Sunday, Sep. 18, 2005

Acting, but Not on the Orders of the State

A theater group challenges the restrictions set by the repressive regime in Belarus


The easiest way of knowing whether good has triumphed over evil is to examine the freedom of the artist," quips a character in Travesties, one of the oft-staged plays by British playwright Tom Stoppard. Late last month, Stoppard was able to form a view on how that struggle is faring in Belarus. Along with around 70 local spectators packed into a tiny bar in a shabby industrial area of Minsk, the capital, he watched an underground theater performance. The Belarus Free Theater (FT), a group of some 40 playwrights, directors, producers and actors, operates in the repressive regime of President Alexander Lukashenko. Stoppard was there to see FT's first-ever production, a Russian translation of 4.48 Psychosis, a play by another British playwright, Sarah Kane, about a suicidal young woman. The subject matter is deemed dangerously subversive in the paranoid world of the last Soviet-style dictatorship in Europe, so the FT mounted the play quietly. "It's not without precedent, this situation," Stoppard told Time. "It's very interesting that the arts in general, and theater in particular, are treated with such caution by authorities."

Artistic freedoms are just one casualty of Lukashenko's 11-year authoritarian rule, which was criticized late last month by leaders of other former Soviet republics. They had gathered in Poland to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the trade-union movement Solidarity, which led Poland's revolution. That was followed by "a second wave of liberation of Europe. Freedom and democracy will prevail everywhere, including Belarus," said Mikheil Saakashvili, leader of Georgia's rose revolution in 2003, and now the country's President. But the opinions of the outside world matter little to Lukashenko. Late last month, his secret police arrested two visiting Georgian activists and raided apartments of students who created and e-mailed cartoons lampooning Lukashenko. The Georgians and their three Belarus hosts were interrogated by police for 10 days before being released.

Challenging the state is dangerous, but increasing numbers of Belarusians feel that the risk is worth taking. The FT was founded last March "just to be free and work freely," explains the playwright and actress Yana Rusakevich, 29, who stars in 4.48 Psychosis. The FT's members face sanctions: they may lose their jobs in state theaters or find themselves blacklisted. The plug was pulled on a play by Rusakevich at the Yanka Kupala State Academic Theater in Minsk because of her involvement with the FT production. Director Vladimir Shcherban, 30, was suspended from his job at the same theater for the same reason. "The state dismisses us as so many miserable failures and griping misfits," says FT coordinator and playwright Nikolai Khalezin, 40. The Moscow Art Theater is rehearsing his play Here I Come, but the work will not be performed in his own country. "No production is allowed unless cleared by censors," he says.

Last March the FT announced a playwriting contest on its website; so far, 321 works have been submitted, even though the constraints on the FT means plays can only be staged clandestinely in barns, privately owned stores and workshops or, as last month, in a bar. The bar proprietor risked his license, as the authorities also turn up the heat on those who assist members of the FT.

The group has already performed 4.48 Psychosis three times at various locations. It now plans to put on a piece by a local writer examining such hot current issues as national identity and social tensions in Belarus. Khalezin expects this will enrage apparatchiks, but says, "then we'll do it outdoors, under the open skies."

"It is a great compliment to the artists that they should be feared," says Stoppard. In Belarus to give a master class to the FT, he was reminded of his visits to communist Czechoslovakia, when he saw actors perform banned works in private apartments. As Vaclav Havel, the playwright who led that country's revolution and became its President reminded FT members in a letter of support, "it was the Prague actors' strike in 1989 that triggered" the peaceful uprising. "It's extraordinary how shortsighted all repressive regimes are," says Stoppard. And the FT is determined that the show will go on.