Fun, random questions on the Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka. Web site: Stage Voices (www.stagevoices.com) Follow Bob Shuman on twitter: Bob Shuman @Bobjshuman Eastern Europe Watch @WatchEastern
Fun, random questions on the Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka. Web site: Stage Voices (www.stagevoices.com) Follow Bob Shuman on twitter: Bob Shuman @Bobjshuman Eastern Europe Watch @WatchEastern
(from Radio Free Europe)
Oct 8, 2022 A Ukrainian rock singer who was forced flee Kyiv at the start of Russia’s invasion of her country has been embraced by audiences and musicians in the Czech Republic. Katya Gapochka was invited to open for the veteran Czech band Lucie on their European tour. As a refugee rocker, Gapochka has recorded a new solo album and is using her new-found fame to raise awareness of Ukraine’s urgent need for humanitarian aid.
In the war-ravaged city of Mykolayiv, actors have reopened their theater in the safety of an underground bunker.
These actors were photographed on August 25 preparing for the first theatrical performance at Mykolayiv’s theater since the Russian invasion of Ukraine on February 24 halted cultural events.
Instead of their usual spacious and ornate theater (pictured above), the actors performed in a tiny room beneath the Mykolayiv theater that had been designated as a bomb shelter.
Actors who spoke to AFP ahead of the opening night stressed what they say is the importance of art in troubled times. “Actors, in these circumstances, are the doctors of the human soul,” one said.
Mykolayiv is around 2o kilometers away from the front line of the current fighting but, according to local authorities, Russian rocket and missile attacks have hit the city most days since the invasion began.
(Chris Wiegand, 5/31, the Guardian; Photo: of Neda Nezhdana, Litgazeta.com.ua)
Neda Nezhdana’s urgent exploration of war is a collaboration with the Theatre of Playwrights in Kyiv. Otvetka had its premiere in Ukraine weeks after Russia invaded. Kate Vostrikova performs the tale of a pregnant woman in a study of war’s psychological impact.
(via Radio Free Europe, 5/31)
It’s billed as an escape from anxiety for kids who have been evacuated from war-torn parts of Ukraine. The Odesa Youth Theater is staging special performances in bomb shelters. The play is also topical: It tells the story of how people unite to drive out a stranger who is occupying someone’s home. Originally published at – https://www.rferl.org/a/ukraine-russi…
(Lori Hinnant’s, Msyslav Chernov’s, and Vasilisa Stephenko’s article appeared on the AP, 5/5; Photo: GMToday.com.)
LVIV, Ukraine (AP) — She stood in just her bathrobe in the freezing basement of the Mariupol theater, coated in white plaster dust shaken loose by the explosion. Her husband tugged at her to leave and begged her to cover her eyes.
But she couldn’t help it — Oksana Syomina looked. And to this day, she wishes she hadn’t. Bodies were strewn everywhere, including those of children. By the main exit, a little girl lay still on the floor.
Syomina had to step on the dead to escape the building that had served as the Ukrainian city’s main bomb shelter for more than a week. The wounded screamed, as did those trying to find loved ones. Syomina, her husband and about 30 others ran blindly toward the sea and up the shore for almost five miles (eight kilometers) without stopping, the theater in ruins behind them.
“All the people are still under the rubble, because the rubble is still there — no one dug them up,” Syomina said, weeping at the memory. “This is one big mass grave.”
Amid all the horrors that have unfolded in the war on Ukraine, the Russian bombing of the Donetsk Academic Regional Drama Theater in Mariupol on March 16 stands out as the single deadliest known attack against civilians to date. An Associated Press investigation has found evidence that the attack was in fact far deadlier than estimated, killing closer to 600 people inside and outside the building. That’s almost double the death toll cited so far, and many survivors put the number even higher.
The AP investigation recreated what happened inside the theater on that day from the accounts of 23 survivors, rescuers, and people intimately familiar with its new life as a bomb shelter. The AP also drew on two sets of floor plans of the theater, photos and video taken inside before, during and after that day and feedback from experts who reviewed the methodology.
