Belarus is the last dictatorship in Europe. Under president Lukashenko’s regime, freedom of the press is severely restricted, media organisations are routinely harassed, and every one of its 25 theatres are state run. In 2005 Nikolai Khalezin and Natalia Koliada established the Belarus Free Theatre; they were soon joined by director Vladimir Scherban.They immediately became a target for the Belarusian authorities and have been split in two; one half operates underground, performing in private houses on the outskirts of Minsk; the other operates from London.
Artistic director Nikoliai Khalezin gives a bleak assessment of the situation in Belarus: “It’s getting worse and worse every year and the oppression against our actors specifically is increasing with every single year. Now they’re oppressing our audience. Recently our friend who gave us the private house for our performances was called to the local authorities and had a talk with the KGB; they warned him that if he continued cooperating with us his house would be demolished.”
The burden of risk and secrecy is one also felt by spectators, says Vladimir Scherban. “Just imagine, you are going to see some show at the globe, and the first thing you think is: I must take my ID card, because there could be police raid and I will have to give them information. You don’t tell your mum that you’re going, because your mum knows that you can go straight from the theatre to the prison. You’re at the globe and the police raid. They write down your information but they don’t imprison you; they could imprison you for 15 days. Then you return to Oxford and the Vice Chancellor calls you to his office and tells you: ‘if you go to the Globe to see another play, we will dismiss you from the university, despite the fact that you’re a brilliant student, and a great lad.’ That’s the situation with us, that’s the risk that all our audience takes.”
Scherban’s description seems alien, but such oppression is surprisingly close to home. Khalezin: “All this is going on in Europe, two hours’ flight from London. Unfortunately, not a lot of people know about this, and many people would not like to know about the real situation, because to know the truth is not profitable. It’s easier to fight for freedom in Uganda and Burma and so on but if you cannot resolve the problems on your own continent two hours flight from London; it’s better to keep silent about it. It’s our task to remind politicians about this with our creative works.”
Whilst the troupe aims to increase awareness of political oppression and corruption in Belarus, they insist they are not a political group with unified views or aims.
“We are not a political party, we are a creative troupe,” says Khalezin. “It would be like asking Jews in prison what political party they belong to. It’s a humanitarian issue; we are not interested in the fight for power. We are interested in not going to prison; we are interested that no riot police will hit us on the head with batons; we are most interested in creating the shows we would like to present to our audience. But that’s impossible to do back in Belarus.”
The shows that BFT would like to perform are aimed at confronting areas of discourse that are suppressed intheir homeland. Their approach is highly personal, Scherban explains: “we got together and counted all the taboos in Belarusian society and we were lucky, because almost every topic in Belarus is a taboo. We decided that each performance would be dedicated to a different taboo.”
Throughout this pursuit of a humanitarian and political imperativethe troupe are conscious not to lose sight of the need to entertain their audience.Scherban says, “We’re not against entertainment; the show must be captivating as well. Usually, when you see somebody that has a social or political stance, there’s no creativity or artistic vision. At the beginning we understood that we must be colourful and captivating, otherwise you won’t be able to deliver your idea to the audience for whom we are creating our show.”
As well as colour and vibrancy, a central part of the BFT’s theatrical approach is the creation of ways to provoke genuine reactions in response to forbidden topics. “There is a different realism in theatre,” says Khalezin, “the realism of intercommunication between actors and spectators. A spectator’s reaction should be a real one. My task as a director is to get a genuine reaction, not nodding and saying ‘oh yes it’s so horrible, oh my god’, but something that will keep you awake at night tossing and turning, thinking about what you saw.”
It is easy to see why the BFT are considered so dangerous to Lukashenko’s regime. “We are giving voice to all the thoughts that people cannot. Our audience are mostly between 16 and 35 years old; the authorities are afraid of them.” Scherban agrees: ‘Socrates was executed because he made people think; he was executed for corrupting the youth. We have been accused of this. Yes we do have naked bodies on the stage. Yes we have foul language on the stage. Yes we have men pissing on the stage. The officials say that that we are perverting young people but it’s not true. We make them think.”
Members of the company play a holistic role in each of their productions. “For each show we do quite deep digging and researching of documentary material. It’s quite dangerous; to gather material you need to personally contact a person who is an outcast from society, the connection is uncomfortable but it’s necessary. Sometimes we must dig into secret information which is not for public eyes. Our actors work as journalists and as stage people. We don’t divide members of the troupe into actor and director, we are all interwoven.”
Their recent production of King Lear at the Globe was performed entirely in Belarusian with English synopses before each scene. The progression from page to stage was long and unpredictable, Scherban tells me. “It was the first time that we have performed a classical text. We normally do contemporary, ultra contemporary and topical theatre based on personal experiences, so for us it was an artistic challenge. We love to gamble and wanted to gamble on foreign soil. It’s also important for us to present our national culture. We consider ourselves creative cultural ambassadors, representing Belarus by performing in the forbidden Belarusian language.”
The production was one of the most idiosyncratic and imaginative pieces of theatre to be performed this summer. “We didn’t have this ultimate respect for Shakespeare,’ says Scherban. “We do respect and value him but not like a sacred cult. We did what is normal in our company: we looked through our personal experiences, trying to replay different real life situations. During this process we explored the conflict between generations, between fathers and children. For us this is quite close to our our heart. Our parents are from the time of the Soviet Union. We grasped at freedom for a short period. We were lucky. When the Soviet Union ended in 1992, there was free press, new playwrights, new writing, it was a fascinating time for a short period; an intoxicating moment that ended very abruptly. We recreated these personal stories and interweave the Shakespearean text.”
One moment that sticks out as peculiarly Belarusian was the death of Cordelia which was depicted as a politically motivated and brutal hanging. “It’s a recognisable reality of Belarusian life.” says Scherban. “Belarus is the only country in Europe where they still implement the death penalty. They execute a few people a year; in majority of cases without any proof.”
It is a statement like this that brings home the full potency of what the Belarus Free Theatre are trying to achieve and the power of what they are fighting against. The performance of King Lear was broadcast live to thousands of Belarusians over the internet. At the end of the show, co founder Natalia Koliada came onto the stage, looked directly into the camera and offered a message of solidarity to the watching audience and delivered a message of defiance to the oppressive regime. I was witnessing first hand what Nikolai had to explained to me earlier about breaking the barrier between stage and audience. This was no intellectual gimmick. This was a theatre company reaching out into the real world and tryingto change things that are wrong. We should all be listening.