Red Forest: a mythologised cry against oppression

Belarus Free Theatre’s latest production treads a fine line between impassioned political resistance and new-age nonsense.

The Belarus Free Theatre (BFT) is a radical underground company established in Belarus in 2005. Some of its members fled persecution in 2011 and have since set up a London branch in exile. Their first show in the UK, Minsk, was immediately endorsed by critics, with its tale of the scars left by political repression and resistance in Eastern Europe. So when it comes to artistic integrity, BFT has pretty much got it licked.

The company’s latest show, however, takes an alarming drift towards new-age mysticism. The theme of Red Forest is the persecution and displacement brought about by ecological and man-made disasters. It starts with a Native American shaman in a sandpit between two shallow pools of water. Pretending to be on the Canadian prairies, he waves a feather wand and conjures the spirit world with the help of tribal drumming and primal chanting. At this point, a trip into the universal unconsciousness, taken with a draught of spiritualism and a shot of soil worship, seems on the cards.

Complete with whooping and dancing, it would be easy to write off this play as excruciating hokum. What emerges, however, is not a celebration of hippiedom or a revival of ancestor worship aping the rituals of primitive societies. It is, rather, strongly reminiscent of that disturbing and strangely beautiful 1982 film, Koyaanisqatsi, which strung together slow-motion and sped-up footage of cities and nature set to music by Philip Glass. As such, Red Forest is a trawl through global hardship, bringing together diverse events and experiences from across the world, from Algeria to Brazil and from Japan to Chernobyl, and ending with the violent enforcement of border controls in Spain. Overhead, a long horizontal projection screen animates images from war-torn, politically oppressed or storm-battered regions of human suffering – refugee camps, kidnap hideaways, flood plains. What emerges is less a call to paganism and more of a demand for solidarity with the dispossessed.

The drumming and incantation need not be dismissed as artistically and ideologically reactionary, as a retreat into a credulous fantasy of elemental belonging. There is space for a more radical interpretation. In line with John Gray’s book, The Silence of Animals, the play is sustained by the idea that human beings are creatures rooted in myth. There is no escaping this – and that includes the liberal myth of reason and science unfolding a narrative of enlightenment that provides the ideological justification for the worst aspects of globalisation. Moreover, BFT’s deployment of shamanic myth can be seen as part of a search for an alternative language to that of today’s ubiquitous market idolatory.

Admittedly, there are times when Red Forest resembles the sort of blandly glossy spectacle purveyed by Cirque Du Soleil. It can even look like the sort of corporate propaganda practised by travel companies and broadcast on the Heathrow Express. And yet with inscrutable voiceovers relaying shocking personal testimonies of those caught up in international turmoil, the action is never reduced to a glib Buddhist fantasy of world integration. Instead, progress is delivered by a bulldozer in Brazilian slum clearances. This image is brilliantly rendered as an implacable fender improvised with bamboo poles and back-lit by miners’ headlamps, while booming engines struggle to push back invisible rubble.

It’s true that Arkadiy Yushin’s score is the sort of mish-mash of world music that might serve as a soundtrack for the ethical-lifestyle choices of stoned Glastonbury-goers, people for whom the world is a marvellous cultural smorgasbord to graze upon at leisure. The throb of drums, the call of Peruvian pipes and the sound of dancing flute, together with multilingual lyrics, almost seem to offer a rootless one-size-fits-all narrative of conflict-free integration. But the trance-inducing music does also run alongside an unnerving soundtrack by David Gregor that alternates organic and mechanical noise – such as birdsong in the rainforest and sirens in the city.

The danger is that the rituals of dance, sound and spectacle could be seen as naturalising and aestheticising the violence and displacement that BFT seeks to condemn. It could be seen as making oppression seem an inevitable part of the cycle of life – encouraging submission to the great life-force of Qi. But the show is best considered as a flawed but resolute struggle to find a language of resistance. As long as mystical beliefs and shamanistic rituals are challenging the corporate fables of emancipation, then they can hold some potency. In so far as they offer an alternative to the modern world, they will always be simplistic and infantalising.

Patrick Marmion is a freelance journalist, playwright, founder of Soapbox debating forum and a part-time tutor at the University of Kent. Visit his website.

Red Forest is playing at the Young Vic, London, until 5 July. Watch the trailer:

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