(The following article was compiled and written after listening to an interview with artistic collaborators from Belarus Free Theatre, 3/22; by Bob Shuman, Stage Voices. )
An old saying: “When the guns are singing, the muses are silent.” The original may actually have been: “When the guns are singing the laws are silent.” We are those muses who hope not to stay silent when the guns are singing; who do not stay silent when the guns are silent, also. We don’t have the right to another way. We have to be the back-up, to help those who are fighting, because there is no one else who will do this; because there are those, from the arts and elsewhere, who are actually fighting on the streets.–Nicolai Khalezin, Belarus Free Theatre
Before the Russian invasion of Ukraine, silently, as they screamed, from behind a deflating transparent plastic globe, Belarus Free Theatre, in Being Harold Pinter (2011), warned the west of the price of dictatorship in Eastern Europe. Their works for the stage, often short and urgent, left audiences feeling that little could change for them—in their country, so remote geographically, linguistically, and politically—but we did not think it could become worse, and so our response was largely acquiescent. Now, eleven years later, the company, along with approximately 3.7 million refugees from Ukraine (and uncounted numbers from neighboring countries, have been in flight (France24; updated to 4 million on 3/30/22), uprooted, running, homeless, and given paperwork, while rushed escape plans are made for the U.S., the United Kingdom, the EU or other points where there is, hopefully, no war—something the actress and director Liv Ullmann has stated needs to be addressed immediately and legally: “I get very shocked. . . . To be honest, I know that the same thing will happen in Norway. But at least I can fight it more easily because I belong to that country. I don’t belong to the US. But I can say what I mean.”
New work from Belarus Free Theatre remains prescient, as if from Cassandras at the Trojan War. Dogs of Europe, based on dystopian fiction –which feels like a current documentary novel, although it was written in 2018/2019 and is “one of the best pieces of literature written in Belarus in the last thirty years,” according to Nicolai Khalezin, co-founder of Belarus Free Theatre, along with Natalia Kaliada. Alhierd Bacharevic, its author, presents life in a future Russia, where their own land has “disappeared,” along with literature and the European Union, replaced by authoritarianism and indifference. Frank Hentschker, interviewing two company members, Svetlana Sugako and Khalezin, for Segal Talks (Daniella Kaliada provides English translation), on Wednesday, 3/23/22, led the discussion, concerning what is on their minds, what is on everyone’s minds: the war in Ukraine, during its twenty-eighth day, a day that: sees the continued devastation of Mariupol, the destruction of a Ukrainian anti-aircraft missile launcher, strikes on Ukrainian military infrastructure, and Putin’s announcement that payment for Russian natural gas must be made in rubles, among other critical issues.
Livestreaming on the global, commons-based, peer produced HowlRound TV network, Khalezin, who is also an award-winning director, playwright, designer, educator, political campaigner, journalist, and who was put in prison for his activism, begins bluntly, “Thinking people tried to scream and shout of dangers awaiting, but ultimately, we failed in our mission; we all share collective blame for allowing Putin to exist—but artists must use the historical moment.” Sugako, an activist, musician, and actor who is leading on a new campaign for LGBTQI rights for the company, was also jailed, before she left the country, for protesting Lukashenko’s seizure of a sixth term as president, in 2020. On Zoom, she looks boyish and thoughtful (both of those interviewed wore their hair in bouffant styles), and, since 2011, she had been running the entire operation for the Minsk theatre, before taking refuge in Poland and England (she is, currently, in the process of taking props from Warsaw to London for a new show called How Man Had a Speaking Sparrow; the Artistic Directors of the Belarus Free Theatre, at the time, were forced into exile in London. She once built a wooden raft and sailed down one of the rivers in Belarus, it is explained, to talk to people in small villages, to bring theatre to them. Comparisons to a Huckleberry Finn are not warranted, however, as even performing and speaking in Belarusian, her native language (or wearing a t-shirt or placing a decal on a car window with the flag of the country), carries an arrest sentence; looking for work in the state theatre, was prohibited and unsafe, as well, because of associations with the underground stage.
