What’s the price of money? Not its value – but what are we prepared to sacrifice, sell or subject ourselves to in order to achieve financial success? Drawing on theatrical sources from Aristophanes’ Plutus to Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, Belarus Free Theatre follows up its Edinburgh Fringe show Merry Christmas Ms Meadows – which explored queer theory and LGBT rights – with The Price of Money, spanning millennia and crossing countries with a similarly ambitious thematic scope.
“Almost all of the members and participants of Belarus Free Theatre have been part of different socioeconomic or political experiments during their lives,” Director Vladimir Shcherban explains through an interpreter over the phone, between rehearsals in Falmouth for the upcoming run at London’s Albany Theatre. “All of us were born in the USSR, where there was a huge propaganda of ‘equality’ in words, but in reality an elite and then people who had nothing. The theatre itself has existed now for ten years under a harsh dictatorship, and three years ago part of the company was exiled from Belarus and had to seek political asylum. Right now, we are about to show this premier in the world of capitalism – in London, at the heart of the european financial world.”
Which means that, as far as British performances go, the “free” of the company’s name refers to freedom of expression – not, you know, the price. This show, according to the Albany, is worth between £10-16, depending on concessions, seat allocations and group numbers. A VIP package also exists – priced at £40 – which includes a glass of champagne at the upcoming Belarus Solidarity Party. “In Belarus, we work for free, because we believe that theatre is a democratic space,” Shcherban says. “We have no idea about the price of tickets, or how any of that works in Britain.”
It’s this collision of worlds that informs the show – a collaboration between British and Belarusian performers drawing on their experiences under different monetary and political systems. To borrow a phrase from the ongoing conversation and movement around arts funding and fees, the ensemble will be delving into these conflicting experiences and “showing us theirs,” intercut with various documentary and literary materials. “We’ve got this joke going on right now that the dictatorship in Belarus didn’t kill us, but the dictatorship of finance might,” Shcherban laughs. “Because before we had to deal with the capitalists, we didn’t realise how expensive we were. In Belarus, we just had to have a desire to produce a show; here, that’s not enough.”
Not that they’d struggle to sell tickets; the critical response to the company’s previous work here has been generally very positive, but there’s also undeniably a cultural and ethical capital attached to their status as exiled artists. Which brings me to a slightly delicate question. After a few overly diplomatic non-starters are lost in translation, I finally spit it out: can the company’s history and legal status sometimes overshadow the work it actually produces? “The show comes before everything,” the director insists. “We’ve got a very articulated motivation for being onstage, so in this way our history is important for us. But I just think it’s important that audiences don’t get bored. Because you can know a lot about us, but if the show is boring then the show is boring.”
Part of The Price of Money‘s entertainment value, Shcherban says, is its satirical, Aristophanic humour – as a response to Plutus, it’s shot through with “a very rude comedy. The ancient Greeks were not politically correct at all, not to the extent we are now, and I’m really hoping that the show is not going to be either. This means we are going to say exactly what we think.”
Another text feeding into the show is a tract that helped inspire the global Occupy movement, Get Outraged! by Stephane Hessel, who steps in as Plutus‘ Just Man character – which goes some way to showing what they think already. As for the notion of a post-Occupy political apathy that many argue has set in, Shcherban is optimistic: “everybody wants the results straight away, but that’s impossible. What Occupy did was map out and mark the beginning of a movement – the movement of reclaiming.” Which is, he jokes, another reason people should come and see the show: “we’re going to open up a secret for everybody – the secret of how to become rich.”
The Price of Money is at the Albany from 16-20 September. For more information and tickets, visit the Albany’s website.