Merry Christmas Ms Meadows
4 stars ****
Pleasance Dome (Venue 23)
IT’S SEVERAL YEARS, now since Belarus Free Theatre first exploded onto the Edinburgh scene, bringing news, images and a huge charge of creative energy from the country often described as the last Stalinist dictatorship in Europe. This year, they turn their attention to the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people; and although there are hundreds of shows in Edinburgh this month that touch on this subject, I doubt if there is any that ranges across such a broad sweep of cultural and political landscapes, or that brings documentary material to life with such a wealth of theatrical inspiration and flair.
So the show begins with the six-strong cast sitting in rows schoolchildren, whle they tell the story of Lucy Meadows, the transsexual primary school teacher who took her own life in Lancashire in 2013, after being vilified by sections of the press. The show soon moves beyond the UK, though, to conjure up – through a text delivered in Russian with surtitles – a huge range of gay and transgender experience, from the Hijra tradition in India to the dedicated female “men” of Albania, and the fitful availability of gender reassignment surgery in Belarus itself.
Often driven along by live guitar riffs played by one of the cast, the show is heavy on research, and sometimes seems like a memorably raunchy piece of theatre-in-education. Yet it can also soar in an instant from text-heavy fact-sharing to breathtaking moments of theatrical invention and beauty, movement and imagery. And in its final scenes, the show offers a powerful glimpse of the choice that now faces us – between the return to rigid and repressive heterosexual norms that seems to be taking place in Vladimir Putin’s Russia, or a historic shift to a world in which people are free at last to move along the whole rich spectrum of gender and sexual expression, without fear, concealment, or lies.