Category Archives: Belarus

BELARUS FREE THEATRE: BRITAIN IS IN DANGER OF AUTHORITARIANISM ·

(Natasha Tripney’s interview appeared in the Guardian, 4/21.)

Natalia Kaliada and Nikolai Khalezin explain how political exile prepared them for lockdown and why their latest project is about fairytales

The coronavirus outbreak has forced theatre-makers to change the ways in which they collaborate, with many starting to make work remotely. But Belarus Free Theatre’s founders, Natalia Kaliada and Nikolai Khalezin, have had to work this way for years. Exiled from their home country for a decade, and living in London, their circumstances have obliged them to find creative new ways of continuing to make work. “We were one of the first theatre companies to use Skype,” explained Khalezin when we spoke earlier this year, “but this was a necessary measure. In 2011, when we ended up here and our cast was back in Belarus, we still needed to make shows, so we started trying out different technologies.”

Their latest production is an adaptation of Alhierd Bacharevic’s 2017 novel, Dogs of Europe, a 900-page dystopian political thriller with a section written in a language of Bacharevic’s own design. It is considered one of the most important literary works ever published in Belarus. Kaliada and Khalezin, who are married, have been working with a composer in Toronto, one in Berlin and a video director in Kiev. From their kitchen in London, we watch a scene play out in a warehouse in Minsk, before Khalezin embarks on a discussion with one of the cast members about the feasibility of him running around the stage naked for the duration of the interval.

In the last few weeks, BFT has doubled its activities. When the UK went into lockdown they instructed their company in Minsk to self-isolate, though there had been no official guidance in Belarus about doing so. They then set about creating the Love Over Virus project, an attempt during a time of fear to “let people dream again”. Actors will be reading fairytales they were told as children, or that they tell their children, with contributions from trustees and supporters, including Juliet Stevenson and Samuel West, as well as Kaliada’s own actor father, Andrej.

They are also resurrecting their Kitchen Revolution project, an online space for provocation, conversation and communal dining. A recipe is shared with participants, before they debate, among other things, how it is possible to survive our current situation, survival being an area in which the theatre-makers have considerable experience.

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BELARUS FREE THEATER: A DISSIDENT COMPANY CELEBRATES 15 YEARS UNDERGROUND ·

(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.

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