One of the theatre companies for which I have immense admiration is Belarus Free Theatre and I have often written about them, their situation and their founders on Theatre Room – search above right for previous posts. It’s not just about their craft, which is outstanding, but equally about what they stand for.
Yesterday, on the BBC World Service strand HARDtalk Natalia Kaliada, co-founder of Belarus Free Theatre gave a powerful interview about the political situation in Belarus. She talks about why directors, actors and even audiences are arrested and imprisoned in the face of a dictatorship in a country where political dissent gets you beaten up, begging the question is drama an effective tool of resistance? The podcast is below.
A week ago, respected theatre director Michael Attenborough gave an interview to Dalya Alberge, published in The Guardian, talking about the Belarusian regime and how it threatens free expression, himself having spent a week in the country, working with BFT on a production of King Lear.
David Cameron can’t ignore Belarus Free Theatre abuse
One of Britain’s leading theatre directors has called for David Cameron, the UK’s prime minister, to confront human-rights abuses in Belarus,Europe’s last dictatorship.
Michael Attenborough says Cameron can no longer ignore a brutal regime that arrests people for attending a play, has imprisoned a theatre director for 15 hours with no toilet, and has threatened to bulldoze a man’s home for allowing blacklisted actors to perform.
“Pressure should be put on the [Belarus] government about civil rights,” Attenborough says. “It’s a neglected cause.”
Attenborough, who headed the Almeida theatre in London until last year, entered the former Soviet republic as a tourist to spend a week working with the Belarus Free Theatre (BFT), a company banned in its own country.
BFT’s underground performances are regularly raided, with actors and audiences intimidated or arrested. Its founder-members – includingNatalia Kaliada, Nicolai Khalezin and Vladimir Shcherban – were forced into exile, coming to Britain as political refugees. With a base at the Young Vic theatre, London, they perform worldwide, liaising via the internet with colleagues still in the Belarusian capital, Minsk, who continue performing in secret locations.
BFT, founded in 2005, stages fiercely political productions, often directly critical of a regime that, under President Alexander Lukashenko, is accused of torturing and murdering political opponents. A US critic described it as “one of the most powerful and vividly resourceful underground companies on the planet”. Its stagings include Being Harold Pinter, a biting satire using real-life testimony from Belarusian citizens.
Now it must find a new location. The owner of the garage – a “slum” where the actors have been rehearsing and performing – has been warned to cease collaboration with BFT, or his house will be demolished.
“I almost don’t understand it,” Attenborough says. “They put themselves in so much danger willingly … They’re astonishing.”
“Natalia [Kaliada] was made to stand for 15 hours, not allowed a toilet … I visited [her] parents on my last night there. [Her father] is a very bright man from the university. He’s lost his job because he’s her father. They’re all different forms of harassment.”
When in Minsk, Attenborough asked the actors why they faced such danger. “They all said the same thing,” he says. “‘Self-expression. Otherwise, we’re just dancing to somebody else’s tune.'”
Attenborough worked with the group on King Lear. “They came to it with such hunger,” he says. On the day of the performance, he sensed their nervousness. The company publicises each show only 24 hours in advance, through social networking. “So there’s a great deal of subterfuge before,” he explains. The police raided just as it was about to start, but then left them alone.
On another evening, the company performed in a forest near Minsk. An audience of 50 turned up. Attenborough says: “The sense of freedom of people miles away from microphones, spies and depression was really moving.”
Michael is the son of the actor-director Richard Attenborough, whose own parents responded in 1939 to the plight of those facing persecution. They took in two German-Jewish children, adopting them after it was discovered that their parents had been murdered. Attenborough speaks of his shock on hearing that a close friend of BFT’s founders was found hanged in his flat in 2010 “with a fake suicide-note”. Some believe that, as an opposition activist, he was killed.
Attenborough could not wait to return home from Minsk. “It’s a really unnerving, uncanny experience – almost as if the whole place has been drained of emotion,” he says. “I thought maybe people were being unfriendly because I was English. I went to restaurants and supermarkets – and they do it to each other. [It’s] a completely joyless place.
“There are only two things alive – if you can call it alive – at night in Minsk. Casinos – which I think are illegal in Russia, so Russians come to bet – and mass prostitution. You’ve never seen so many street hookers. A group were standing outside my hotel. I found one who could speak English. Once I’d convinced her I wasn’t after business, I learned about their existence. This woman was about 50 with a family to support. How grim can life be?”
