Belarus Free Theatre: 'Lukashenko's waging war on the arts. We had to go'

On the move: the Belarus Free Theatre in rehearsal in London – Rii Schroer

For 16 years, the internationally acclaimed company Belarus Free Theatre has been a thorn in the side of the regime
of Belarus dictator Alexander Lukashenko.

Founded in 2005 by Nikolai Khalezin, a playwright and ex-journalist, and Natalia Kaliada, a theatre producer, it has presented around 50 shows “underground” in the country despite being forbidden there.

Champions of its bravery and activity have included Tom Stoppard, Mick Jagger, Emma Thompson, the Czech dissident playwright turned Velvet Revolution president Vaclav Havel, who died a decade ago, and Harold Pinter, who died in 2008.
Its work often entails hard-hitting and physically gruelling explorations of topical themes – from capital punishment and dissident experience to the love life of fellow citizens. In Belarus in the past, mainly in the capital, Minsk, it has performed anywhere from garages and warehouses to private apartments and woods, always at the risk of police raids and arrests.

Things have changed since the election of August 2020, however, with its attendant demonstrations, accusations of electoral fraud against Lukashenko (contentiously returned for a sixth term), and crackdown. Presenting work in any form has become ever more fraught with the possibility of long custodial sentences and all the risk to life and limb manifestly associated with detention.

Today, having ceased presenting work in Belarus since May, the company is revealing it has taken the drastic step of leaving the country to relocate temporarily to the UK, its long-established second home, a process conducted between October 18 and 28. It has resulted in a poignant reunion.

Khalezin and Kaliada – who are married – had to flee years ago, after the December elections of 2010, which saw Kaliada detained for joining in protests. After pressing the US government for sanctions – introduced in 2011 – they were denounced as enemies of the Belarus state, were granted asylum here and later became British citizens, based in London, enabling the BFT to become the UK’s foremost refugee-led theatre company. In January this year they faced death threats in the state-run newspaper Sovietska Belarus.

Now, in a grim sign of the times, they have been united with company members with whom, for years, they only had remote contact. The BFT cohort in London has been bolstered by 13 people smuggled out of Belarus with three more coming over from Ukraine, Lithuania and Poland. In addition, there are family members, making a total of 25.

Artistic directors: Natalia Kaliada and Nikolai Khalezin – Rii Schroer

Kaliada, a model of self-composure and good humour under pressure, doesn’t divulge full details about how the escape operation was conducted, though it involved the use of permitted flights into neighbouring countries and cross-border travel under false pretences. “All of them were risking their lives,” she says. “I went completely grey with worry during this process. If they had been detained on the border that would have been it for them – they would have ended up in jail.”

When I meet her, Khalezin and co, they are busy mid rehearsals for a staging of the dystopian Belarus novel Dogs of Europe, by Alhierd Bacharevic. Banned back home, the book will get its UK premiere adaptation on the Barbican mainstage in March.

The performance will represent an act of symbolic defiance – “The show will be in the Belarusian language,” she says. “In Belarus people can get arrested for speaking it.” It’s a major event in other ways. “Our company will be taking to the stage without worrying that the police will get into the venue and arrest everyone. There’s a real sense of relief and gratitude that we’re here.”

The show’s near-future scenario couldn’t be more bleakly timely, envisaging a new Russian territorial bloc, part achieved by the annexation of Belarus, the invasion of Ukraine and a resulting nuclear conflict with NATO.

Despite the dark themes, there’s considerable lightness at play as 10 of the troupe enact a Gogol-esque scene of drunken rustic discussion, which turns into a euphoric riot of Romany dancing, with a lot of virile squat-dancing too. It’s perhaps no surprise that there’s a knock on the door of their rehearsal suite, not far from the Barbican Centre, and a relayed complaint from the banking firm below. They promise to quieten down, but their subsequent manoeuvres still resemble a demanding army training routine.

Among the most energised is the smiling figure of 37-year-old Iya Yasinski, a sight made more remarkable by the fact that this time last year he was recovering from a broken spine after being badly beaten by riot police.

He had been participating in protests at the death in custody of the children’s arts teacher Roman Bondarenko when he was set upon by a group of “Omon” officers, who dragged him into a van. “I tried to plead with them, but they continued beating me,” he says. He spent 10 days in hospital and several months recuperating.

An attempt to lodge a complaint resulted in a criminal case being filed against him, resulting in a decision to flee to Lithuania, earlier this year.

Svetlana Sugako, the company’s production manager, sums up the hopelessness that has engulfed her homeland. When I spoke to her online ahead of the election, she had been optimistic. “You can feel the energy in the streets,” she told me. “People are tired of being afraid.” But arrested on election night, she endured a “living hell” for five days, crammed into a cell with 35 other women, at the notorious Okrestina prison. “There were no human rights in there.”

“We were all hoping that Lukashenko would be finished by the end of last year. But then they started arresting more people, applying more pressure and it got really depressing. It feels like being stuck in a black hole. We left because although it was dangerous to do theatre before, now it is just out of control. There are no rules. They can just kill people. You can’t even rehearse without facing a punishment.”

There are tears in her eyes. For Khalezin, who is also busy shaping the agenda for the self-styled Belarusian Council for Culture, which liaises with the office of Lukashenko’s main rival Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya – the dictator has declared war on the arts. “I call it art-o-cide,” he says sadly. “Last year he wanted controllable puppets. Now the regime views artists as enemies. It doesn’t want them at all.”

The company has already devised a new piece conveying the current situation. They’re calling it “Gloomy Sunday”, after a maudlin 1930s Hungarian song. Will there be scope to stage it here? It depends, Kaliada replies. With very little financial support, so that she’s struggling to find accommodation for the group – who are on work visas – she’s faced with the dismaying prospect that they might have to decamp from the UK before coming back for the Barbican run in March. Given how much they can offer the theatre scene here, that would be a crying shame.

Even so, Kaliada remains defiant. “I think the regime will be angry we got everyone out,” she says. “It’s a small victory for us because we’re still making work. We won’t be silenced.”

A screening of a BFT documentary about the Crimean film-maker Oleg Sentsov, Alone, screens on Friday, Human Rights Day, at the Barbican Cinema. Dogs of Europe runs March 10-12; barbican.org.uk. To support Belarus Free Theatre email: donate@belarusfreetheatre.com; belarusfreetheatre.com

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