Khalezin explains, from Washington, D.C., that actually Belarus Free Theatre did not start politically. Instead, at its inception, the company was incorporating and reconfiguring, theatrically, a philosophy based on the principles of Total Football (Soccer), as conceptualized and implemented, during the ‘70s, by Rinus Michels, of the Netherlands National Football team. The ensemble is still trained in total immersion: quick transitions (from offense to defense), forced spread throughout the field, as well as sincerity and actuality (the Belarus Free Theatre School, Fortinbras, which came into existence twelve years ago, incorporates the method, along with physical theater, actor perception, and other techniques). At the time, those in the company were also questioned about what mattered to them—“what gave us strength and what bothered us.” In turn, audiences would begin thinking about what bothered them. Today, Khalezin, moustached, with a chin strip goatee and earring, is still asking about the problem of us—which now includes a war in Europe, the largest since World War II.
Hearing from artists, who are stuck and do not know how to react, Sugako discusses the issues and solutions with Natalia Kaliada (who is currently in Washington, D.C., speaking to representatives in Congress, the Senate, White House, Pentagon, and foreign ministry, about the Ukraine invasion). Part of a response, the theatremakers believe, is to “continue to do” and be active: “express, show, and shout!” (“You have to do it, you are artists.”)—even in a time “when we can do nothing and even as art can not change the situation.” Václav Havel, Czech president, dissident, and playwright, who spent almost eight years in prison, said,“fight, no matter where you are. Just continue to fight.” Tom Stoppard, Harold Pinter, Mick Jagger, and Steven Spielberg, may not talk much, but they are “engaged socially and politically,” and have discussed major issues concerning Eastern Europe with Khalezin. Part of our solutions may be to question; “looking at the world as questions.” Face problems. “Ask,” even as “it is not the goal of the arts to look for answers.” Learning is crucial, of course, “but learning in dialogue.” This technique is “more important than a master class.” Khalezin also believes we must continue on our paths: “When you realize your resilience, you start enjoying it more, but be patient, because you may want to take the road of least resistance, which might not sustain you, as an individual.”
Khalezin does not actually believe that most people want to talk about My Fair Lady and Book of Mormon—the same “jolly” shows that had filled houses before the emergence of COVID, more than two years ago. He believes the theatrical community wants to talk about “the poignant topics,” what’s going on in real life. He even finds the positive reception of the Belarus Free Theatre production of Dogs of Europe, in the U.K., suspect (the play recently closed, on 2/22, at London’s Barbican), in lockstep, critically, with other 4-star reviews (only the Financial Times gave the work 5-stars (below). This may suggest a lack of critical thinking in the art world, with rote determination on the part of reviewers. Perhaps they are simply playing it safe during such a dangerous time. Khalezin, nevertheless, notes that the lack of strong positions did not stop the production from being sold-out during its run, meaning that ticket buyers wanted to see and talk about the work, no matter what mainstream sources wrote.
He knows also that those involved with, and working in theatre, want to respond to arts leadership, because those in institutions, are, in fact, marginalizing artists, and are not letting them speak freely–or taking them seriously. Khalezin maintains: “I really do think it is up to institutions to provide and provoke artists to allow them to express their real thoughts and feelings. Then, through discussion, both can finally discover a world where the things seen onstage are relevant.”
Khalezin is speaking about “every single one of us,” no matter our circumstances: Belarus, war, Europe–they are “stories about me”—and Khalezin maintains that art must talk about me (“I am not Hamlet; I am not Hamilton; I am a Belarusian, I’m an émigré, my country is involved in a war, I’m a European . . . my friends are currently dying”). He thinks of those who have lost their jobs, singers whose livelihoods have been destroyed in Belarus and the Donbas region of Ukraine. He wants to write an opera for them called, The Wild Hunt of the King’s Stag. The story concerns a group of wealthy people who dress up and pretend to be ghosts. They go on a wild hunt, marauding. The project is employment for those fired in Belarus and those from now bombed-out theatres in Ukraine; for the singers of Kharkiv Opera Theatre; the singers from the Belarusian Opera Theatre who, fired for political motives, were also forced to leave. Also the proposal is for actors of the Belarusian theatre who can’t be found, are gone, and are now literally homeless. He wants to involve a big European theatre, and allow creators, who have lost everything, to work close together with other artists, after so much suffering. The world needs to understand how close we are to each other and how we all suffer.
