Theatre's act of defiance in Europe's last dictatorship

A daring band of actors is challenging the regime in Belarus, reports Shaun Walker in Minsk
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The Independent Online

On a quiet street strewn with weeds in the suburbs of Minsk, a few dozen people file into the knocked-through living room of a dilapidated bungalow.

It is hard to believe that this ramshackle building houses the home stage of one of the world's most celebrated theatre troupes, which later this month will play a run at London's Almeida Theatre, and which has a glittering array of celebrity actors and playwrights acting as its cheerleaders.

This is the Belarus Free Theatre, a daring band of actors who put on risqué plays in the stifling political and cultural atmosphere of Belarus, where the neo-Soviet President Alexander Lukashenko tolerates no dissent, and the KGB security services make life a misery for anyone who opposes the regime. They have attracted a following across the globe, but here in Minsk, they have to keep a very low profile. The audience are informed of shows by email or text message, and know that at any time the police could raid the building and arrest the actors and audience. It has happened before, and as an economic crisis grips Belarus and the protest mood increases, the authorities are cracking down on opposition harder than ever before.

With the audience members packed in like sardines, many on the floor or sitting on each other's laps, there is just about enough space for 50 people in the small room, which has whitewashed walls and cardboard slats covering the windows. On Thursday evening, it was packed with young Belarusians as the theatre performed a three-part play called Zone of Silence. The play intersperses biting social commentary with touching coming-of-age stories, and the final part is the most powerful. The actors perform a series of abstract skits and grotesque mimes, while grim statistics about domestic violence, poverty, and political prisoners in Belarus are beamed up on to the wall behind them –"72 per cent of Belarusians find it hard to define the word 'democracy'" says one of the captions.

Despite the uncomfortable conditions and the sticky humid heat of a Minsk summer evening, nobody says a word or moves a muscle during the mesmerising two-and-a-half hour show. At one point, one of the actors does a strikingly realistic impression of Mr Lukashenko. In a country where people lower their voices before talking about the president, mocking him on stage is only for the extremely brave or the foolish.

"We thought for a long time whether we should put this on now, given the current political situation," says Marina Yurevich, one of the actors in the play. "But in the end we decided to go ahead with it."

Ever since the theatre was founded by playwright Nikolai Khalezin and his wife Natalia Koliada in 2005, it has been playing a game of cat and mouse with the authorities. Initially the group performed in different bars and cafés across Minsk. But soon, say the actors, shady representatives of the police or the KGB would put in an appearance at the venues, and warn the owners that if they continued to allow their premises to be used for such unsavoury purposes, they could expect a surprise visit from the tax police soon. Performances were switched to private apartments, and now mostly take place in the suburban bungalow.

The theatre's supporters abroad include the actor Jude Law and the playwright Tom Stoppard, as well as the late Harold Pinter and the playwright and former Czech President, Václav Havel. But while they are feted on foreign tours, life for the theatre inside Belarus remains precarious. Ms Koliada was arrested in December during protests against elections won by Mr Lukashenko, which international observers say were rigged. She has now fled Belarus with her husband and is in London, but the theatre's actors remain. "They are the bravest actors in the world," she says.

"I was a student, working in the state theatre, and had already seen pretty much everything that was on in Minsk," recalls Ms Yurevich after the show has come to an end. "Then I came to see a Sarah Kane play put on by the Free Theatre. It was absolutely different to anything I'd ever seen before. I realised that this was the only theatre I wanted to work in."

Ms Yurevich, like the troupe's other actors, was fired from her job with the state theatre because of her participation in the Belarus Free Theatre. "I understood that I had a choice between a stable salary and personal security, and artistic satisfaction. It was a difficult decision to make, but in the end I took the only one that I could."

During the two intervals, the audience members smoke with the cast in the theatre's garden. There is a strange hush, as people digest what they have seen, and appear unable to vocalise their thoughts. It is not just the political satire that makes the theatre's shows revolutionary. The social subject matter and the aesthetics in general come as a complete shock to Belarusians who have been fed a diet of staid, classical drama by the country's state-run theatres. In a country where the television's idea of social programming is to run features about grain harvests and tractor production, dealing with issues like sexuality, cancer and suicide is revolutionary, as is the frequent nudity and obscene language which permeate the performances.

At the end, there is a standing ovation lasting several minutes. "This is the second time I've been to one of their shows," says a 26-year-old architect among the audience, who asked not to be named. "It doesn't hit you at first, but I remember the last one I saw, I kept thinking about little things from it for weeks afterwards. It's so different to anything else I've ever seen."

"Tickets" to the performances are free, but a bucket is left by the exit for people to leave whatever contribution they can afford. Everyone leaves at least something, before heading back into Minsk, where multiple billboards paint a picture of a Belarus filled with happy farmers and loyal citizens, and where it is wise not to mention that they have attended the illegal theatre.

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