(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.