THEARTSDESK IN MINSK Feasting with the remarkable Belarus Free Theatre
Budzma! (Cheers!) At a long, food-laden table in a noisy room of Minsk, the capital of Belarus, a toast is proposed. We clink glasses and drain moonshine. This happens once, twice, five, 10 times. Between the toasts comes a wave of passionate speeches from some of our fellow diners. Loosely linked, they call up a period of history, controversial and still rarely discussed, when the German invaders were welcomed here as liberators who would deliver Belarus from the Soviet yoke. The verbatim stories, told by actors dressed as villagers from the 1940s, brim with passion. Next to me, a young woman in a flowery dress at one point stands up and shares fiery memories of communist brutality. It’s like sitting next to a volcano.
This is theatre as I’ve never experienced it: food, booze, dancing, an immersive Belarusian feast during which the monologues sprout organically from a cast who eat and drink and rowdily interact with the rest of us. The table has room for an audience of just 22, and the play is performed only intermittently. It’s also way off the radar of the national media. So only a few theatre-goers have ever seen this extraordinary production by Belarus Free Theatre. Officially the company is banned.
Hungary and Poland may be swinging away from democracy and freedom of speech, but for most of the rest of Europe, the era of state censorship and exiled artists belongs to a sepia-tinted yesteryear. Belarus is Europe’s last true dictatorship. It still has a KGB domiciled behind a forbidding portico in one of Minsk’s main drags, which are ornamented with statues and busts of Soviet-era oppressors. For the mainly young people who have discovered it, Belarus Free Theatre is the most reliable source of information in town. (Pictured below: some of the cast of Sparrows)The feast play is called Sparrows, and is adapted from a book of audio interviews, published in 2016, in which elderly Belarusians recall the convulsions of a history they had personally experienced. It’s a revelatory challenge to the official Belarusian version. That much more heroic narrative is told by the city’s Great Patriotic War Museum. Atop this temple of Soviet kitsch the hammer and sickle still flies. Inside is a serious parade of T34 tanks, fighter planes, katushya rockets and sundry exhibits lionising the Red Army and the derring-do of brave partisans. My companion as I walk round is Maria Bialkovič, who adapted Sparrows for the stage. Aged 26, she recalls studying the war as an obligatory course at university. “It was like fucking your brain so you get impregnated with the ideological child of the great victory,” she explains.
Belarus Free Theatre was founded in 2005 by Natalia Kaliada and Nicolai Khalezin, a couple whose background was in politics and journalism. Not long after they announced a series of readings and performances they had a great boost when Tom Stoppard, who has written so much about state oppression in Czechoslovakia and the Soviet Union, agreed to fly to Minsk to lend support. They were soon joined by Vladimir Shcherban, a director who had just been refused permission to mount Sarah Kane’s lacerating 4.48 Psychosis in the city’s National Theatre. They staged it in a private apartment instead. An underground company took root, a forum in which new plays and old reflected the reality of life in Belarus.
The star of that first production is still with the company. On my first night in Minsk I see Yana Rusakevich in Dejerviu by Olga Prusak. She plays an eccentric non-conformist eager for one last life-affirming sensation before cancer claims her. As a hymn to individualism, it’s made all the more intimate by the videofeed of her luminous face trained onto the back wall of the theatre. “I like this small space,” Rusakevich says afterwards. “You can see the audience’s eyes, feel them breathing, literally watch them thinking.” Thinking is what audiences come to Belarus Free Theatre to do.
The city (pictured right), rebuilt in the grandiloquent Soviet style after it was almost entirely flattened by the Luftwaffe, is peppered with official performance spaces, including the neoclassical National Theatre and a tall brualist concert hall nicknamed the crematorium. Belarus Free Theatre has spent much of its fugitive existence migrating between tiny private spaces, apartments where they would leave no trace after the end of the performance. For the last two and a half years the company’s rented hub has been a double-fronted garage a metro-and-bus ride from the city centre. Down a quiet suburban street, it lurks in the shadow of a tower block which is either half-completed or half-demolished – it’s hard to tell which. “It’s not easy to find anywhere because of the risk the owner must take,” explains the resourceful young general manager Nadia Brodskaya. “The rent usually includes some price for their risk. Every single person here is a paranoiac. Sometimes we see strange guys in our audience who don’t look like our audience.”
Belarus Free Theatre doesn’t operate like a regular company. On the day of the Sparrows performance, after shopping for the evening’s fare in the city’s vast covered market, Brodskaya posts news of the performance on VK, the Russian social media site. Her phone is soon trilling and names are entered long-hand in an exercise book. She does it with efficient good cheer but feels the constraint of this bureaucratic task. “Sure, I would like to sell tickets, not to make these lists. I would like to announce our performances and let the box office sell our tickets. Every day, every performance. It’s not difficult but we can feel the cage they put us in.”
