President Lukashenko, dubbed Europe’s last remaining dictator, has ruled Belarus with an iron fist since 1994. Free expression is limited and dissidents are frequently harassed or imprisoned. The media is muzzled and theatres are state owned, so it is no surprise that a theatrical troupe who dare to criticise the lack of democracy in Belarus are forced to operate underground.
Most members of Belarus Free Theatre (BFT) have been detained or harassed in some way and all have lost their jobs in the state theatres. Following the most recent crackdown, at the beginning of this year, the company’s producer, Natalia Koliada, was forced to flee her native country with her husband, writer and co-founder, Nikolai Khalezin. Since its founding in 2005, BFT has had to perform secretly in Belarus in order to give a voice to prohibited playwrights and to explore issues deemed sensitive by the state. In 2007, they went global, winning international acclaim for their show, Being Harold Pinter, which interwove extracts from Pinter’s Nobel Prize speech with the torture testimonies of Belarusian dissidents.
At the end of last year, BFT performed Discover Love at the Young Vic with guest appearances from Jude Law, Ian McKellen and Samuel West amongst other luminaries. The piece was based on the love story of Irina Krasovskaya and her husband Anatoli Krasovsky, a supporter of the Belarusian democratic forces who ‘disappeared’ in Belarus in 1999. The production launched an artistic campaign in support of the UN Convention against enforced Disappearances.
BFT’s latest show, Eurepica. Challenge., was recently staged in London as part of the Almeida Festival. It may have been less directly political, but was just as ambitious as previous productions. With the help of twelve European playwrights, who submitted short plays, each five to ten minutes in length, the piece explored the writers’ native countries; in doing so BFT crafted a madcap, theatrical journey through contemporary Europe. Given the scale of the project, it was perhaps inevitable that some of the stories in Eurepica. Challenge. got a little lost in translation. The Spanish contribution about domestic violence and the Polish dramatisation of the sexual relations between a priest and a prostitute were particularly opaque. Fortunately, the use of some striking visuals and inventive staging ensured that even when the meaning was obscure it was still be entertaining. The Turkish play about substance abuse may have been low on content and plot, but BFT’s inventive execution – it was delivered by sock puppets – stopped it from descending into banality.
The Belarusian contribution, by Khalezin, was one of the strongest pieces. In High Words a woman interrogated a student demonstrator. The student was represented by a watermelon. It is some measure of Esther Mugambi and Khalezin’s talents, as actor and writer respectively, that they were able to convey a nightmarish sense of a torture room, a painful reality for many dissidents, through such an absurd association.
Cultural stereotypes were also explored; the French offering had a group of picnickers enjoying red wine and baguettes and in the Swedish snapshot, the eco-conscious were put under the microscope. Perhaps surprisngly, a US contribution was also included in this distinctly European journey – Aaron Landsman’s comic play had the entire cast gorging on crisps and Coca-Cola, but its relevance to the rest of the production was never fully clear. I particularly enjoyed Viacheslav Durnenkov’s Beckettian drama about the Russian disinclination to travel and Macedonian Goran Stefanovski’s parody of a poet who reinvented himself (and his prize-winning poem) every time his country went through a political transformation. Designer Vladimir Shcherban’s versatile use of packing crates allowed for a simple but dramatic staging and the company combined song, dance and video to great effect.
This particular production may have been uneven, but this a fearless group of performers and they are always worth seeing. In August they make their Edinburgh Fringe debut with Herald Angel Award winning producers Fuel, where they will be presenting the first performances of a new show in development.
Tom Stoppard and the late Harold Pinter have openly supported the company. They realised the importance of offering solidarity to the Belarusian members of the group and that their patronage might offer them some protection back home. Sadly it did not, but watching the company’s work is, in itself, a political act. The Belarusian authorities don’t want the outside world to know about the state-sanctioned human rights abuses. By going to a BFT show you are supporting a group of people striving for democracy and freedom in their country. Like a beacon, they are trying to shine some light into a dark corner of the world.
Belarus Free Theatre will be at the Pleasance Courtyard, Edinburgh, from 22nd to 29th August. For tickets and further information visit the Edinburgh Fringe website.