Generation Jeans = Generation Freedom Fighters. It’s this provocative analogy you take away with you from the latest production in Belarus Free Theatre’s Staging a Revolution festival celebrating the company’s 10th anniversary.
The play nearly didn’t happen though, as an unplanned entrance by the police into the bowels of the car park situated deep underneath parliament in which BFT were licensed to perform in nearly stopped the show – something all too appropriate for Belarus Free Theatre, who here are attempting to mimic the secret conditions in which they are forced to work in back in Belarus in order to escape law enforcement.
With the police appeased after their inspection, the show was allowed to continue. It was a pity for them they didn’t stick around, because they would have witnessed something special. This deceptively simply play – based on the life of Nicolai Khalezin, co-founder of BFT, is acute in its politics, an exuberant play full of quiet emotion. The whole thing is told through first person narrative, with Khalezin playing himself, and set to the background of quiet rock.
The plot rests on the cultural history of jeans and their symbolism. Khalezin gives us a detailed picture of his boyhood, selling Wranglers in school to make a quick buck (they were banned in the former USSR and Belarus) with KGB agents waiting in hotel lobbies to pounce on teenage bootleggers. The play really works as a testimonial to Khalezin’s own struggle to discover his identity and freedom in a country he increasingly finds difficult to reconcile himself with; its language is precise, sparse and almost terse, yet also poetical and peppered with humour. Khalezin’s performance is understated and gentle, opening himself out to the audience with a vulnerability which makes us feel we are there with him: in the courtroom, when he falls in love with BFT’s Natalia Kaliada, when he is shoved into a claustrophobic 80 x 80cm glass cell. As he encourages our shouts of “I am free!” and elaborates on his “persistent desire” to shout such words, he combines a muted sense of anger with intense personal pain: a sadness for a homeland lost.
The production does allow space for its audience to breathe. At times of high emotion, there are pauses to allow us to reflect. These are perfectly timed, as is the whole thing; Khalezin never stumbles. A poignant production, Generation Jeans shining a bright, blazing light on the inconsistencies and contradictions of a country still cruelly oppressed, while also displaying genuine humour, real warmth and compassion.