On the twenty-eighth day of the Ukraine invasion, Sky News is reporting that the largest Kyiv fire since the beginning of the war is blazing, according to a female firefighter on video, coming from the scene; NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg is calling for Putin to stop saber-rattling over concerns of a Russian nuclear attack. Sugako talks of bringing people together, those who are displaced and rootless, who have only a backpack and no choices. She calls those in Belarus Free Theatre part of her own family, whom she has grown up with, amid creation, smiling, crying, hugs and laughter (as well as well as political campaigns, actions, and activism). If and when she returns to her homeland, she talks about continuing her work on the river, bringing theatre to those who can not come to a city, reaching them on her raft.
The full interview:
About the Artists:
Svetlana Sugako studied graphic design then music & choreography at Belarusian National University. She has been involved with BFT Belarus Free Theatre in Minsk since its inception in 2005, and has been running the entire operation in Belarus since the Artistic Directors were forced into exile in 2011. Formally the production manager, Svetlana is an activist, musician, actor and is leading on a new campaign of BFT on LGBTQI rights. Sugar is featured in the book Two Women in Their Time, by photographer Misha Friedman and The New Yorker staff writer Masha Gessen portraying Svetlana Sugako and Nadya Brodskaya as the power couple spearheading the day-to-day activities of the celebrated Belarus Free Theatre in Minsk. In August 2020 longtime Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko won the vote to seize his sixth term, despite widespread evidence of vote-rigging. The result sparked the largest protests that Belarus had seen in decades—as well as an unprecedented level of police brutality. Sugako and Brodskaya both went to the protests, and were quickly arrested. The pair were placed with 34 others in a cell designed for only four. They were also not given water or food for three days. Before the protests, the Belarus Free Theatre had been one of the few dissenting voices in the country. Sugako believes that through its 16 years of activity, the theatre played an essential role in keeping Belarus’ critical spirit alive, in turn contributing to recent wave of protests.
Nicolai Khalezin is the co-founding Artistic Director of Belarus Free Theatre (BFT), an award-winning director, playwright, designer, educator, political campaigner and journalist.
Prior to co-founding BFT in 2005, Nicolai was Editor-in-Chief of the leading social-political weekly newspapers in Belarus – Name, News and Our Freedom – all of which were shut down by the regime. Khalezin was the owner of the only contemporary art gallery in Minsk, which was also closed down by the authorities. His works were exhibited at the Istanbul Biennale, Milan Expo, in Rome, Berlin and at the Moscow Centre of Contemporary Art.
Nicolai served time in prison in Belarus for his involvement in political campaigns and was recognised as a Prisoner of Consciousness by Amnesty International. This experience inspired one of BFT’s most celebrated shows, Generation Jeans, an autobiographical duologue about rock music and resistance. Written, directed and performed by Nicolai Khalezin, with live music by DJ Laurel, Generation Jeans has been performed more than 100 times around the world to date, including at the home of President Vaclav Havel upon his invitation in 2008 and at the UK’s House of Commons together with BFT Trustee Jude Law in 2012.
Further playwriting credits for BFT include Burning Doors, Master Had A Talking Sparrow, Discover Love, Trash Cuisine, Time of Women, all of which he also directed, and the adaptation of King Learwhich was staged at the Globe to Globe Festival, as part of the London 2012 Cultural Olympiad. Nicolai is the co-founder of BFT’s theatre laboratory, Fortinbras, the only independent arts school in Belarus.
The Segal Talk will be hosted and moderated by Frank Hentschker, Executive Director of The Segal Center.
ABOUT THE SEGAL TALKS
The Segal Theatre Center’s online conversation series SEGAL TALKS was created in March of 2020 after the abrupt closing of the Graduate Center for any kind of public activities due to Corona and the cancellation of the entire spring season. The SEGAL TALKS during The Time of Corona offered conversations on theatre, performance and art during the pandemic featuring with more than 200 theater artists from over 50 countries. New York, US, and international theatre artists, curators, writers, and academics talked daily during the week for one hour with Segal Center’s director, Frank Hentschker, about life and art in the Time of Corona and speak about challenges, sorrows, and hopes for the new Weltzustand— the State of the World. In the summer of 2021 Segal Talks continued to focus on Theatre, Performance and The Political, the Segal Center’s 2023 New York International Festival of the Arts Project and the 2022 Center’s Public Park Project. During the pandemic The Segal Center was for a long period globally the only theatre institution creating new, original, daily content for the global field of theater and performance five days a week. Currently the Center is preparing the 4th edition of the Segal Center’s global Film Festival on Theatre and Performance.
