(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.”