Verity Healey talks to Natalia Kaliada about Staging A Revolution.

verity healey
verity healey
writer and filmmaker

In Belarus Free Theatre’s Minsk 2011: A Reply to Kathy Acker, an actress is stripped of her clothes and has her naked body covered in ink as she describes being arrested by state police, fingerprinted and abused. Like a parcel, she is wrapped in brown paper (of the type sometimes still used in Belarus to wrap around goods) but, carried by the force of her own words, breaks free from the fragile chrysalis with a whip in hand, and emerges wilder, perhaps older and in a rage:“a sadomasochistic sophisticate” is born that “will make the world tremble” (Minsk 2011). The image also says something about record, about how what is done to a person can never be revoked or erased, but instead can be recorded and written as testimony- appropriate for Belarus Free Theatre, a company outlawed and oppressed in their own country. The work, soon to be performed at their 10th anniversary festival here in London, addresses sexuality and oppression in Belarus- a dictatorship and “one of the oddest products of the disintegration of the USSR”, a country of 10 million people huddled between Russia and Poland and presided over by Vladimir Putin ally, self-fashioned and now election-rigging dictator Alexander Lukashenko, whose oppressive rule is propped up by a human rights abusing KGB “the most honest organisation in the world” and an increasingly blind and nonchalant Europe.

Photo: Jane Hobson

“Where is sexuality in Belarus?” Natalia Kaliada asks me, original co-founder along with her husband journalist Nicolai Khalezin and director Vladimir Shcherben, of Belarus Free Theatre, now all political refugees in Britain. It is a rhetorical question: previous to Belarus’ 2010 elections, the company performed a version of Kathy Acker’s seminal work New York 1979 under the direction of Vladimir Shcherban. Labelled ‘porno producers’ by the KGB in an attempt to discredit them on social media, the piece raised important questions about sexuality back in Belarus. Where were their own protests? Why had nothing reached oppressive Minsk where being gay is talked of as if it is a disease and where those on a gay pride march might find themselves taken off to the woods and threatened with rape and murder? Kaliada says quietly: “For Vladimir to direct Minsk 2011 was the most obvious thing to do, because at that moment, after election time, you had a complete feeling of complete emptiness and everyone felt lost in an empty city. It was a very weird feeling, especially when you know that the aggression is coming from your own citizens and that there are no boundaries.” But the path to bringing life to Minsk 2011 was not going to be an easy one- by now having fled Belarus after the bloodiest elections the country had seen and arriving in London via New York’s La MaMa Theatre in May 2011, the company realised that it felt even more urgent for them to perform Minsk. But it was only after – due to pressure from British artists, particularly Tom Stoppard, Michael Attenborough, David Lan and Jude Law- political asylum was granted to Natalia, Nicolai and Vladimir, their leading actor Oleg Sidorchyk, and the theatre’s actors were given visas on reassurances that they would return to Belarus after the show, that the opportunity finally arose for them to gather in this country and realise that “all they wanted to talk about was the emptiness that came through sexual oppression.” It was Dartington College of Arts who would give them the residency that would enable them to develop Minsk 2011, with Fuel Theatre producing. Now the company, leading a double life, continues to operate both in Belarus putting on secret underground performances, and outside of it, performing freely in more democratic countries, as they have done from their first year of existence.

To be clear, there are no gay rights in Belarus. There hasn’t been for 21 years, the duration Alexander Lukashenko has been in power. In 2012 the ruler of Belarus said of Germany’s openly gay foreign minister Guido Westerwelle: “It’s better to be a dictator than gay”. When similar oppressions in Russia, Belarus’ neighbouring powerful ally, came into being four years ago, the media was awash with news reports- Russia’s anti gay activities are covered extensively by the broadsheets and openly challenged by celebrities. This frustrates Kaliada almost to the point of tears. “Belarus just isn’t sexy enough” she says, referring to a speech she wrote for Minsk 2011. It has no natural assets like oil or gas that could attract EU leaders to care- “The only resource Belarus has is its people. But people are an unpopular commodity. Unattractive. If you put them in a cage, people kill each other, they create a tornado of sexual violence. The ones who hold society’s power crush the weak and defenceless ones” (Minsk 2011).

If talk about the plight of the Belarusians (who are soon to face another likely rigged election on October 11th) seems taboo in Europe’s media, Staging a Revolution, which will take place both at the Young Vic and, in order to mimic performing conditions the company face in Belarus, at secret locations around London, intends to explore and undermine the taboos that are promoted by Alexander Lukashenko and his regime.

