To Be Free or Not to Be

The stage is set up in a private house on the outskirts of Minsk. The spectators (about 50 people) sit on improvised benches made of car tires covered with wood boards. “Eleven Vests” by Edward Bond is just about to be performed. The French theatre group Alfortville, invited to Minsk by the Belarusian Free Theatre, will play in “the last European dictatorship” for the first time.

The curtain is not raised – there is none. The silence settles in. A bulky man with shaved head comes onto the stage. “What is happening here?” he asks the audience. “Why is the floor black?” he inquires, looking at the dark carpet. “Why is everyone so quiet?” With a stern look he orders everyone to leave the room in order to have their IDs checked at the police station. All this seems like a good start for an absurdist play. Even the fact that the shaved-headed person is not an actor, but a riot police officer may pass for an innovative theatrical trick.

All the fun ends when the fifty guests of the Free Theatre spend a couple of hours locked up in a room without a toilet. This is when the theatre ends and the usual Belarusian reality show begins. Cops versus artists.

One can only guess what were the riot policemen and KGB officers thinking on that 22nd of August, 2007. In any case, arresting 50 theatergoers is quite different from, say, storming a house with a bunch of drug dealers inside. “Though this be madness, yet there is method in it”, wrote Shakespeare in “Hamlet, Prince of Denmark”. The persecution of the Free Theatre, the organiser of the disrupted performance, has become a usual practice for the Belarusian law enforcement. The reason for that is the theatre’s determination to confront the audience with the most burning problems of the present-day Belarus, which is something that none of the state-sponsored Belarusian theatres dares to do.

Abroad, Free Theatre is often given the best stage. Vaclav Havel, ex-president of CzechRepublic and British playwright Tom Stoppard are Free Theatre’s curators.

At home, the theatre has remained homeless since its foundation in March 2005 by playwright Nikolai Khalezin and theatre manager Natalia Koliada. Today the theatre has ten professional actors, four managers and two technical assistants. The stage director and half of all actors were sacked from their jobs at state-run theatres. Free Theatre has no premises for rehearsals and performances, which are always held at random semi-secret locations, such as small bars or private apartments.

You can’t buy a ticket to Free Theatre’s performances – they are always free. All you need to have is an acquaintance or a certain e-mail address in order to receive an invitation via cell phone or by the word of mouth. Most of time it works – the theatre was able to hold dozens of covert performances right under the nose of authorities. However, it would be naïve to think that secret services don’t try to monitor these activities. As the police roundup during the last performance shows, the regime certainly takes Free Theatre seriously even though it may not necessarily understand much about theatre in general.

Not being bound by self-censorship, Free Theatre stages plays which depart from the local politically correct theatrical tradition. The theatre’s performances are often shocking, the language of the actors full of obscenities, their actions provocative. “Free Theatre has eliminated the boundaries between life and art. If the actors were arrested by the police, and some local drunkards would comment about what’s going in their usual

nature, then all this would immediately become the integral part of the performance,” writes Andrey Rasinski, theatre and cinema critic of the independent Belarusian weekly “Nasha Niva”.

No matter if you like the performances of Free Theatre or not, they make you think, while traditionally, in Belarus, actors are expected to merely entertain the obedient masses. No wonder the authorities get angry. However, the repressive political regime doesn’t realize that by cracking down on the homeless theatre it becomes a part of the play. While chasing unarmed actors and their spectators, some with their children on the lap, secret service agents with bulging muscles and loaded guns can’t help assuming the roles of grotesque villain clowns. Indeed, you really have to know very little about theatre to make such a circus. But the audience of Free Theatre sees very well, who’s the puppet.

The Police watching Free Theatre somewhere in the woods

Andrey Liankevich, Oleg Shafranov, Nikolai Khalezin, Mick Jagger, Natalia Koliada, Lavr Berzhanin, Vladimir Shcherban

Nikolai Khalezin, Tom Stoppard, Christian Benedetti

Scene from the performance “Being Harold Pinter” by Belarus Free Theatre

Natalia Koliada with Michael Billington, patriarch of the British Theatre Critics

Yana Rusakevitch in "11 vests"


Prepared by

Ales Kudrytski for the Office for a Democratic Belarus
Photos by

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