Banned in Belarus, Nicolai Khalezin and Natalia Kaliada brought their Belarus Free Theatre company to London, where their experimental political plays have found a loyal following. Their latest strike against injustice is a new play called "Trash Cuisine", now on at London’s Young Vic. This tour of the world’s execution chambers—told through real-life testimonials—is a take-down of the death penalty dressed up as a macabre cooking show.
"In each story, food kept cropping up," explains Mr Khalezin, the director, over a glass of fresh mint tea. One incident considers a prisoner’s last meal before he is executed in America; another tells the story of a Belarusian executioner who vomits in private after every assignment. A Belarusian firing squad does their shooting during their lunch-break, so members have to eat quickly afterwards to get back to their day jobs on time. Fraught moments on stage are punctuated with a whiff of broth, seared meat, freshly ground coffee or raw onion from the stage. The company travelled around the world to gather their stories.
In one powerful scene two executioners, one from Belarus and one from Thailand, exchange anecdotes over strawberries and cream. ("At the executions, we always have a shot or two [of vodka].") The life of Liam Holden, the last man in Britain sentenced to hang, is told in a series of figures projected on a screen: how many siblings he had (ten); how old he was in 1973 when convicted of shooting a British soldier (19); how many litres of water were poured on his face when he was waterboarded; what percentage of his life he spent convicted of murder before he was cleared in 2012. Other scenes sit more oddly, like one depicting the Rwandan genocide. Mr Khalezin defends this conceptual sprawl by explaining that they wanted to show that the death penalty is "not just the state against man, but also man against man; one social group against another."
Belarus, the only European country to still have the death penalty, is the final stop on this world tour. The play ends with the execution last year of Vladislav Kovalyov and Dmitry Konovalov, two 26-year olds who were convicted of the explosions that struck the Minsk metro in 2011. As with all executions in Belarus, the men were shot in the back of their heads, and their bodies were not returned to their relatives. Between 2000 and 2010, Belarus has sentenced to death 42 men (women are not executed there). “Our role is not to explain but to ask questions,” says Mr Khalezin. “What is the point of having the death penalty?”
In asking such provocative questions, the Belarus Free Theatre hopes the play will help ban capital punishment in Belarus. On June 6th Ms Kaliada, Mr Khalezin and Free Belarus Now, a human-rights organisation, will stage a protest in London designed to publicise the fate of those on death row. "Abolishing it would make Europe the first clean continent," says Mr Khalezin. "And that would be historic."
Originally published: economist.com