When the company first tried to find a theatre in 2005 – a cafe or public place in Belarus that would allow them to put on their inaugural production of Sarah Kane’s 4.48 Psychosis after the country’s National Theatre wouldn’t even allow it to be rehearsed- they were turned away through fears that audiences would catch mental illnesses through association. Public officials insist that suicide, mental instability and sexual minorities do not exist in Belarus, Alexander Lukashenko also states several times that Belarus is the healthiest country in the world and that homosexuality has come from the West.

“Such things are considered to be catching” notes Kaliada, “When we have a gay parade in Minsk, there will be a government announcement ‘don’t allow your children out because it’s contagious.” Belarus Free Theatre then is about personal politics in action. “In my personal opinion in relation to 4.48 Psychosis, it is about a reflection on a country and countries and on us within those contexts,” says Kaliada. “What is happening, how it’s happening, whether something has changed. What I need to say about the situation in Belarus is that it got worse, if we reflect on the situation of what is happening now with Europe, it’s just a disaster,” Kaliada is adamant.

If it is not by accident that the company’s festival opens with Sarah Kane’s 4.48 Psychosis – “It is myself I have never met, whose face is pasted on the underside of my mind, please open the curtains” the play’s final words a commentary on identity, on self, on a public self that is oppressed, on theatre, on “national psychosis” – it is also no accident they close with Being Harold Pinter, directed and adapted by Vladimir Shcherban. It was Tom Stoppard, visiting them in Minsk in 2005 who famously said “you need to pay attention to Pinter.” Kaliada says of the playwright that “has so dominated and defined the theatrical landscape of his time” and whose work was not translated into Russian until 2005, when he won the Nobel Prize for Literature, that “he was talking about ourselves not even knowing he was talking about us. It was clear that it was necessary to see the transition from the domestic violence of his early plays into the real violence that exists in Belarus. It was the first show where everybody felt part of a process.”

Harold Pinter also encouraged the theatre company to think about how theatre and life could be merged- “He said to us, ‘stage whatever you want, how you want’ and it was that particular communication that made us understand about real life and that real life can be transformed into theatre and that audiences can be changed by watching that theatre.”

If the instinct of the contamination that violence brings informs all of Harold Pinter’s plays, it is the sense that Belarus Free Theatre is a cultural historian, and transmits historical memory through their plays and campaigning, that seems to partly drive them I suggest. “Belarus is a she,” Kaliada says in answer. “Even Belarus Free Theatre’s operation underground in Belarus is led by two girls and all our operations in London are 90% run by women.” Pertinently, women and historical memory predominate in Belarus Free Theatre’s new play premiering at the festival, Time of Women, written by Kaliada and Nicolai Khalezin. It is a record and celebration and champion of female resistance within Belarus over the last five years and follows the real life experiences of three extraordinary women whose lives came, like Kaliada’s and everyone’s in the company, to be defined by the struggle against Alexander Lukashenko. “It is about the women who are the frontline of the struggle in Belarus,” says Kaliada. In fact, female politicisation and resistance, both internal and external, is so widespread in Belarus that she wrote her PhD on ‘Women’s role in the anti-soviet movement’- a PhD she was told she could not continue until after the dictatorship ‘was over’. “Now” she laughs but is sincere, “I need to write another paper on women’s role in resisting the dictatorship in Belarus.”

But that PhD might not be as it may seem, Belarus has what Nicolai Khalezin describes as an ‘aesthetic clash.’ Generations of people, men and women, young and old, seemingly raised in ‘incubators’ who are increasingly pro-soviet. With reference to these females, who don’t make an appearance in Time of Women, Kaliada says “It’s a particular kind of soviet woman; for example, Lidia Yermoshina, the chairwoman of our election committee, who was blacklisted by the EU for falsifying elections, says to women who go out on the streets to protest ‘you had better stay at home and make borsch!’”

