- (Natasha Tripney’s article appeared in The Stage, 3/ 4; Photo: Nicolai Khalezin and Natalia Kaliada. Credit: Marilyn Kingwill.) Belarus Free Theatre is bringing its show about autocracy, Dogs of Europe, to London’s Barbican Theatre. The company’s artistic directors, who are exiles in London, speak to Natasha Tripney as they help their Ukrainian colleagues to leave their war-torn country The world can change in the space of a week. When I initially spoke to Belarus Free Theatre’s Natalia Kaliada and Nicolai Khalezin at the end of February, the Russian invasion of Ukraine had yet to take place, though the crisis dominated our conversation. They are in London rehearsing Dogs of Europe, a show they had been due to bring to the UK in 2020, and this was the first time the whole company had been in a room together to rehearse. The moment had been a long time coming, but it was overshadowed by world events. Two days after we speak, after Kaliada and Khalezin expressed their frustration with the West’s slowness to impose sanctions, Russia mounted a full-scale invasion.
Speaking on the phone a week later, Kaliada recalls the moment they shared this news with the company as one of “great silence and tension”. Many company members have family connections or friends in Ukraine – the show’s composers Mark and Marichka Marczyk, of Balaklava Blues, are Ukrainian. Kaliada and Khalezin, who have been exiled in London for more than a decade, have spent the recent days trying to help people find ways out of the country, barely sleeping, before rehearsing, while requesting that members stay off their phones as much as possible – to spare themselves the constant flow of distressing updates.
‘Why are you waiting for Russia to start the largest war since 1945?’
Dogs of Europe is one of BFT’s most ambitious shows to date. Based on a popular dystopian novel by Alhierd Baharevic, about the dangers of allowing authoritarianism to take hold, it features an elaborate combination of choreography, live music and video – all elements that had to be coordinated remotely. Even before Covid-19 made remote working a reality for theatremakers, their exiled status means the company is accustomed to working in this way. It is a complex and metaphorical show, says Kaliada, not an easy show. “But one that will make you think, make you feel and make you question.”
When I saw the show in Minsk, back in March 2020, it was performed, as is always the case with the company’s work, underground. The location was kept secret – audiences communicated via social media. There was a palpable excitement about the piece, about seeing this book on stage, hearing the Belarusian language spoken in this context. There was a sense that things were not easing, not exactly, but that the regime was grudgingly prepared to tolerate their work. Then, as countries around the world went into lockdown, Kaliada and Khalezin halted the production, even though Belarus dictator Alexander Lukashenko had yet to impose any public health-related restrictions – he was still at that time denying the virus was anything to worry about – and found new ways to connect with audiences, performing work in rural areas on a specially built wooden raft.
In August of 2020, Lukashenko declared a huge majority at the presidential election, a widely contested result that triggered waves of protests around the country. These were brutally put down. A number of BFT company members were arrested, including company manager Svetlana Sugako, who spent five days in jail in hellish conditions.
Ahead of the election, Belarus Free Theatre urged politicians in the West to sanction Lukashenko, knowing the election would be falsified, but with no success. “And now we see the same situation with Ukraine,” says Kaliada. This failure to move from words to actions is deeply frustrating.
“Why are you waiting for Russia to start the largest-scale war since 1945?” Putin made his intentions clear, but “politics doesn’t work like that. It’s working on a reaction, not a correction. That’s a major failure in terms of democracy”.
Months of protests followed. The climate in Belarus became increasingly oppressive. Bacharevic’s book was classified as “extremist material”, essentially banning it, and last year, after making work underground for close to 17 years, the company made the difficult decision to take all their members out of the country. The situation had become too dangerous for them to stay. They were threatened with jail if they were arrested and the threat was real. Based on data compiled by human-rights organisations, there are more artists in jail than journalists or human-rights activists. This wasn’t an easy operation. There were risks – not to mention the emotional toll of uprooting families and leaving their homes – but they managed it.
‘It is easier to complain about the sickness of a system than to do something about it’
Now they are trying to help other people evacuate Ukraine, while using social-media channels to show the reality for citizens in Ukraine and Russia. This was a conflict that people should have seen coming, says Kaliada. Having lived under Lukashenko’s regime, they knew all too well what dictatorship looks like, how it operates. They’ve chronicled the impact of Russian suppression and oppression in their work for years – in 2016’s Burning Doors, about Russia’s clampdown on artistic freedom; collaborating with the Marczyks on their show about the Maidan protests, Counting Sheep, and in their recent documentary Alone, about Ukrainian rock star Andriy Khlyvnyuk’s attempts to raise awareness of the plight of Ukrainian political prisoner Oleg Sentsov by staging a concert on the border of annexed Crimea.