Forced to Exit Belarus Stage Left

LONDON, UK–I’d hoped to meet with Natalia Koliada and Nikolai Khalezin in Minsk but President Aleksandr Lukashenko had other plans. I had first met the married couple who founded the Belarus Free Theatre (BFT), when the troupe were in London a few years ago performing their play “Being Harold Pinter” at the Soho Theatre. I decided at that time that if I ever made it to Belarus, I had to see them perform so when I found out I would be going to the country in March, I emailed Koliada asking if one of their shows might coincide with my trip. In her email back a day later, Koliada explained that she, Khalezin and several other members of the group had, since the crackdown against protestors over the disputed presidential elections in December 2010, been forced to live in exile. Currently they were rehearsing in the UK and would soon be leaving for New York to perform at LaMaMa for a month. We made plans to meet in London when I returned from my trip.

Since the BFT’s formation back in 2006, they have become a theatrical thorn in the side of the Lukashenko regime –seen by many as the last of the Soviet dictatorships in Europe—because they are outspoken advocates of the freedom of speech and their productions tackle subjects like homosexuality and suicide, topics which are taboo in mainstream theatre in Belarus. Because of this, the BFT (who recently won a prestigious Village Voice Obie award) have been forced to perform their plays in secret locations and going to see their shows is akin to something out of a Cold War spy novel. “We announce information on the Internet and in order to get an invitation to a performance you call, leave a message with your name and phone number,” Koliada, a petite brunette dressed in a denim jacket and jeans, tells me over coffee at a café in London. “When the date and place is confirmed you will get information on a meeting point and from the meeting point you are then taken to where the performance is being held.” Many of their shows have taken place in small cafes, private apartments and even in the woods.

Yet despite all the cloak and dagger secrecy, their shows have still been infiltrated; back in 2007, just as the BFT began a performance, members of the KGB and the district police came in and arrested everyone—including a few children. “When we speak about our problems as a theatre group, we speak about the whole country because we have political kidnappings, there are political prisoners,” says Koliada. “So everything that has happened to us is a [microcosm] for the whole of Belarus. Vaclav Havel [the former Czech president who is also a renowned playwright] told us in order to be protected from the dictatorial regime we need to speak loudly and this is what we do.” And they do it well; “Being Harold Pinter” is a scathing piece of theatre that links texts from both the late British playwright’s plays and his 2005 Nobel Prize speech with heart rendering letters from Belarusian political prisoners while “Generation Jeans”  examines the role of jeans—an analogy for Western capitalism—and politics.  “I felt that they had found a compelling way to tell the stories of Belarus by placing them in a global context and staging them in a way that achieved maximum impact [so] I was being reached on one level by the text, which imparted devastating facts and narratives about life under the dictatorship, and on another level by the staging, which was always moving and entertaining,” Catherine Coray, an associate arts professor at New York University’s Tisch School of Arts, tells me in an email. “Though the staging was never literal,  neither did it work against the narrative.  Instead, it deepened the audience’s experience of the stories by demonstrating the contradictions and ironies of life under Lukashenko.”

Those contradictions and ironies of life under the regime is something members of the BFT have had to live through firsthand—especially after the crackdowns in December when Koliada was arrested after reading to demonstrators a letter of support from Havel.  “There were about 70 of us in police van and we were forced to lie face down,” Koliada tells me. “We were in the van for about 10 hours and then they started to take us one by one to the jail. All the women were taken to second floor and forced to face the wall. There were no toilets and they would not allow us to sleep. We were humiliated, they taunted us saying they would rape us. It was humiliation.” Soon after her release a day later, Koliada, along with her husband and daughter, made the decision to leave Belarus and they have not gone back since. Members of the BFT, many of whom have been sacked from their state-funded theatre jobs because of their involvement in the group, have to rely on financial support and encouragement from family and some high profile friends like Tom Stoppard, Kevin Spacey and Jude Law.

Theatres in London, New York and Chicago have also opened up their doors to BFT to rehearse and perform their shows.  “In January, we were turning people away from performances; the [reviews], including those written by top New York Times critic Ben Brantley, were outstanding. [Meanwhile] actors, playwrights and directors offered their homes to company members,” writes Coray. “Of course, everyone was moved and shocked by the conditions under which they had left Belarus—but it was the reputation they achieved when, over and over again, “hardened” New York theatergoers gave the company standing ovations, that made everyone stand up and notice.”

Kevin Spacey, who saw the troupe perform their pieces in New York, was helpful in opening doors to the London theatre scene (Spacey is artistic director for London’s Old Vic). “We told him that, because of the political situation in our country, we had no place to rehearse and he offered us space to work at the Old Vic,” Koliada tells me during our interview (Khalezin—who has a salt and pepper pony tail– was also present but spoke only occasionally—in Russian—to clarify certain aspects of BFT’s history.) “His support has been great.” In late March members of BFT, along with supporters like Spacey and Law, held a protest outside the London headquarters of PR firm Grayling, which has been promoting investment opportunities in the country and is something that members of the BFT are against because they feel it could help bolster the regime. “Living in Belarus is like living in Czechoslovakia after the Prague Spring or in Poland during Martial Law,” says Koliada. “We are screaming to everyone saying that this is happening here and now in 21st century Europe and it is no longer possible to stand it.”

Photo courtesy of Belarus Free Theatre/Nikolai Khalezin


1 reply
  1. Marina Calland
    Marina Calland says:

    It’s so hard to believe that this kind of repression is still going on in Europe. But yet it does. And it is so rarely reported. Perhaps Formula One should have a race in Minsk to attract the world media’s attention to the country.

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