It is not possible to say anything to this except laugh in amazed wonder, which we both do. Humour I’ve noticed, is a Belarusian trait that seems to help its people deal with oppression. But “the KGB know how to psychologically torture people” says Kaliada, referring to a friend who suffered nightmares and could not sleep alone after his time in a KGB jail. Yet despite these experiences and Natalia’s own at the hands of the KGB – imprisoned in the Ministry of Internal Affairs jail for 20 hours and threatened with rape- and despite that Belarus is the only European country to retain the death penalty and ‘disappears’ some of the resistors or murders them, Kaliada and the women back in Belarus and Belarus Free Theatre, are not going to keep quiet. “People are prepared to die now” she confesses of their Belarusian audiences. And I believe her, it seems that no one’s life can be left untouched or unaffected by Alexander Lukashenko’s rule. And as a result, for Belarus Free Theatre, protesting and campaigning and theatre are firmly interlinked and have become just as important as each other. It is also inherited; Kaliada’s grandfather was imprisoned in Stalin’s jail, and her Grandmother jokes that protesting is in “Natalia’s DNA”; Nicolai Khalezin also comes from a politically active family. In Belarus, “There is no way to avoid it.” Which is why the company has such a close relationship with its audiences back home, who are given the location of shows via text and attend in secret- after shows audiences can stay to a discussion with the actors and also greet and talk to Natalia, Nicolai and Vladimir via skype, who risk arrest if they reenter Belarus. And although their theatre goers make themselves vulnerable to being filmed by the KGB and consequently threatened and imprisoned, or if they are at university, have their education taken away from them, audiences have grown by more than 40%. “They are not afraid, they ask us if we can come with a show two weeks before a protest so that they will have something to remember when they are arrested and are put in jail” says Kaliada, underlining how much theatre and protest has become inextricably linked for the people in Belarus, where it seems to be used to help motivate and give people a sense of identity, even as the state is trying to destroy it.

From a country where there is so much threat to human life simply for attending a theatre show, but which by default, changes the very nature of the relationships between the outspoken theatre makers and their audiences and brings them closer together in a common aim, it is a surprise for Belarus Free Theatre to find that the industry in the UK and in the US is surrounded by such huge walls. “It is not possible to touch or disturb the audience in Western Society” argues Kaliada, “although it’s not possible to blame audiences under democracy. In reality it’s a great evolutionary democratic achievement when people have a well-deserved right to go and rest and be entertained in a theatre. But the problem is now it’s only entertainment that is widely supported- you bought a ticket, there is no way we should disturb you. We do not deny that theatre should be entertaining and I don’t want to say that theatre can only be political, I want to say that both has a right to exist but that you can make a complex show which is also entertaining and which makes you think. Any system anywhere is afraid of people who think. That’s why we want to get together with our audiences and try and replicate over here what happens in Belarus.”

Appropriately, this recalls Vaclav Havel’s statement that, “I think theatre should always be somewhat suspect”; in other words, it should always be a place for the unspeakable, it should be a place for dissent. What’s the kind of relationship Belarus Free Theatre hope to encourage with audiences outside Belarus then? “In New York, when we showed Trash Cuisine, many of the audience joined us the next morning for our protest Give A Body Back, a campaign to return the bodies of executed prisoners to their families. Oberon Books closed down their offices and came and laid down with us. So it is not possible to divide theatre makers and audiences, we are just human beings, no matter what we do.”

“We are just human beings” seems to be at the core of Belarus Free Theatre’s work. Thinking about Red Forest, looking at environmental catastrophe through personal stories or Merry Xmas, Ms Meadows, a play based on a true story about gender reassignment, both not included in the festival, it is hard to dispute the fact that their work starts with the personal, and often physically and poetically, with their bodies, even if as it inevitably and as it should, macros out into the political. But for Kaliada and Belarus Free Theatre there cannot be a divide, the personal and the political are the same.

So I ask her then, what’s her message to the political leaders in light of the present crisis in Europe? In reply, she says some weeks ago, although she has Political Refugee status in Britain, she was detained at Heathrow Terminal 3 and told her that her leave to stay in this country was temporarily suspended. Despite having official papers stamped by the Home Office, despite paying taxes to that very same Home Office and giving seventeen UK residents jobs, she was still subjected to 15 minutes of humiliation. This sort of says it all but she goes on: “What is enough for Western democracies in order for them to start paying attention to dictators?” she says simply. “It is not enough to be killed anymore.”

This is also Belarus’ problem, hugely magnified by Belarus Free Theatre in all that they do. What has to happen in Belarus for European leaders to take notice and act? Imagining a time when Belarus Free Theatre can travel and work in their own country safe and uninterrupted, reunited with loved ones back home, seems a dream. Whilst their partial exile is undoubtedly the rest of the world’s gain, it’s hard not to think of the theatre company leading a double life, with the constant shadow of those still performing in secret and in danger back in Belarus. The theatre company’s struggles and work, which now encompasses other struggles all around the world and includes Ministry of Counterculture (an internet platform founded by Nicolai Khalezin to address the narrow understanding of the role the arts play in social change) shines a light upon serious questions for the theatre here in the UK, not least the relationship between theatres and their audiences and how close they can and should be. It’s clear that Belarus Free Theatre are leading the way in this- their work is a trailblazing example of how close both art and life can work together and support each other in order to promote social well being and the good health of all countries.


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