SEGAL TALKS are free, open access, without ads will be live-streamed in English from Wednesday to Friday on HowlRound Theatre Commons and on the Segal Center Facebook. This program is presented in collaboration with HowlRound Theatre Commons, based at Emerson College. All SEGAL TALKS are archived on HowlRound, and on the Segal Center YouTube Channel.
Send us your questions during the live streaming at SegalTalks@gmail.com.
Contact Frank Hentschker at firstname.lastname@example.org for press information.
ABOUT THE MARTIN E. SEGAL THEATRE CENTER
Originally founded in 1979 as the Center for Advanced Studies in Theatre Arts (CASTA), The Martin E. Segal Theatre Center was renamed in March of 1999 to recognize Martin E. Segal, one of New York City’s outstanding leaders of the arts. The Segal Center curates over thirty events throughout the Spring and Fall academic seasons, all free and open to the public. Dedicated to bridging the gap between the professional and academic theatre communities, the Segal Center presents readings, performance, lectures, and artists and academics in conversation. In addition, the Segal Center presents three annual festivals (PRELUDE, PEN World Voices: International Pay Festival, and The Segal Center Film Festival on Theatre and Performance) and publishes and maintains three open access online journals (Arab Stages, European Stages, and The Journal of American Drama and Theatre). The Segal Center also publishes many volumes of plays in translation and is the leading publisher of plays from the Arab world. The Martin E. Segal Theatre Center (MESTC) is a vital component of the Theatre Program’s academic culture and creating in close collaboration a research nexus, focusing on dramaturgy, new media, and global theatre. The Segal Center provides an intimate platform where both artists and theatre professionals can actively participate with audiences to advance awareness and appreciation. www.TheSegalCenter.org
THE SEGAL TEAM
Executive Director: Frank Hentschker
Associate Producers: Andie Lerner & Tanvi Shah
THE GRADUATE CENTER, CITY UNIVERSITY OF NEW YORK, of which the Martin E. Segal Theatre Center is an integral part, is the doctorate-granting institution of The City University of New York (CUNY). An internationally recognized center for advanced studies and a national model for public doctoral education, the school offers more than thirty doctoral programs, as well as a number of master’s programs. Many of its faculty members are among the world’s leading scholars in their respective fields, and its alumni hold major positions in industry and government, as well as in academia. The Graduate Center is also home to twenty-eight interdisciplinary research centers and institutes focused on areas of compelling social, civic, cultural, and scientific concerns. Located in a landmark Fifth Avenue building, The Graduate Center has become a vital part of New York City’s intellectual and cultural life with its extensive array of public lectures, exhibitions, concerts, and theatrical events. www.gc.cuny.edu.
HowlRound Theatre Commons at www.HowlRound.com is a free and open platform for theatre makers worldwide that amplifies progressive, disruptive ideas about the art form and facilitates connection between diverse practitioners. HowlRound envisions a theatre field where resources and power are shared equitably in all directions, contributing to a more just and sustainable world. HowlRound was founded on an organizing principle in the “commons”—a social structure that invites open participation around shared values. HowlRound is a knowledge commons that encourages freely sharing intellectual and artistic resources and expertise. It is our strong belief that the power of live theatre connects us across difference, puts us in proximity of one another, and strengthens our tether to our commonalities. HowlRound is based at Emerson College, Boston. http://www.howlround.com
Review of Dogs of Europe in the Financial Times:
MARCH 17 2022 0 Print this page Belarus Free Theatre’s ‘Dogs of Europe’ © Linda Nylind
Dogs of Europe
“You will not be relaxed,” warned co-director Natalia Kaliada during the pre-performance talk for the Belarus Free Theatre’s show Dogs of Europe. Placed on each seat in the auditorium was a placard bearing the face of a persecuted Belarusian activist; mine was baby-faced Dmitri Gopta, born 1999, jailed for throwing stones at police vehicles. Every member of the BFT troupe is a refugee, having been arrested, harassed or detained under the country’s dictatorship. This three-hour adaptation of Alhierd Bacharevic’s novel, about a Russian “New Reich” facing down the rest of Europe, sounded like a gruelling prospect.
