Burning Doors

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Burning Doors

28 July, 2016

What happens when you are declared an enemy of the state simply for making art?

Belarus Free Theatre combine forces with Pussy Riot’s Maria Alyokhina to share real-life stories of persecuted artists, living under dictatorship, who will not be silenced in Burning Doors, which will make its Australian debut in the Fairfax Studio from November 29 to December 3.


Burning Doors is brand new blazingly contemporary theatre from Belarus Free Theatre (BFT) drawn from the real-life stories of Pussy Riot’s Maria Alyokhina, Russian Actionist and political artist Petr Pavlensky and incarcerated Ukrainian film-maker, Oleg Sentsov. Through the lens of these three artists, and drawing on their own experience as political refugees, BFT explores the psychological impact of imprisonment, exile and forced migration, casting their gaze towards the displacement of people due to political persecution and conflict in Europe today.


Pussy Riot’s Maria Alyokhina makes her theatre debut performing alongside members of BFT’s permanent ensemble, as Burning Doors marks an unprecedented collaboration between Belarus Free Theatre, the only theatre company in Europe banned by its own government, and Maria Alyokhina who served a two-year prison sentence for the group’s anti-Putin performance in 2012.


Belarus Free Theatre is an award-winning theatre company founded in 2005 in Minsk under Europe's last surviving dictatorship. Its existence is illegal in a country where only state-sanctioned theatre is permitted. Since 2011, BFT has been based between Minsk and London where founding members, husband and wife team Natalia Kaliada and Nicolai Khalezin, together with Associate Director Vladimir Shcherban, are political refugees in the UK. BFT’s permanent ensemble are based in Minsk where they campaign, educate and perform every single day of the year, underground. Performers and audiences are under the constant watch of the authorities; performances have been raided by the KGB and audience members arrested. 


‚ÄčIn spite of this, BFT is a hot ticket; more than 6000 people saw a BFT performance underground in Minsk last year. Described by The New York Times as, “one of the bravest and most inspired underground troupes on the planet”, BFT has brought audiences some of the world's most provocative theatre including 40 new productions performed in more than 30 countries over the past decade.

Belarus Free Theatre has enjoyed the support and solidarity of fellow artists including the late Harold Pinter and Vaclav Havel; Sir Tom Stoppard, David Lan, Steven Spielberg, Jude Law, Kevin Spacey, Mick Jagger, Jeremy Irons, Emma Thompson, Joanna Lumley, Vivienne Westwood, Kim Cattrall, Ian McKellen and Samuel West. Belarus Free Theatre is an Associate Company at the Young Vic and at Falmouth University's Academy of Music & Theatre Arts (AMATA). Further afield, BFT has a long-standing partnership with both the Public Theater and LaMaMa in New York.


Nicolai Khalezin, co-founding Artistic Director of Belarus Free Theatre: We don’t have time to sit and wait. The people who desperately fight for art, who desperately say what they think, and sacrifice so many things are worth our solidarity and support”.

About the team

Nicolai Khalezin is an award-winning director, playwright, designer, educator, political campaigner and journalist. Prior to co-founding BFT in 2005, he was Editor-in-Chief of the leading social-political weekly newspapers in Belarus - Name, News and Our Freedom - all of which were shut down by the oppressive regime.

Another significant influence on his theatrical vision is a deep love and knowledge of contemporary art. Nicolai was the owner of the only contemporary art gallery in Minsk, which was also closed down by the authorities. His works were exhibited at the Istanbul Biennale, Milan Expo, in Rome, Berlin and at the Moscow Centre of Contemporary Art. Nicolai served time in prison in Belarus for his involvement in political campaigns, and was recognised as a Prisoner of Consciousness by Amnesty International.

This experience inspired one of BFT’s most popular shows, Generation Jeans, an autobiographical duologue about rock music and resistance. Written, directed and performed by Nicolai Khalezin, with live music by DJ Laurel, Generation Jeans has been performed more than 100 times around the world, including at the home of President Vaclav Havel upon his invitation in 2008 and at the House of Commons together with BFT’s trustee Jude Law in 2012.

Further playwriting credits for BFT include Discover Love, Trash Cuisine, Time of Women, all of which he also directed, and the adaptation of King Lear which was staged at the Globe to Globe Festival in 2012, as part of the London Cultural Olympics. Nicolai is the founder of BFT’s theatre laboratory, Fortinbras, the only independent arts school in Belarus, developed together with Natalia Kaliada and Vladimir Shcherban.

