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Belarus: Underground Troupe Brings Cutting-Edge Theater To Moscow

  • Claire Bigg --> Actor Oleg Sidorchik during a performance of "We. Self-Identification" in Moscow last weekend (RFE/RL) The Free Theater of Minsk is a rare voice of dissent in President Alyaksandr Lukashenka's Belarus -- it is currently the only drama troupe boldly resisting government pressure and censorship. The company, created less than a year ago, is now coming into the international limelight and played to Russian audiences for the first time last weekend. RFE/RL spoke to playwright Nikolai Khalezin, co-founder of the theater group.

MOSCOW, 3 February 2006 (RFE/RL) -- Russian drama lovers got a rare chance last weekend to see the Free Theater in action. This underground theater troupe is popular with emancipated Belarusians, but its performances abroad are still few and far between.

The Free Theater's Russian debut was a success: its three performances at Moscow's Meyerhold Center -- one of the Russian capital's most progressive theaters -- were widely popular.

In Belarus, catching a performance by this troupe is not easy.

Dangerous Activity

In a country that the U.S. government has famously dubbed "the last dictatorship in Europe," staging uncensored plays is a dangerous activity. Playwright Nikolai Khalezin says prospective spectators are therefore carefully screened before every performance.

"To attend one of our performances, you need to find out a special telephone number, call it, someone will write down your name, then you need to go to a place far from the city center, where you will be identified," Khalezin said. "Seats are booked for many performances in advance, and entering the room [on your own] is almost impossible."

The Free Theater was founded in March 2005 when Khalezin, together with his wife Natalya Kolyada, launched a playwright competition. Over the next few months, they received more than 230 plays from a dozen different countries.

The Free Theater manages to deliver cutting-edge, effervescent performances -- and is determined to fight for its right to do so until Lukashenka's regime comes to an end.

The group soon premiered with "4.48 Psychosis," a play by British playwright Sarah Kane dealing with depression and suicide -- two themes that are taboo in state-controlled Belarusian art.

The Belarusian authorities were quick to retaliate. The state-owned theater in Minsk, where the play's young director, Vladimir Shcherban, used to work, reduced his salary and barred him from staging plays.

Undaunted Determination

Since then, actors, directors, and playwrights involved in productions by the Free Theater have often run into trouble. Owners of bars and clubs have also suffered repercussions after letting the theater use their premises.

But this has done nothing to dampen the determination of the troupe, which continues to dodge censors by renting out premises for alleged "corporate parties" or even performing in private flats.

After winning over fans at home, the company rapidly attracted international attention. The theater has gained the staunch support of a number of luminaries, including British playwright Tom Stoppard, U.S. playwright Arthur Kopit, and former Czech President and playwright Vaclav Havel.

The Free Theater so far has only three plays in its repertoire. "Technique Of Breathing In A Vacuum," by Russian playwright Natalya Moshina, tells the story of a girl with cancer.

"We. Self-Identification" is based on trivial conversations recorded by one of the actors on the building site of the National Library in Minsk -- a construction project closely supervised by Lukashenka, the former collective farm director who has ruled Belarus with an iron fist for the past 12 years.

In the final scene, the four actors, dressed in black workers' dungarees and orange safety helmets, recite texts about slavery by Socrates and Aleksei Losev, a prominent Russian philosopher who was sent to labor camps for rejecting Marxism.

Khalezin describes the play as a "contemporary vision of slavery." One passage from a scene reads: "In a sense, the slave looking after his master is freer than the latter, since he has the option of running away from him. The master, however, cannot hide from himself."

Not Political Theater

"We. Self-Identification" is seen by many as the Free Theater's most political work.

Khalezin, however, balks at the label of "political theater."

"The actors, the directors, and us, the theater's founders, do not consider ourselves [to be] political theater," Khalezin said. "Political theater is boring. The fact that our aesthetical position and our views on the freedom in art differ from those of the authorities have enabled journalists and society to say: 'this is political theater.' No, we do not declare any political idea. The only thing we declare is freedom in art and the morality of those involved in theater."

"In a sense, the slave looking after his master is freer than the latter, since he has the option of running away from him. The master, however, cannot hide from himself."

If the Free Theater has no political agenda, then what makes it so subversive in the eyes of the authorities?

Khalezin says Lukashenka's authoritarian regime, which he describes as "collective farm-like," has failed, unlike the Soviets and the Nazis, to establish an aesthetic platform to promote its doctrines.

The Belarusian leadership, he says, therefore feels threatened by any form of individual artistic expression that illustrates present-day dilemmas.

Despite the pressure and obstacles, the Free Theater manages to deliver cutting-edge, effervescent performances -- and Khalezin says the troupe is determined to fight for its right to do so until Lukashenka’s regime comes to an end.

Don't Live Forever

"Dictators don't live forever," Khalezin said. "Each of us will take his or her own place in history -- he will take one place, and we will take another."

European spectators will have to wait a little longer for a chance to meet the Free Theater since it has suspended all performances abroad until the end of the presidential elections, slated for 19 March. Khalesin says it is particularly important for the troupe to be in Belarus during the vote, which is widely expected to be rigged.

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    Claire Bigg

    Claire Bigg covers Russia, Ukraine, and the post-Soviet world, with a focus on human rights, civil society, and social issues. Send story tips to​