THEATRE AGAINST DICTATORSHIP Sep 24, 2017
by James Woodall
Photo by Alex Brenner
Belarus Free Theatre is a unique organisation. It both exists and, in the best sense, does not.
BFT’s three founder-members, Natalia Kaliada, Nicolai Khalezin and Vladimir Shcherban, have been based for over five years in London. Though by dint of geography nominally European, and sharing its border with three EU states, their country, Belarus, is not free. Because of a stance the three theatre-makers took on political prisoners and elections rigged in 2010 by their president, Alexander Lukashenko, they face detention and possible trial on return there. They sought asylum and have become refugees in the UK, hence must continue to develop their extraordinary work in the British capital.
Their company was founded in 2005 in Minsk, Belarus’s capital. Almost immediately it was proscribed. Today, it has official status at the Young Vic, where it is resident. Anyone who enjoyed any of the shows in [November 2015’s] Staging a Revolution festival, co-produced with the Young Vic, knows that BFT can have a very physical, active presence in London. At various rough-and-ready venues, shows that the company has had in its repertoire for a decade were performed. For them, BFT’s remarkable actors flew over from Belarus — not without some risk to themselves and, perhaps, friends and family there. The physical vibrancy, narrative elan and, often, political cheek of this work were a revelation to all who witnessed it.
In Minsk, with a combination of honed sophistication and unstinting courage, the BFT players and organisers take audiences from an agreed meeting-point to a nondescript building in a drab corner of the city, and there theatre happens. Sometimes private flats are used; people who have requested tickets are contacted by phone and given an address. This procedure was reproduced in London for Staging a Revolution.
So in London there is a BFT we can see — with actors once again travelling to us, for Burning Doors — and in Minsk there is a BFT that must not be seen. While working, rehearsing and performing, the company can be neither identifiable nor traceable. The regime does not acknowledge its existence and, were it to, that would be because a show, and a venue, were “officially” known about: both would be closed down, and the participants very likely prosecuted.
This is a strange state of affairs in what we think of as, broadly, 21st-century Europe. And make no mistake — BFT is a Europe-orientated ensemble, with many of its members speaking excellent English (and other languages).
It simply has the ill (or perhaps, for the strength and attack of its work, fortuitous) luck to be from a nation that, under dictatorship and with the free west on one side, seems unable to step successfully away from a vast and similarly antidemocratic neighbour to the east on the other, Russia.
That BFT insists on existing, on its own terms continues to operate a long way from where it would surely feel culturally most comfortable — Belarus — is testament to its core principle: making art, expressing yourself, acting and criticising should not and cannot be bullied into mediocrity or, worse, silence by state edict and the threat, or indeed reality, of a police cell.
The participants in Burning Doors, including guest Maria Alyokhina from Pussy Riot and contributor Petr Pavlensky, both from Russia, and Ukrainian contributor Oleg Sentsov, know about these things — in Oleg’s case pointedly so, as he is currently in prison in Yakutsk, Russia. It is our luck that this Belarusian group of dissenters can, in this new show, demonstrate how fragile individual freedom can be while reminding us all that the right to perform in any way you like is unarguable.
James Woodall has written for the Financial Times, The Economist, and Dance Europe, mainly from Berlin (1999-2010). His books include a biography of Jorge Luis Borges, a study of Rio’s music through the life and work of Chico Buarque, and an account of the marriage of John Lennon and Yoko Ono. He’s now a writer back in England.
Reprinted with permission from the program for Belarus Free Theatre: Burning Doors