It is almost impossible to imagine living in 21st century Europe without free speech and unlimited artistic freedom. Belarus, however, is the exception and one underground theatre company is doing its utmost to show the world exactly what is happening under President Alexander Lukashenko in the country known as “Europe’s last dictatorship”.
As Belarus Free Theatre performs at the Almeida theatre with Eurepica. Challenge, a collection of plays addressing problems facing citizens in Europe today, Artistic Director Natalia Koliada speaks to Charlotte Marshall about facing the prospect of arrest every time they perform in their own country.
The aim of Belarus Free Theatre is just to make theatre. At some point we [Natalia and her husband Nikolai Khalezin] came to the idea that you could not do anything in our society and we decided that we wanted to make theatre. We met with Vladimir Shcherban, director of Eurepica. Challenge, and he wanted to produce 4.48 Psychosis by Sarah Kane. At the same time my husband was winning different awards and prizes for his plays but all outside of Belarus. The very basic idea was just to say whatever we think, whenever and wherever and to whom we want, by means of art.
Are we a political theatre group? If you consider Mark Ravenhill and Sarah Kane to be political playwrights than we are political theatre because we started from there; the first performance that went underground was 4.48 Psychosis. But in reality, if we like what we do, in terms of the theatre, then it really doesn’t matter. The main idea for us is to challenge ourselves, our actors, our managers, the whole team, and to challenge our audience.
We started to travel six years ago and it become obvious to us that even very open and stable and democratic societies have many taboos that cannot be discussed. There are so many topics that are hidden and it’s not possible to talk about these issues because there would be trouble. So we decided that every society would need us.
Eurepica. Challenge is not just about Belarus; that’s just one part of it as the last dictatorship in Europe. Our idea was to give playwrights a technical assignment and ask them, through their personal thoughts and experiences, to write a piece based on the challenges of their countries.
I’m sure it will be the most adventurous production that audiences will have seen in their lives. It’s not a very pleasant performance because one of the ideas of our theatre company is to go very deeply into one person’s life in order to give the value of one human life back to society, because it looks like we’ve started to forget what this value means. Rwanda, three million people killed, nobody cares about that. More than 1,000 people killed in Syria… It’s just unbelievable. How long should we wait in order to start to react? This is the main thing with Belarus, do you really want people to be killed in order to react? Our idea with Belarus is to avoid it, to move from reactive politics to preventive.
In 2007, when the global artistic campaign Free Belarus Now started, we asked artists in different parts of the world to make appeals for the people of Belarus. There were three first appeals from Mick Jagger, Tom Stoppard and [Czech playwright] Vaclav Havel. Two weeks after putting the appeals on websites, we got arrested at a performance in Belarus with all our spectators and performers.
We met [actresses] Stephanie Penn and Esther Mugambi – Esther is from Australia and Stephanie is from America – and at the moment they are working with us. A few years ago when we started the Eurepica. Challenge project we thought that they would get visas without any problems. They arrived at Minsk airport and by decision from the minister of foreign affairs of Belarus they were deported after 27 hours of detention. We saw them through the glass door and they were accompanied by KGB people. It’s not even possible to imagine that that is happening in Europe now. I couldn’t believe it was reality. Two actresses are coming to rehearse [a play] about European challenges and they are detained. It was an international scandal.
The importance of teaching
When we started our theatre studio, Fortinbras – the only independent theatre studio in our country – we told our students that if they wanted to become a part of Belarus Free Theatre it meant you could lose your education, your job, your home, you could be arrested, you could go to jail. And it’s such a surprise to me that people keep coming; it’s just absolutely amazing. We’ve been travelling a lot this last six months and our students continue to work underground to make their performances and present to our audience in order to show that we are still alive there. It’s absolutely amazing.
We invite our friends [to teach]: Mark Ravenhill, Laura Wade, Alexandra Woods; many friends from London, New York, Zurich. We have such great friends who are coming to teach underground, under dictatorship, without getting paid.
Choosing the work
There are many talented people in Belarus but there is no way for them to be produced or to be heard. We thought that we needed to bring the work of Belarusian playwrights back to the country, because they were being awarded prizes outside Belarus. Translations come in very late in our country; Harold Pinter plays were translated only when he got the Nobel Prize.
When Tom Stoppard was in Minsk he said ‘You need to read Harold Pinter plays, he is talking about you’. His plays became like a mission to this theatre. In Pinter’s Noble Prize speech he was talking about human dignity. It really doesn’t matter what you do, whether you’re an artist or a doctor, you just need to think about human dignity. I think this is the main point for us.
We only do contemporary plays. Maybe we could try and change it and deconstruct classical plays but we haven’t reached that point yet – maybe next year we could try to work on Shakespeare.
When I was arrested on 19 December [for protesting at a pro-democracy rally] I spent only 18 hours in jail. All my friends have been there for seven months now. Whatever happened that night – it was absolutely horrible – I cannot imagine what is happening to them. I know they were tortured.
I can still recall this 18 hours when you were not allowed to sleep, to drink, to use a toilet and you are threatened all the time. It’s just absolutely horrifying that this is happening now. But it’s amazing that so many people are being arrested, but the number of those that are coming to the street is growing.
Every Wednesday people are going to silent protests; they are going to the main square in Belarus and just clapping. For this they are getting arrested. During these silent protests, many journalists are arrested because they [the government] don’t want this information leaked, they don’t want anyone to know what is happening there. A BBC team was denied a Belarusian visa. It’s just unbelievable.
I left Belarus on the 31 December but our actors went back – through the Russian border because if they go directly through the Belarusian border they will never leave Belarus – and they’ve been performing there. Usually we list the information on the internet but now our manager is emailing our database of people who we know. It is not possible to get everyone in the place we perform; it’s a small house belonging to a friend. We have a huge waiting list of people who want to come. We’ve been saying ‘don’t put information anywhere’ and we ask our friends, for example from the independent newspaper, just to be there when they perform. If there is a journalist there, we hope that they [the government] will not do anything because they will be afraid.
The power of art
Home is anywhere we can perform. We were performing in New York in January and Kevin Spacey came to see Being Harold Pinter and he said ‘Sam West told me to come and see you’ and I thought it’s absolutely amazing that again [the support] is coming from London. We said ‘We don’t have anywhere that’s home now, we cannot go back, we just travel’ and he said ‘Come and rehearse at the Old Vic’.
I do believe that a lot of things happen with the help of artists because of what happened in New York. In January, 400 artists from 30 theatres went to the streets to protest together for us and it was unbelievable. You see 400 artists and they are going with you to protest against human rights violations in Belarus and at the same time the American Government started to act. We met with Hilary Clinton, there were hearings in congress.
The first support we ever received was from London. Part of our family, our patron Tom Stoppard, has been with us since we announced that the theatre would be acting. He came underground in Belarus and met all the people who are now in jail. Mark Ravenhill came as well and became our patron. It has now reached the point that the Almeida theatre, the Young Vic, the Soho theatre are all on board.
I think there are not even enough words to express how we appreciate that these people give their time in order to change the situation in Belarus, for people that they’ve never met.
This is exactly the difference between politicians and artists because we ask politicians to stop talking and start acting, but artists they don’t talk, they just do.
Belarus Free Theatre is performing at the Almeida theatre until 26 July.