Constraints can be fire-lighters. This is the idea on which Oulipo, the French school of poets and writers, was based. Its members used self-imposed limitations as a generator for new forms, including lipogramatic novels and Perec’s “story-making machines.”
The constraints faced by theatre makers today – the inability to gather, or even to occupy the same space as either an audience or each other – might be externally imposed to prevent the spread of a pandemic, but they have the same potential to be creatively energising.
Belarus Free Theatre has been working with restrictions since its inception: the threat of arrest, the need to work underground. Since 2011, exile has required its co-founders Nikolai Khalezin and Natalia Kaliada to work with their performers via Skype, so they are better equipped than most to function under these circumstances. They already have the tools to operate within what Khalezin calls “this new theatrical reality.”
Their new production, A School for Fools, was a pre-Covid 19 project they’d already started working on in more conventional manner before they instructed their company to self-isolate, long before the Belarus government took any action. Belarus’ president Alexander Lukashenko has dismissed the world’s coronavirus concerns as “psychosis.”
Unable to complete the project as they envisioned it, they took a decision to create a digital production. However, unlike the isolation output of many companies, they were determined to still perform it live, to retain what director Pavel Haradnitski refers to as “the sense of discovery.”
The resulting production features twelve actors performing in fourteen locations and is shot on fifteen devices, with the footage coordinated by broadcast director Svetlana Sugako. It is a disorientating, dream-like, slippery thing, sometimes impenetrable, often giddily imaginative, always making a virtue of the limiting factors of the form.
A School for Fools is an adaptation of Russian writer Sasha Sokolov’s novel from the 1960s, which is not one I was familiar with. It’s a story of duality in which language plays a key role. The protagonist has two voices and often engages in conversations with himself. The New York publisher’s description calls it “lyrical and philosophical, witty and baffling” and that pretty much encapsulates this production for me: wafting and plotless yet hypnotic, a tapestry of memory and dreams punctuated with vivid imagery.
The camera becomes the point of view of the protagonist, a roaming eye, a window into the subconscious. Performing in their own apartments in Minsk, the performers are obliged to utilise the objects around them. A bathtub becomes a coffin, shards of mirror add to the sense of fragmentation. It’s the theatrical equivalent of found poetry. Scenes take place in cupboards and bathrooms. Someone’s cat even makes an unplanned cameo. A boat floats on a sea of sand.
The actors are alone, performing to their bookshelves, sinks and saucepans. Still, they’re at least able to hear one another, and the frequent use of split screen allows the characters to interact, to argue with each other, to appear to reach inside each other’s screens, even to embrace (a particularly affecting thing to see at the moment). While a lot of the performances have an intensity that befits the format, Maryna Yakubovich stands out as the protagonist’s harried mother. When you begin to think about what this set-up requires of a performer, to deliver a performance of comic nuance without an audience (and with a toddler in the next room), it’s doubly impressive.
A School for Fools is the antithesis of the static-camera monologue format that’s becoming increasingly familiar. The camera – or, rather, cameras – often moves with a restless energy. There are close ups and long-shots. The camera crawls along the floor. It soars into the sky. Digital backdrops are occasionally used, for a scene set on a crowded bus, and drones are deployed to create aerial shots.
It’s a technically audacious exercise, frequently ingenious in its methods. The level of coordination involved to pull this off across different locations is dizzying, yet it doesn’t feel slick, rather daring and risky, with a palpable now-ness.
It’s true, there were points at which I was confused. Even though the performers all explain the roles they will play at the beginning, using a multi-screen technique to introduce themselves, the number of characters made it hard to follow, something compounded by the combination of subtitles and sound-lag. But, even in the moments where I was lost, there was always something to appreciate visually.
There’s an understandable tendency to talk about work that is being made digitally using cinematic vocabulary, but in terms of composition and its use of multiple screens, Haradnitski’s production often felt as if it had more in common with a comic book, each screen its own panel. It never felt like an exercise in half-measures, rather something striving to find a new language and embracing the storytelling potential of its new tools. In this way the source material and the form feel well-matched and, tellingly, Belarus Free Theatre have decided not to make this a steppingstone on the path to a stage version. This is the show, finished, complete.
Even at its roughest, with its sound distorted and out of sync, hampered by streaming speeds, it shows up how tentatively many other companies have been in engaging with new ways of making work. Haradnitski’s production feels like a new form trying to find its feet (if occasionally breaking into a sprint before it had fully figured out how its legs work).
There are also wider practical and political implications to consider: as Khalezin points out, there is a lot less chance of being arrested if you’re making work in your own home (something that’s of particular importance as there are upcoming presidential elections in Belarus in August, and Lukashenko has vowed to crack down on protests). There is also something undeniably radical and exciting about artists creating something this intricate with bits and pieces in their kitchens and the phones in their pockets while living under an oppressive system. Above all though, A School for Fools is an electric, imperfect reminder of the connective, collective energy of live performance.
Belarus Free Theatre’s A School for Fools will be performed and broadcast live from Minsk every Thursday at 6pm BST from 4 June to 9 July. More info here.