Witness

pinter-belarusBelarus Free Theare in “Being Harold Pinter.” Photo copyright Alexandr Paskannoi.

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2011, 2017 Paul Ben-Itzak

(Author’s note, 2-8-17: On Tuesday, Amnesty International reported that an estimated 13,000 people had been killed by the Syrian government in Syrian prisons in the first four years of the Syrian war. On Friday, United States president Donald Trump attempted to bar the doors of the United States to refugees and other visa-holders from seven predominantly Muslim countries, ranging from Syrian refugees to Iranian doctoral students to 12-year-old Yemenite girls whose parents are American citizens, prompting a national, multi-colored, multi-gendered revolt. On Saturday, addressing a gathering in front of the Stonewall Bar in New York, where in 1969 a raid by authorities ignited the Rainbow Revolution on the same day Judy Garland died, Sex in the City actress Cynthia Nixon, speaking after Egyptian out of the closet refugee Omar Sharif Jr., proclaimed, “We are allies united by our Otherness… And if we didn’t know it before, thanks to Donald Trump we know it now.” All of this evidence that the subject of the piece below, first published on January 14, 2011, is today more crucial and relevant than ever.) (Source for Nixon citation: Democracy Now.)

NEW YORK — In his 2005 work “Puur,” which I caught in Paris that year (see elsewhere in the Dance Insider Archives), the Belgian choreographer Wim Vandekeybus promised “an act of resistance in the face of the violence of the world.” In fact he did little more than replicate the brutality — including acts of barbarism against children — on film, as live dancers writhed about on stage. The film was simply repulsive, the dancers simply not credible; what did they know about torture? And where was the resistance, let alone the tools for resistance, or even proposed mechanisms for coping with such violence? If I’d been familiar with the work then, I might have thought of Devlin’s interrogation of Rebecca in Harold Pinter’s two-person play “Ashes to Ashes”: “What authority do you think you yourself possess which would give you the right to discuss such an atrocity?” To which Rebecca responds: “I have no such authority. Nothing has ever happened to me. Nothing has ever happened to any of my friends. I have never suffered. Nor have my friends.”

By contrast, the members of the Belarus Free Theatre, who last night performed “Being Harold Pinter” at La MaMa, where it continues through Sunday with an added performance Monday at the Public Theater, have authority, authenticity, and even Harold Pinter, a melange of whose plays, notably “Ashes to Ashes” — as well as his 2008 Nobel Prize for Literature acceptance lecture (see elsewhere in these DI Archives) — they mash up with actual testimony from survivors of repression in Belarus, one of the last remaining Soviet-style dictatorships in the former Soviet Union. The work is also a testament to Pinter’s authenticity in that sometimes it’s difficult to tell which sections and text are drawn from his plays and which come from the reality of the country the performers had to literally escape from just to get to New York and present the piece, part of the Under the Radar festival curated by Mark Russell. That they knew they had a venue waiting for them which would attract an audience which would make their escape worth it is also a tribute to Ellen Stewart, who founded La MaMa 50 years ago and whose demise the night before, at the age of 91, was announced on stage last night prior to the performance by Russell and his La MaMa colleagues, each tolling a single bell before they surrendered the stage.

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