(from The New York Times, 4/16; photo: The New York Times; via Pam Green.)
The Belarus Free Theater, founded in 2005 by dissident artists in the former Soviet republic, has operated clandestinely in the capital, Minsk, and in London, where the artistic directors, Natalia Kaliada and Nicolai Khalezin, have lived in exile since 2011. For performances in Belarus, where most of the 12-person ensemble is still based, the troupe rehearses its provocative productions over Skype and puts them on in changing “underground” locations, in defiance of a government ban.
Their plays, which often lay bare political corruption and social decay in the authoritarian country, have been raided by the K.G.B., Belarus’s secret police. Audience members and actors alike have been jailed.
The Belarus Free Theater has nevertheless been able to present its productions abroad, and it has performed in over 40 countries. The troupe was getting ready to celebrate its 15th anniversary with an ambitious lineup of productions and workshops and the premiere of a documentary film. But then the coronavirus struck.
With its performing activities on hold for the foreseeable future, the company has opened its digital archive. (A spokeswoman said it hoped to reschedule as many of the anniversary events as possible for later in the year). This month, it began streaming 24 productions, roughly half its repertory, on YouTube, with English subtitles.
Although recordings often fail to capture the excitement of live performance, these documents of the troupe’s intimate performances convey what makes the Belarus Free Theater such a unique and artistically thrilling company. New videos will be made available each week until late June.
In the early works that have streamed so far, all of which predated the government’s ban in 2010, you have to marvel at the troupe’s ability to achieve startling theatrical effects with extremely modest means. Performing in underground clubs and black box theaters, the actors often have little more than a chalkboard, bed or chair to work with. This is theatrical minimalism born of privation and necessity. Eschewing flashy stage effects, the four productions I saw achieved a remarkable theatrical purity.
While the political situation in Belarus looms large in the productions, the country’s specific struggles take on a degree of universality that all revolutionary art strives for. Politically urgent though they are, these productions are not agitprop.
A stark staging of the British playwright Sarah Kane’s feverish “4.48 Psychosis,” the Belarus Free Theater’s first production, from May 2005, kicked off the online programming. It premiered at the Graffiti Club in Minsk, a bar in an industrial neighborhood that hosted the group’s first three productions before the authorities pressured it to stop.