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Features Q&A and Interviews Published 19 September 2013

The Total Immersion Method

Belarus Free Theatre's co-founder Natalia Kaliada on creating a dialogue with Shakespeare and staging King Lear at the Globe.
Ella Parry-Davies

Coming back to the Globe after their acclaimed performances of King Lear during last year’s Globe to Globe festival, Belarus Free Theatre are up for a new challenge. Faced again with the persecution they battle at home under the dictatorship of Alexander Lukashenko, two actors have been unable to travel to London, and yet, co-founder Natalia Kaliada tells me, “the play lives its life.”

Only this Saturday, police raided the company’s underground performance in Minsk, ending the show and forcibly removing audience members. “This is the reality,” asserts Kaliada. She’s pissed off, and resolute. “Yes, we perform underground. We need to overcome absolutely unbelievable obstacles, that no theatre in the democratic world knows.”

British actors will be cast in the roles instead, with Chris Bone as the Fool and Michal Keyamo as the King of France; the integration of new performers, as well as what we’re assuming will be an onstage language barrier, will make for a very different play to the one that ran last summer. The show will also be livestreamed to audiences in Belarus – the first time they’ll see the work, since it’s been impossible for the company to perform it at home. Kaliada describes the broadcast as “humanitarian aid.” Reactions to Trash Cuisine, streamed from Edinburgh last month, have been affecting. “It tells the brutal truth, which has to be heard. Our heartfelt thank you to Belarus Free Theatre: it has become a reference point for all thinking people in Belarus,” one comment read.

It comes as no surprise that Kaliada has drawn parallels between this show and the events taking place in the Middle East. Last year she compared Lear to Gaddaffi, a tyrant unable to let go of power, and events in Syria will surely strike new resonances for this run’s audience.

Undoubtedly, the allegorical relevances of the play are a pull for the company, who prefer devised theatre to scripts, steering clear of the literary canon. They work in a style they have developed themselves, which they call the total immersion method, and which draws on personal and social experience as the primary source of inspiration. Kaliada is thoughtful. “We don’t do classics… We don’t do Shakespeare; we don’t do Chekhov. So this was a new challenge for us, artistically and creatively.” Tom Bird, director of Globe to Globe, saw their peformance of Eurepica. Challenge. at the Almeida and commissioned them for Lear, although other plays were discussed, including Measure for Measure, which was finally given to Russia’s Vakhtangov Theatre and received another daring overhaul.

Belarus Free Theatre's King Lear, performed at the Globe in 2012. Photo: Simon Kane

Belarus Free Theatre’s King Lear, performed at the Globe in 2012. Photo: Simon Kane

Performing at Globe to Globe in Belarusian, however, at the height of Olympic fever, sent “a very strong message not only artistically, but also a strong civil message to our country, to our people. It was a great opportunity that the world should understand that we exist, that our country exists, our language exists.” Creatively, the dialogue with the text is a two-way process, with the company “offering artistic statements” to Shakespeare so that the performance speaks directly to contemporary life. Thanks to the translation and adaptation by Kaliada’s husband and fellow founder, Nikolai Khalezin, and director Uladzimir Shcherban, in Belarusian, “Shakespeare sounds like a new contemporary writer!”

The company have received generous support from the Young Vic, and are now in partnership too with Falmouth University, but they are always on the look out for “sustainable support.” Citing the city of Dresden’s protective relationship to Russia’s Derevo theatre company, Kaliada hopes that London will follow the precedent and form a kind of hub, “a home for the only theatre company of its kind in the world today.”

Is the ‘most endangered theatre company’ title they are constantly hailed with wearing thin? Essentially no, Kaliada tells me, although it shouldn’t be at the back of audiences’ minds while watching the performance – perhaps easier said than done. “When we finish the performance, we go on stage and we say, we are not just actors, we are people and we need your support in order to get rid of the dictatorship in Belarus. But during the performance, the audience should think about the performance itself, and be absolutely fascinated by the high artistic quality of it. We perform as an act of non-violent resistance, and to prove that we as theatre makers are much stronger than any dictatorship in the world.”

Main image shows the Belarus Free Theatre. Photo: Michiel van Nieuwkerk

Belarus Free Theatre’s King Lear is at the Globe Theatre from 23rd – 28th September 2013.

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Ella Parry-Davies

Ella is a research student working in interdisciplinary approaches to theatre and performance studies, funded by King's College London and the National University of Singapore, and also publishes regularly on illustration. She is currently co-convenor of Beirut: Bodies in Public, a conference held in association with Performance Philosophy, and of Research with Reach, a training initiative based at King's for thoughtful, provocative and engaging research outside of academia. She is from east London but has also lived and worked professionally as a set designer in France

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