What a surprise, then, to be constantly beguiled, amused and intrigued over the show’s entire running time by a joyous mix of acrobatics, dance, folk song, clowning, slapstick and absurdism. From underground performances in Minsk, it has been spectacularly opened up for the Barbican stage. (The show’s brief three-night run has now ended.) Images of vast fields and forests projected on a screen behind the actors fly us to the remote village of White Dews in the year 2049, with its riotously eccentric inhabitants.
Drink is quaffed, defiant songs sung and guns waved, sometimes to comic effect, sometimes not. A covert parachutist floats down while trees shuffle about, Birnam Wood-style. Four interlocking trolleys of varying heights on castors become steps, bookshelves and beds.
Periodically a naked man trudges across the rear of the stage, effortfully pushing a large globe made out of books. There’s always something fascinating or weird to gaze at.
Nylind Kaliada and her co-director Nicolai Khalezin privilege imagery over plot; even with the help of the surtitles projected over the actors’ heads, it’s hard to make out the story. Dogs of Europe is firmly in the east European tradition of satirical obliquity in the face of censorship.
The mockery of the preening military man might be overt, but why does one character always carry around a toy goose? A mysterious “agent” trawls the last bookstores in Europe in search of a poet who always carried a feather. Why a fire dance? Who’s the guy with the accordion? What’s the significance of the naked man running round in circles? With exceptional sound design (Ella Wahlström, the thrilling vocal and musical skills of Marichka and Mark Markzyc) and visual flair (Richard Williamson), it barely matters. ★★★★★ belarusfreetheatre.com
Photo credits: From top: Howl/Round; copyright: Linda Nylind; U.K. Guardian; U.K. Telegraph
(David Gormezano’s article appeared on France24, 3/21; Photo: Alex Borovensky, Tetiana Shelepko and their friends sit in front of the ProEnglish Theatre in Kyiv, on March 20.)
The ProEnglish Theatre used to be known as a small independent Kyiv ensemble that put on English-language plays and offered drama classes. But in the four weeks since Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine, the theatre has become an “art shelter”, where actors come together to bear witness to war atrocities and scale an all-out artistic resistance. FRANCE 24 went to meet the troupe determined to help Ukraine win the war against Russia.
On February 24, Alex Borovensky, the director of the ProEnglish Theatre, received a phone call telling him that war had broken out and that Russian tanks had entered Ukraine. “I hung up, and then I heard explosions, and then sirens. It was unreal, I didn’t want to believe what was happening. My partner and I packed our bags and decided to take shelter in the theatre, which is located in a basement. At the end of the day, we all watched Mission Impossible 4 together, because at the end of the film, Tom Cruise destroys the Kremlin.”
In just a few short days, the actor and former English teacher had become a resistance fighter. The windows of the theatre overlooking the street have been secured, and the performance hall has been turned into a dormitory where people living in the building can take shelter at night whenever the city’s air raid alarms ring out. Borovensky is also helping to spread information about what is happening in Kyiv and elsewhere in Ukraine by speaking to English-language media. When humanitarian aid trucks roll into the city, he helps unload and distribute the goods in the neighbourhood surrounding the theatre. Survival and solidarity is the order of the day.
“Every day, people ask me to come and take refuge with them, but I want to stay here. I want to see what is happening with my own eyes. Art is my resistance, and that’s what I want to share, that’s why I’m staying in Kyiv.”
On this Sunday, March 20, the 25th day of Russia’s war against Ukraine, the unreal has become the new normal in Kyiv. There is currently a strange calm reigning over the city, occasionally disrupted by the dull rumble of Ukrainian anti-aircraft defence systems. In the past few days, Russian missiles have hit apartment buildings and killed several people, all the while army-to-army clashes continue some 30 kilometres north of the capital. The clear blue sky and the warming rays of the sun seem to indicate that spring is approaching. Borovensky and his friends have therefore decided to take the day off to relax.