Kaliada recalls the terror of prison, deprived of water and sleep, ordered to face a wall and remain still or be beaten up. “You have to start to meditate. Otherwise, you go completely mad,” she says. “I can’t even talk of my experience. I was threatened to be raped by a guard. Political prisoners go through hell.”
Her husband, Khalezin, was placed in a cell with no windows, its floor less than a metre square.
David Lan, the artistic director of the Young Vic, says: “If you resist the state, you get very badly beaten up. Kolya [Khalezin] has been beaten up. One eye was damaged. Natalia’s been beaten up. I was brought up in South Africa. The technique is similar.”
BFT’s bravery is matched by the quality of its productions, Lan says. “Their work is completely original, powerful and first-rate – political theatre of the kind we used to take for granted but which has somehow died.” At the Young Vic this summer, BFT will be performing a new piece, Red Forest, featuring real-life stories from people living in war zones, in dictatorships and in unjust and unequal societies across the globe.
Stagings in Belarus are not toned down for fear of repercussions, Kaliada says: “It can’t be said that all of our work is overtly political. One of the latest shows to be raided and stopped the other day in Belarus was a non-verbal dance interpretation of Chekhov’s The Seagull. This couldn’t be called political. We are shut down because the work has not been approved by censors.”
In her interview on HARDtalk Kaliada makes reference to the World Ice Hockey Championships that have just opened in Belarus – the first major international sporting event to take place in the country – and how this would appear to condone the 20 year-long regime of President Alexander Lukashenko and his systematic attack on human rights. In an open letter to the athletes taking part, a group of actors, writers, directors and artists have appealed to them to boycott the event.
Open Letter to all Ice Hockey Players who are taking part in the World Cup of Ice Hockey in Belarus:
We are artists writing to athletes, asking you to take a moment to consider the political situation of the country where the Ice Hockey World Championships is taking place.
Alexander Lukashenko is known as “Europe’s Last Dictator”. Belarusians have lived for 20 years under Lukashenko’s regime, and have faced torture, kidnapping and murder, intimidation and harassment for speaking out against his inhumane laws and regulations.
Lukashenko has created a publicity campaign with the slogan: “Big ice hockey supports Alexander Lukashenko”. We do not believe that. We believe ice hockey players support freedom and human rights. Please do not let yourselves be used by a despot. Join us by showing you do not support the Last Dictator of Europe and that you stand with the people of Belarus by wearing a red and white scarf after the match. These are colors of our national flag that is recognized in Belarus as symbol of resistance.
On 21st of December, of 2010 after a bloody crackdown of a peaceful rally when citizens of Belarus went to protest against falsification of elections, seven of us started the campaign with a slogan “Don’t Play with Dictators”. Those people included a unique person the late Vaclav Havel, a playwright and dissident born under a communist dictatorship who went on to be President of a free Czechoslovakia.
We ask you to show the Belarusian people that the courage and strength you show in your sport is not blind, and to join them by demonstrating your opposition a regime that violates human rights. This simple act of support would give millions strength in a time of political turmoil, just as the brave actions of athletes at Mexico in 1968 and Sochi in 2014, touched countless of people around the world.
We are not in a position of executive power, but we believe by uniting as artists and athletes we can make a difference simply by showing the Belarusian people that we value human rights and freedom and that we stand with them. We have a moral authority and it should not be misused by dictators for their own aims.
Belarus has been frozen in time. Its people have no opportunity under its Soviet style dictatorship. The recent invasions of the Ukraine by Russia means that the entire region is in danger of returning to the austere times of the Soviet Union.
Artists and athletes have a responsibility to make voices heard on behalf of those who are silenced, not as athletes or as artists, but as fellow human beings.
You are people of strong will and action. Usually it’s the fans who show their support for you, now it’s your turn to support them.
Put a white-red-white scarf on when you get on the ice. The red represents courage and white represents compassion. The scarf will demonstrate to the fans that you recognize the dictator for who he really is, and show that you stand behind the fans. Wearing the scarf will give them courage and let them know that their voices are heard.
Sport should be kept out of politics but when its not, athletes must demonstrate that they know what is going on, that they care, and they stand behind their fans in their quest for human rights and freedom.
Don’t play with Dictators, support your fans!
Signed by Laurie Anderson, Michael Attenborough, James Bierman, Kim Cattrall, Stephen Fry, Ralph Gibson, Hugh Grant, Paul Haggis, David Lan, Natalia Kaliada, Nicolai Khalezin, Jude Law, Joanna Lumley, Alan Rickman, Mark Rylance, Vladimir Shcherban, Tom Stoppard, Andy Summers, Janet Suzman and Emma Thompson
The letter was published in The Guardian.