Belarus Free Theatre: UK-based exiled theatre group working with Kevin Spacey and Jude Law being harassed by dictatorship

The group formed a theatre group 10 years ago to protest against the rule of President Alexander Lukashenko

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The Independent Online

Belarusian dissidents granted political asylum in the UK have revealed they are still being harassed and targeted by the repressive regime in their home country, 10 years after they formed a theatre group to protest against the rule of President Alexander Lukashenko.

The Belarus Free Theatre recently announced plans to celebrate a decade of work with the help of stage luminaries including Kevin Spacey, Tom Stoppard and Jude Law.

But Natalia Kaliada, one of the co-founders, told The Independent that the theatre’s new campaigning website, The Ministry of Counterculture, has been hacked along with her own email account, while attempts have also been made to crack the security on her mobile phone. She believes the efforts were carried out by agents working on behalf of what has been called “the last dictatorship in Europe”.

“I think they are afraid of us,” said Ms Kaliada, who was granted asylum four years ago. “It becomes scary for dictatorial governments after their ideas are challenged and artists can really attract attention.”

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Rimma Uskkevich, Victoria Biran, Yana Rusakevich. Man: Oleg Sydorchyk

Her group’s activism will be marked by Staging a Revolution, a season of performances and discussions in November at the Young Vic theatre in London, the company’s only permanent home, as well as at underground locations around the capital.

This month, the group unveiled a new logo by the Chinese dissident artist Ai Weiwei, while a concert called I’m With The Banned in October will feature David Gilmour, Pussy Riot, Kim Cattrall and Juliet Stevenson.

Together with Vladimir Shcherban and her husband Nicolai Khalezin, Ms Kaliada set up the BFT in 2005 in response to censorship in Belarus. It made them a target for the authorities and they had to be smuggled out of the country in 2011.

Ms Kaliada hailed the groups’s achievements and the dedication of the team that is split between London and Minsk. “There are not a lot of us and, in all of Europe, this is the only theatre of its kind. We are so proud of our achievements,” she said.

The shows in Belarus remain illegal and are held in undisclosed, underground locations. Audience members are sent a text message 24 hours before the performance to meet and they are taken to the location which could be anything from a car park to an apartment or even a forest.

While the shows are regularly raided by police, shows still regularly have 2,000 applications for 50 seats.

The artistic directors carry out rehearsals with performers on Skype and fly regularly to Lithuania, which borders Belarus, to meet with the permanent company that still performs underground.

Ms Kaliada admitted the pressure on her and husband Mr Khalezin has been intense, but worse on their families who remain in Belarus.

Shortly after a raid of Mr Khalezin’s family home in late 2011, his father suffered a heart attack which led the founders to question whether to carry on. Mr Khalezin’s father telephoned them. “He told us: ‘What you do, you need to finish. We support you fully and you need to carry on’,” Ms Kaliada said.

The company will revive older works at the Young Vic and recreate the clandestine performances in London.

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