“There is no massive bombing so we’re venturing out a little more in the city, we’re starting to drive around Kyiv again. But there have been direct strikes on the city. One of them hit a building next to where one of the theatre’s actresses live and the windows of her apartment exploded. So we’re waiting to see what happens.”
(Arifa Akbar’s article appeared in the guardian, 3/13; Photo: A necessary affront … Aliaksei Naranovich and Raman Shytsko in Dogs of Europe. Photograph: Linda Nylind/the Guardian.)
Fairytale imagery is mixed with absurdist humour in this prescient political thriller in which Russia has become a dictatorial superstate
Given the political history of the Belarus Free Theatre and its overt references to the war in Ukraine in this production, Dogs of Europe cannot be seen as theatre alone. It is art, activism and theatrical disruption, at once.
Having been performed clandestinely in garages and warehouses in Minsk, it feels released on this large-scale stage. Like a genie escaping from a bottle, there is a magnificent eruption of sound and spectacle. Big, haunting, discordant songs and music by Mark and Marichka Marczyk of Balaklava Blues expand to fill the auditorium. Maria Sazonova’s choreography is arresting in its acrobatic drama, with movements like orchestrated military exercises or assaults, and containing a fierce, fulminating physicality. A back screen for projections (with video design by Richard Williamson) begins as a roving camera from a computer game, which gives the show an unstable, lurching quality and seems designed to discombobulate its audience.
Every member of the ensemble has spent time in jail and their orchestrated movements play out street protests, battles, rape and murder. Inert bodies are dragged off stage, time and again. Deliberately cartoonish violence shows characters shot at point-blank range and bouncing back up.
(Alex Marshall’s article appeared in The New York Times, 3/10; Photo: A rehearsal for “Dogs of Europe,” which opens at the Barbican theater in London on Thursday.Credit…Jeremie Souteyrat for The New York Times.)
The Belarus Free Theater’s members fled repression at home. The company’s latest show imagines a nightmare future of authoritarian Russian rule.
Set in 2049, it imagines the continent cut in half by a wall. On one side sits a Russian superstate, where a dictator has eliminated almost all opposition, and where people cannot speak their native languages or even perform folk dances. On the other side sits a Europe that failed to realize the Russian threat, or stop it from absorbing Belarus, Ukraine, the Baltic States and beyond.
Yet at a rehearsal in London last month, the day before Russia invaded Ukraine, the play’s nightmare world didn’t feel so far-fetched.
Maryna Yakubovich, an actor in the production, which opens Thursday at the Barbican theater in London, said that rehearsing the play had sometimes felt like a premonition. “It’s, like, ‘Oh my God, it’s started to happen,” she said.
Natalia Kaliada, one of the Belarus Free Theater’s founders, said that when she and her husband, Nicolai Khalezin, decided to stage the play, they thought it would be a “warning shot” about the dangers of undemocratic leaders left unchecked. But planned performances in London and New York in 2020 were postponed because of the coronavirus pandemic. Now that warning shot appears to be too late.
As the war in Ukraine enters its third week, the Belarus Free Theater’s performance may seem accidentally timely. But it is only the company’s latest attempt in its 17-year existence to warn about rising authoritarianism in Eastern Europe.
The company knows those dangers all too well. Since forming in 2005, it has faced repression in Belarus, which is ruled by President Aleksandr G. Lukashenko, who is known as “Europe’s last dictator” in part for his government’s clampdown on opposition and its stifling of free expression. The troupe has long been effectively banned from performing in Belarus, but it continued to do so in secret venues in Minsk, the capital, even after Kaliada and Khalezin were forced into exile more than a decade ago. The couple settled in London — where they developed close ties to theaters including the Young Vic and the Almeida — but continued rehearsing with actors in Belarus via Skype.
Those clandestine shows, in venues including a converted car garage that once belonged to the American Embassy, also won the troupe high-profile supporters in the United States. In 2015, The New York Times’s chief theater critic, Ben Brantley, visited the company in Minsk, and praised its “spirit of defiant, exultant fraternity” adding that this was something “you rarely find among the young these days in money-driven, shockproof Manhattan.”