Maria Alyokhina is a Russian activist and member of Pussy Riot. The balaclava-wearing female punk group Pussy Riot hit the headlines in 2012 when a guerrilla performance of the protest song - Virgin Mary, redeem us of Putin - in Moscow's Christ the Saviour Cathedral led to their trial and imprisonment. The anti-Putin performance, condemning his corrupt relationship with the church, lasted just 40 seconds before they were arrested. Maria together with bandmates Ekaterina Samutsevich and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova were accused of “hooliganism on the grounds of religious hatred”. Maria was sentenced to two years in prison. Amnesty International named her a Prisoner of Conscience due to “the severity of the response of the Russian authorities”. She was released in 2014 and has since campaigned across the world for prison reform in Russia. Burning Doors is her professional theatre debut and first co-creation with Belarus Free Theatre.

Over the past five years, Russian Actionist and political artist Petr Pavlensky has mounted some of the most provocative and sensational performances in recent history, using his body as his canvas. He nailed his scrotum to the cobblestones of Red Square in front of Lenin’s tomb to underline the political indifference of contemporary Russian society; lay naked in a roll of barbed wire outside St. Petersburg’s parliament building, protesting a host of repressive laws and sewed his mouth shut outside Kazan Cathedral to protest the prosecution of Pussy Riot.


In the early hours of 9 November 2015, Petr Pavlensky set fire to the doors of Russia’s Federal Security Service Building. His actions broke the law, deliberately and intentionally so. By targeting Lybyanka he highlighted unpunished crimes perpetrated by the state, the tactics of oppression carried out by the Federal Security Service against the people of Russia. He has been detained since November, and is currently on trial facing three years in prison. He is not seeking a lenient punishment; he has asked for charges against him to be elevated to terrorism offences. The act, arrest, conviction and imprisonment is the performance.


His aim is to bring the world’s attention to the state of impunity protecting the Federal Security Service’s tactics of oppression. Like all of his work, Petr Pavlensky makes the threat of inevitable punishment real and visible, exposing the injustice and censorship at the heart of the system that will enact his trial. He is the face of Russian contemporary art today, challenging the state as a mechanism of suppression of personal liberties. 


Ukrainian filmmaker Oleg Sentsov is currently serving a 20-year prison sentence in a correctional camp in Yakutia for plotting acts of terrorism in Crimea after the peninsula was annexed by Russia in 2014. He has always maintained his innocence, both to charges of terrorism and to the allegations that he committed arson. His trial was described by Amnesty International as “redolent of Stalinist-era show trials”. Sentsov stated that he was tortured by investigators, and a key witness recanted in the courtroom on the grounds that his evidence had been extorted under torture.


Oleg Sentsov first came to the attention of the international film world with Gaamer, a debut feature inspired by the computer and video-gaming club for young people that he had founded. Gaamer opened to great acclaim at the Rotterdam International Film Festival in 2012. The European Film Academy together with leading international film directors, including Pedro Almodóvar, Wim Wenders, Stephen Daldry, Mike Leigh and Ken Loach, have campaigned for his release, echoing the grave concerns of Amnesty International that Sentsov’s trial was a “total fiasco” and that the “entire case for the prosecution is built on a house of cards”. Whilst serving his prison sentence, Fernando Bovaira named Sentsov an honorary member of the 62nd San Sebastian Film Festival’s main competition jury; a chair was reserved for him in solidarity. Oleg Sentsov remains in prison today.


“BFT is getting very seriously noticed in many ports around the globe. Nothing, surely, could annoy an absurd European dictator more.”

The Spectator


“Art matters. And it's hard to think of a theatre company that has proved that more than Belarus Free Theatre.”

Huffington Post


“For the BFT, political theatre is not a genre, but a necessity.”

Vanity Fair 


Belarus Free Theatre’s Burning Doors is created by Nicolai Khalezin in partnership with Natalia Kaliada and performed by Pavel Haradnitski, Kiryl Kanstantsinau, Siarhei Kvachonak, Maryia Sazonava, Stanislava Shablinskaya, Andrei Urazau, Maryna Yurevich and Maria Alyokhina.


Burning Doors is created in partnership with ArtReach as part of Journeys Festival International 2016; co-commissioned by Arts Centre Melbourne. It was developed at Falmouth University’s Academy of Music and Theatre Arts (AMATA), and is generously supported by the National Lottery through Arts Council England.


Arts Centre Melbourne presents Belarus Free Theatre

Burning Doors 

With Maria Alyokhina from Pussy Riot

Arts Centre Melbourne, State Theatre

November 29 to December 3, 2016

Tickets www.artscentremelbourne.com.au or phone 1300 182 183.