they are two magnets that cannot stay apart. There is also the pleasingly novel Elliott innovation of undressing scenes in which actors stay fully clothed.

But it is Taron Egerton’s M who makes the evening, with his phenomenal ability to combine comedy with desolation. In the showdown dinner that ends the play, he keeps popping off to check on the beef, his chin up as if expecting to be martyred and photographed simultaneously. He is like a strange cartoon: his smile fixed, tears pin-pricking his eyes, his arms sometimes dangling as if out of their sockets. His performance is judiciously and brilliantly exaggerated, with his smile becoming more shark-like as he turns small talk into open hostility. What matters is that he makes you care. Phil Daniels as F, M’s cadaverous father, also entertains, bringing dark relief. But the problem with this play is that, for all its ingenious wrangling, John remains tiresome and W an enigma. And while no one would disagree with Bartlett about the validity of wishing to be understood as an individual rather than sexually labelled, it is a conclusion that now seems uncontroversial rather than groundbreaking.

Star ratings (out of five): Dogs of Europe ★★★★ Cock ★★★★

  • Cock is at the Ambassadors theatre, London, until 4 June

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