This was, simply, one of the most jaw-dropping and admirable pieces of theatre that I have ever seen. Performing in Russian, the eight-strong cast of Belarus Free Theatre were awe-inspiring from start to finish, taking real life stories and translating them into some of the most theatrically pleasing work imaginable.
All their material is based on people’s real experiences, and we are whisked through a series of scenarios challenging the role of identity, gender and sexuality through the ages – also drawing on historical references such as the works of Ovid and the trial of Oscar Wilde. The opening scene sets the tone of what is to come, exploring the true story of a Lancashire school teacher – Mr Upton – who became the titular Ms. Lucy Meadows.
There is a large screen where the English-language surtitles roll, and we also see continuous visual images of the people whose stories are being honoured. This serves only to bring these people more to life, and to call to mind both the mental and physical torture that they must have gone through.
As the audience, we are constantly challenged to look our own beliefs and attitudes, as a barrage of shocking facts and figures punctuate each story. The transitions between the re-tellings are fast-moving and slick, with constant surprises in the presentation. The actors do not miss a beat and I was left wondering what on Earth would they or could they do next.
I loved the range of media used to portray the stories. There was no shortage of music, and the ensemble singing was both haunting and sympathetic when necessary. The use of simple things such as hand bells, hand mirrors and tap shoes – capturing the de-humanising of such painful experiences for so many – were sheer strokes of genius.
Nothing is left unspoken. References are made to the persecution of homosexuality in prison; the indignity of the whole process of having a sex change; mothers’ stories of their children they knew no longer. The harder-hitting stories were balanced by positive experiences too, such as the transgender Hijra of India and the ‘sworn virgins’ living as men in communities in Albania. All served to create a complete and stimulating experience.
No matter where you stand on the issues raised by the work, it would be impossible not to be touched by what you will see. It is a very long time since I have witnessed an audience stunned into silence, and it was clear by the final curtain that others had been as affected as I was. The sheer totality of the research undertaken and the translation onto stage was breathtaking.
This stunning and courageous production has got to be the highlight of my festival. Thank you Ms. Meadows. Your story has now been told with dignity, and for me it was as if all my Christmases had come at once.