tue 23/07/2024

Belarus Free Theatre: no gags on art | reviews, news & interviews

Belarus Free Theatre: no gags on art

Belarus Free Theatre: no gags on art

Actors living under a dictatorship travel to the Almeida to speak out

Belarus Free Theatre in the short play by Jean-Pierre Thibaudat, one of the 12 featured in 'Eurepica. Challenge.'

Whatever the quality of the material with which they're grappling, there are two undeniable truths about the Belarusian actors who've put their already curtailed freedom on the line by coming to the Almeida Festival this week: they're skilled practitioners of their art and courageous human beings. Read their biographies in the programme and you'll see that the words "detained", "arrested", "attacked", "dismissed" crop up rather a lot.

In Europe's last dictatorship, stepping out on stage and speaking a line, a word even, can lead to imprisonment.

Be cynical if you will about Western actors jumping on the bandwagon of a good cause - if, indeed, the news has reached your ears at all, and you even know where Belarus is - but there's nothing contentious about Jude Law's simple statement on the Free Belarus Now website: "We have the opportunity in this country to be heard and to use our freedom of speech. It's our responsibility, therefore, that we speak for those who are less fortunate."

At last night's opening performance of the Belarus Free Theatre's latest venture, Eurepica. Challenge., the immediacy of the situation proved more dramatic than any words from the 12 featured playwrights could possibly be. On the brink of tears, BFT's executive producer, Natalia Koliada - also a playwright whose work has been performed at the Royal Court - told us how the mother of one of the 32 peaceful protesters still in prison after their arrests last December had also been arrested in Minsk yesterday afternoon, for doing nothing more than standing in a square and joining others in a slow handclap. All this a mere two and half hours' flight away from London.

Photographer Andrey Dubinin, whose exhibition in the Almeida bar features friends and relatives of the imprisoned surrounded by letters from captivity, sums up the situation eloquently:

"On December 19th, 2010, presidential elections took place in Belarus. The official results recorded that Alexander Lukashenko was elected for a fourth term; theses results were falsified. That evening over 30,000 people gathered in the centre of Minsk, the Belarusian capital, for a peaceful demonstration against these results. The demonstration was brutally dispersed by the police and military forces: 639 people were detained, including seven presidential candidates, as well as dozens of journalists, independent media representatives and passers-by.

"Evidence of vote rigging and the reprisals against opposition leaders and peaceful demonstrators were strongly condemned by the UN, the EU and a number of Western governments and intergovernmental organisations.

"The Lukashenko regime has continued to violate the human rights of the people of Belarus following the December 19th protest. Arrests, police searches, interrogations and the intimidation of opposition supporters and their families are commonplace.

Dubinin-2011-Letters-Poster"For those Belarusians that have had relatives taken, this is not only a national tragedy but a deeply personal one. My photographs tell the story of these families. The pictures show close friends and relatives of the political prisoners. Many of them are photographed with letters from their loved ones in prison or in exile. When the arrests began there was a total information blockade; now letters are a lifeline between the prisoners, those in exile and their loved ones left behind. The people of Belarus live in severe informational isolation, with state controlled press and very little access to independent media. We see the arrests and trials of dozens of people, but this is just the tip of the iceberg. These repressions affect hundreds of relatives and friends, and fear has settled in the hearts of thousands of people."

The whole question of how art can further the cause is a complex one, and for that reason I'm not writing about the drama performed last night, except to say that the 12 playlets by European and American writers ranged from the simplistic to the unintelligible and that the actors, writer/coordinator Nikolai Khalezin and director Vladimir Shcherban found visual, physical, verbal and musical ways to try and make most of them more interesting than the texts suggested they were. I'm still in the dark about the BFT's base of operations - it seems that Koliada and Khalezin work from their exile in Sweden - or the role of the South African and American actresses in the company. What I do know is that I want to see the Belarusians in more substantial drama - they've performed Sarah Kane's 4:48. Psychosis and an award-winning Pinter evening - and I want to see them able to do it in their own country, which currently they cannot. They not only deserve but command our support.

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