Dissident performers Belarus Free Theatre coming to Hong Kong

Critically acclaimed theatre group turns political persecution into inspiration

By Dan Pordes

As I concluded a phone interview the speaker on the other end whispered nervously: “We’re a bit concerned about the Belarusian government notifying Interpol, so you may want to keep an eye out for us when we’re in Hong Kong.”

most innovations are created in hell

— Nikolai Khalezin, Belarus Free Theatre

They are not the words of wanted Wikileaks-esque whistleblowers. Nor the exiled opposition party members from Minsk, fleeing the wrath of a ruling regime.

The worries are of Nikolai Khalezin and Vladimir Scherban, respectively the general producer and director of the Belarus Free Theatre, on their way to the Hong Kong Arts Festival. For the theater company -- troublemakers at home but heroes abroad -- these are not idle concerns.

Domestic violence

In their native country of Belarus, the Free Theatre are regarded by the ruling regime as personae non grata.

The group have had their performances broken up by machine-gun wielding police, been physically assaulted and had female members threatened with rape.

But back in March 2005, when Khalezin and his wife, theater producer Natalia Koliada, set up the troupe, becoming cast as radical trouble-makers was not on the agenda.

“Our only desire was to be creative, nothing more,” Khalezin says. “Six years ago, theater was the only place in Belarus where we thought one could escape censor and control. So creatives went into playwrighting and acting, that’s how they got together.”

It’s also how the duo met stage director Scherban, who has since produced the majority of Free Theatre performances.

Soon after that meeting, the troupe decided on their first production: "4.48 Psychosis" by the British playwright Sarah Kane, which deals with depression and suicide. The themes that are taboo in state-controlled Belarusian art.

The production premiered a couple of months later in a cafe in Minsk. After two performances, the cafe owner lost his license and the persecutions began.

“The authorities started getting us out of state theater: we were fired from our jobs, and they fired the actors who worked with us,” Scherban recounts.

“Then they kicked us out of cafes, and kicked us out of performances in apartments and we had to perform in the woods.”

Even in the woods they were not safe. Almost all the members of the ensemble have now served time behind bars in their home nation. Yet both playwright and director are almost blase.

“Prison is not the worst experience; in fact it’s a very powerful one, that helps motivate you artistically,” says Khalezin, who’s secret police file is ever growing.

“The real worst experience is a bad rehearsal,” Scherban adds.

Being driven further underground by Belarus's restrictive regime, which controls every aspect of life in the country, the Free Theatre had to keep one step ahead.

A list of 1,500 members are alerted to a performance by text message or email, at very short notice, before being bussed out to secret warehouses for performances.

Overseas ovations

In the company's intrepid excursions outside of Belarus, it isn't the secret police that are after them, but rather awards and A-listers.

When asked about names of supporters, Scherban ticks off an international who’s who list: Clooney, Spacey, Stoppard, McKellen, and Jagger. “It’s easier to say who hasn’t added their name to our list.”

Also championed by the likes of former political figures Vaclav Havel and Mikhail Gorbachev, the Free Theatre have received the Europe Theatre Prize, the Freedom to Create Prize, and the French Republic Award in Defence of Human Rights.

However Khalezin seems uncomfortable about the acknowledgements and struggles to come to terms with the contrast between the identities of artist and celebrity.

“We had to agree to [the awards] as we were told it would help bring awareness to the situation in our country. There’s always a kind of repression that comes with being personalities and artistic personalities.”

More influential than trophies and all their famous friends was late British playwright, Harold Pinter.

In the latter part of 2005 the Free Theatre spent over a year reading and studying his texts following a recommendation by distinguished patron Tom Stoppard.

“We felt that Pinter’s work was essentially about the Belarus situation -- the violence and political terror of government against its people,” Khalezin explains.

Inspired, Scherban began the creation of a play using the playwright's Nobel Prize speech as a framework for excerpts from his political dramas.

As a final masterstroke, the group incorporated letters from Belarusian political prisoners that are almost indivisible from the dramatized scenes.

The piece titled “Being Harold Pinter” has become their most famous work and was met by international acclaim receiving five-star reviews from the adulating press. It has since been performed on the stages of London, Chicago, New York, and soon in Hong Kong.

Appropriately it was also one of the final works that Pinter watched before his death. Attending a performance of the play at a gala evening in London’s Soho theatre in February 2008, he turned to a journalist from the Observer, and declared that he was very proud to have witnessed it:

“The Belarus Free Theatre is bringing back the essence of the theatre.”

Future of the Underground

On a global scale, the Free Theatre continues to try and reach out to similar groups. In the last two years they have visited the African continent, exploring Uganda and Rwanda, countries with similarly torrid histories, and have developed a network of artistic groups that suffer censorship from the ruling state.

“You can name any country and we know groups there,” Khalezin asserts. “In all these countries, as well as in Belarus, we cannot talk about politics. An artist cannot restrain from any topics, otherwise they will not be free. Every artist needs to be free.”

While Asia is still a new continent to them, they cite controversial artist, Ai Wei Wei as someone who is also “trying to define the most painful spots on the body of the world.”

They speak with some enthusiasm about visiting Hong Kong and being able to contact other theatrical groups in the region, as well as get a feel for the Asian audience.

In the short term things are unclear. After their trip to Hong Kong neither knows where they will end up. As far as their homeland is concerned, they’re doubtful whether they’ll be allowed back.

In late December 2010, Khalezin and his wife were arrested, released on bail, and left the country for the United States, after being involved in protests against a presidential re-election that human rights group have described as rigged.

“There are over 40 political prisoners in Belarus and every day there are more searches and interrogations,” Khalezin says. “And so, we don’t have the right conditions to be as creative as we would like. But of course the paradox is most innovations are created in hell.”

At this, Scherban laughs sardonically. “Our conditions are getting worse, so creatively we can expect things to get better.”

The Belarus Free Theatre perform at the Hong Kong Arts Festival, March 2-6, the Studio Theatre, Hong Kong Cultural Centre, Tsim Sha Tsui.


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