'Time of Women' review or 'Shall we bunk together?'
Time of Women – Belarus Free Theatre (Staging a Revolution)
Young Vic Theatre, 9th November 2015
When ‘Time of Women’ was first performed in Belarus last year, the building was surrounded by KGB informers. It must have been electric. It’s a privilege to see the Belarus Free Theatre (now celebrating their 10th anniversary) perform in Britain but some of that original potency has been lost. Based on extensive interviews with three female political prisoners, including the PEN Pinter Prize-winning journalist Irina Khalip, this is a packed and searching play that lands on some beautiful moments, both broken and brave. But Nicolai Khalezin’s production is also exceptionally wordy and gets slightly bogged down in its quest to faithfully relay the thoughts and feelings of these three exceptional Belarusian women.
The framing in this production, written by Nicolai Khalezin and Natalia Kaliada, is a little saggy. Three political prisoners, finally released from KGB jail, decorate a Christmas tree together. Whilst they decorate they talk – a lot. These moments feel a little flat and the performances, a little distant. It’s hard to get beyond the words and find the characters beneath. But when the action slides back into prison-life, the production slowly starts to tingle in interesting ways.
The prison scenes are held together by a series of horrific interrogations with a KGB prison officer, played with slurping indifference (this is a man obsessed with his pot noodles) by Kiryl Kanstantsinua. It is in these scenes that the characters begin to feel like more than the sum of their words. Maryia Sazonava’s Irina Khalip coolly asks the officer: ‘Tell me, why are all the KGB officers so stupid’ and the audience holds its breath. Maryna Yurevich, as journalist Natalya Radina, holds herself with mesmerising dignity and the moment when Yana Rusakevich’s Nasta Palazhanka implodes at the mention of her family quietly punches us in the gut.
The staging also begins to open out a little. All three women lie on a looming bunk bed, with three beds piled up on each other. For much of the time we watch these bed-bunk interactions via a video projection, with the camera angle placed directly over the bed. We see glimpses of these prisoners’ head and, after a while, they almost feel like one. A pile of mini TVs flank the main video projection and these TVs, too, show us the same flickering images. Eventuall, the stage opens out and the images are replaced with a real set. Trust begins to take hold. We are let into the prisoners’ world and shown small moments of kindness that help defy this awful prediction: ‘They want nothing more than to kill the woman in you.’ In one scene, the prisoners pull a sheet across the bunk and begin to sing, as each woman goes to the toilet. It’s a beautiful scene; a wilful assertion of the basic rights and dignity that all these women are fighting for.