That evening, regulars gather in the garage courtyard, while first-timers are instructed to convene outside a nearby supermarket and await collection. The atmosphere feels relaxed, the audience chat and smoke, and I wonder if some of these precautions have a ritual feel to them. When I ask production manager Svetlana Sugako if the company might be shut down altogether she explains that they are defended by a Kafkaesque rationale. “Officially we don’t exist here,” she says. “That means they couldn’t close us because we’re not open. You can’t close something that’s not open. A few years ago in our old space they came every evening, stopped the peformance, created a list of the audience with passport information and place of work and then sent lists to the place of work.” (Pictured: police raid. Photograph © Svetlana Sugako)
The company suffered a near fatal blow in December 2010 when Kaliada was one of many people arrested for protesting the latest re-election, widely regarded as rigged, of President Aleksandr Lukashenko. All three company directors fetched up in London, where they have been ever since. The company’s activities were suspended for a time while they looked for a solution. That solution was to carry on via Skype. The shows are directed by Skype, and before every performance the audience is Skyped through to the director in London, a talking head on an Apple Mac screen who waves and then introduces the production. (Pictured below: Vladimir Shcherban introduces a show, with Svetlana Sugako)
This mode of working introduces a set of problems unknown to other actors in rehearsal. “It affects the way you understand each other,” says Yana Rusakevich. “Sometimes you just have to guess what the director is saying. Sometimes he turns off his video so your hearing is more concentrated on what he’s saying.”
“It’s not a huge joy to produce a show on Skype,” says Kaliada when I meet her at the company’s London office generously loaned by the Young Vic Theatre. “But it’s possible to enjoy the enormous dedication of our team. They are the best.”
Although her father remains in Minsk and still works with the company, she doesn’t think she and Khalezin will ever go back. “There is no nostalgia,” she says. “We have two daughters and they are so happy here. Friends of ours have been kidnapped and killed. And the rest left Belarus after being released from jail.” In the last couple of years Kaliada has expanded her field of operation, working with the United Nations to have artists recognised as defenders of human rights, advising trusts and foundations, and sharing the Belarus Free Theatre model with artists from other continents. Meanwhile in London the company has attempted to replicate the spirit of Sparrows with a series of provocative dinners known as the Kitchen Revolution supper club. The latest, featuring journalist Oliver Bullough and author Peter Pomerantsev, takes place on 28 February at a private home in London where the cuisine will be Soviet and the talk about Russian corruption. (Pictured below: Natalia Kaliada at a recent Kitchen Revolution)
With its elders marooned in London – although they all reunite for regular international tours, most recently last autumn in the US – the company I encounter is startlingly young, predominantly female, and fiercely determined to ignore the threat of state oppression. That spirit is embodied by Svetlana Sugako, a husky-voiced ironist who joined the company aged 19 after seeing 4.48 Psychosis. “I came to see and I just stayed. I was so impressed and suggested things I could do to help. I didn’t like theatre at all before I saw the play.” She now forms the beating heart of the company on the ground in Minsk with her partner Brodskaya. “You keep going," she says. "These are the rules. We don’t like the rules. We will try to change them very slowly, step by step, but we will continue to perform, to make new shows. It’s not about living and working and thinking about the difficult situation. Yes, it is difficult. Let’s try to change it. When you want change here there’s nobody who can help you but a lot of people who can hinder you.”
Only last March they felt that hindrance at a peaceful protest against the so-called “parasites’ tax” on the unemployed - all the company are classed as parasites. Yana Rusakevich was hospitalised with concussion and company member Sergei Kvachonok was jailed for 15 days. His colleagues attempted to deliver a rehearsal copy of Sparrows to him. When this was refused, they sang to him outside the prison walls.
The injection of youth comes courtesy of Studio Fortinbras, the company programme which trains students to perform, write and produce. Recruits tend to be students of the sciences or journalism. “Anything but arts,” says Kaliada. “It’s interesting to start with people who have another part of their brain already developed.”One of the Studio’s most audacious projects has been to challenge state discrimination against people with disabilities. Kaliada calls it “artivism”. In the last couple of years they have performed a series of public interventions drawing attention to the lack of access for people with disabilities to the subway, to cinemas, even the problem of crossing the city’s wide boulevards in a wheelchair. In one of their most imaginative stunts they tried to gatecrash the annual Christmas parade of Santa Claus costume with wheelchair-users, only to be blocked.
On my final night in Minsk I see a show called House No 5, the theatrical culmination to the campaign. The company are joined by two actors in wheelchairs and Aramais Mirakyan (pictured above), a tough trainee journalist with cerebral palsy. “People with disabilities is the group that everyone is silent about,” he says.
Not in House No 5, which features moving and mordant stories about sexuality, society and living with disability in Belarus, and pulsating wheelchair choreography. At the end, over riotous applause from the audience tightly backed on benches and cushions, the company beckons us to get up and dance. So we do. Credits are shouted out by the actors at the curtain – there are no programmes. Nor is there an entrance fee. People deposit roubles in a cardboard box as they file out. Two young men, finding themselves cashless, pop into the supermarket to donate a bottle of vodka. Budzma!