March 06, 2023

Dystopian reality and the wars within

Murray Bramwell

Adelaide Festival

Dogs of Europe
Based on the novel by Alhierd Bacharevic
Translated by Daniella Kaliada
Belarus Free Theatre.
Dunstan Theatre, Adelaide Festival Centre
March 2. Bookings:
Tickets: $40-$109. Duration: 3 hours including interval.
Until March 6.

A Little Life
Based on the novel by Hanya Yanagihara.
Adaptation by Koen Tachelet
Internationaal Theater Amsterdam.
Adelaide Entertainment Centre Theatre
March 4. Bookings:
Tickets: $60-$129. Duration: 4 hours including interval.
Until March 8.

In the opening weekend of the Adelaide Festival, the theatre listings are particularly enticing. The visually impressive Dogs of Europe, from the permanently exiled activist company Belarus Free Theatre, is based on the presciently dystopic six-part omni-novel by Alhierd Bacharevic, which includes a predicted history from 2019 to 2049 of the New Reich, a totalitarian Russian superstate engulfing all of Eastern Europe and Asia -erasing nationality, ethnicity and culture.

No wonder the work of this company has been proscribed in Belarus. This production opened in London on the same day as the invasion of Ukraine.

Directors, Nicolai Khalezin and Natali Kaliada have focused on several sections of Bacharevic’s sprawling compendium with the story of young Mauchin (played by Havel Haradnitski ) growing up in a New Reich village, witnessing the apparatus of oppressive invasion. He also encounters a mysterious parachutist and keeps this as his secret.

This theme of resistance and curiosity is pursued in the second act when the excellent Haradnitski morphs into Teresias Skima, an investigator travelling Europe visiting the last remaining bookshops in a quest that is both mystical and mysterious. Books are crucial to the play, even as we see them destroyed and rendered unfathomable. Diderot is quoted- “when you stop reading, you stop thinking.”

The ensemble of ten actors – plus energising, haunting onstage music from Mark and Maricha Marczyk (whose band, Balaklava Blues, is also playing at WOMADelaide) – is vibrant, explosive, startling and at times comic, as they navigate the series of micro-plays, dance routines, flashbacks, and oddly Beckettian dialogues that constitute this sometimes baffling, impressionistic narrative.

Richard Williamson’s visual design and lighting is captivating (augmented by Roman Liuby’s whimsical and eerie animation). The performers are enveloped by a feast of sound and images – surreal, hypnotic, dreamy and disturbingly graphic. In echoes of Robert Wilson perhaps, photographic realism is interspersed with huge cut-outs of wild geese, capering pandas, and the ubiquitous burning of books.

It is always a matter for celebration, at the Adelaide Festival, when Ivo van Hove and his company Internationaal Theater Amsterdam return with a new work. Based on the 2015 novel by Hanya Yanagihara, A Little Life is a departure from Van Hove’s large repertoire of classic texts. Set in New York’s Soho, its 800 pages describe the lives of four young men who meet in college and charts their destinies over 30 years.

JB is a visual artist on the make, Willem an actor, Malcolm an architect and Jude is a lawyer with an undisclosed history, tormented by childhood sexual abuse and trauma. Rich in American detail, the novel explores friendship, love, addiction, and the limited consolations of material success.

In this stage version, artfully adapted by Koen Tachelet, van Hove has limited the American references. This is not the Netflix ten part version. Rather it has been distilled to essentials of story and characterization, transforming it into a contemporary stage tragedy.

Performed in Dutch with English surtitles, it uses a large stage with the audience facing from two sides. The décor is spare and functional, large screens run a continuing loop of NYC street scenes but focus is on the actors at all time. And they are extraordinary in their clarity and assurance.

At the centre is Ramsey Nasr, unforgettable as Jude St Francis, the ruined boy, now irreparably damaged man, self-mutilating and drowning in shame. Around him are Maarten Heijmans as Willem trying to rescue him with love, Daniel Hoen (last minute substitute) as JB and Edward Jonker as Mal, with enduring friendship. Steven van Watermeulen is Harold the father figure, while Andy the doctor (Bart Siegers) battles to mend him.

But Jude is invaded by hyena memories of insurmountable cruelties. In flashbacks, Hans Kesting is terrifying as a trio of demonic torturers, while Marieke Heebink, as Ana the counsellor, fights to win back his spirit and will to live. In its stillness and intimacy, its silent pain, and tragic inevitability, Ivo van Hove’s latest production is theatre at its very best.

“Dystopian reality and the wars within” The Australian, March 6, 2023. p.12.

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