Burning Doors

Entering the packed auditorium at Contact for Belarus Free Theatre’s Burning Doors, a young man beside me ventures ‘I’ve got that feeling that you get before a roller-coaster’.  And yet it’s not so much a roller coaster thriller as much as a relentless and absorbing two hour descent into the depths of the Russian prison system, the directionless elites, and the suppression of free speech in art and performance.  Relentless, that’s the right word, for although there are some impressive set pieces, what comes over in the end is the routine degradation, humiliation and physical and mental torture.

Burning Doors draws its title from an intervention by Petr Pavlensky, who set the doors of the Russian security service’s headquarters alight.  He was imprisoned for seven months for the action, and stated that ‘the same mechanisms, the same methods of control and compulsion that have proven effective in prison are used on the masses’ (link).  This seems to be the premise behind the performance, which clearly shows the methods used in Russian prisons.  The play also draws on the Ukrainian film director Oleg Sentsov, who was jailed in August 2015 for 20 years, and Pussy Riot’s Maria (Masha) Alyokhina, who served just under two years in prison, and who performs in this production.

Drawing on the personal stories of the three artists, and supported by references to existing Russian political elites, politic critics such as the exiled Mikhail Khodorkovsky, and classic Russian literature including Dostoyevsky and Bulgakov, this is as you would expect a highly political piece.  Prison scenes show brutality, bureaucracy, routine and degradation.  Violence is both graphic (as in the hanging and drowning scenes) and stylised (for example choreographed representations of assault).  Images live long after the performance ends.  At the same time, the Russian elite are ridiculed for their obscene wealth and inability to make any decisions, referring to Putin’s policy as that of throwing a ball onto a pool table and seeing into which pocket it falls.  There is a nice touch when the performance breaks to allow the audience to question Maria.  Although this never pretends to be anything other than a performance, you can easily forget that.  The two hours fly by.

With this piece Belarus Free Theatre put forward a powerful argument about the repression of free speech in Russia, the inability of artists to have their voice heard, and the controlling nature of the Russian political system.  This is a performance that you’re unlikely to forget.

Burning Doors was presented as part of Journeys Festival, whose core aim is to celebrate and highlight the extraordinary and powerful artwork, music, creativity, culture and experiences that refugee artists bring to the UK.


Theatre lover, amateur director, occasional actor, writer.

One Response to “Burning Doors”

  1. Rolf Draht says:

    Respect Masha Alekhina

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