It’s rare that I am so entirely overwhelmed by a production that I walk out and start reading articles about the company but with Belarus Free Theatre (BFT) I did just that. With Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko named as “Europe’s last dictator”, any disagreement with his dictatorship is deemed illegal, causing galleries, newspapers and businesses of activists to be shut down. The only way of getting past this? BFT founders Natalia Koliada, Nikolai Khalezin and Vladimir Shcherban took theatre to hidden locations to express their voices, even with the fear of being arrested, tortured or killed. With politics and art at the forefront of their minds, BFT created the festival Staging a Revolution in London, opening my eyes to something entirely new and innovative. Weeks later I find myself in the company of Natalia Koliada, one of the co-founders, with my chance to find exactly how and why it all happens.
The company started in early 2002 when Nikolai Khalezin started to write plays, something that couldn’t be prohibited. After a series of conversations ingraining the necessity for a democratic movement and Khalezin’s success as a playwright, he was awarded a $10,000 bursary from a company in Moscow. “On the seven hour train journey, we decided that the money had to go back into the theatre”. Their aim was not only to discuss the social taboos of Belarus but to also reintroduce observational playwrights into the country. For them it was “a public awareness campaign and we knew we would be using a very unprecedented tool for it” but years later on they are still using it to educate and break through the Belarusian dictatorship.
With the fear of the KGB raiding productions in Belarus, there was a tense and shocking moment when the police turned up at Generation Jeans during the run of Staging a Revolution. Koliada, who has had asylum in England since 2011, explains, “I never liked their strong presence” despite agreeing that their purpose in a democracy is to protect. After the stories she tells me of raided theatre productions in Belarus the terror that materialised when the police arrived to the Westminster location came at no surprise; “In 2007 we opened Eleven Vests and after a Pinter style pause we were informed we were under arrest” because they disagreed with their country’s dictator. Luckily, the situation was quickly resolved through Koliada showcasing the company through the many articles written about the festival, specifically the The Spectator article that had been released earlier that day.
I assumed the vast amount of press increased the level of danger in staging productions in Belarus but in reality “it is a form of protection”. In the same arrest as previously mentioned they got a message to founder Tom Stoppard who in turn contacted journalists all over the world. “The next day the Minister of Foreign Affairs denied that anyone was arrested to cover up the raid. It is enormous that kind of solidarity that comes from artists all over the world and we are so deeply grateful”. Koliada explains that she recognises the media coverage as a tool and that maybe one day there will be justice for those kidnapped and murdered for standing up for their beliefs.
Koliada was insistent on having a similar process to a Belarusian production; having different, undisclosed locations to replicate some of the intensity. “We had a conversation with our friend, general manager and producer” who later secured all the spaces for the two-week festival. There was a certain element of “reintroducing Londoners to London” and part of the festival detail was to tackle issues in London so the ideas that are not exclusive to those in Belarus. These locations only seem mildly imaginative when Koliada begins to discuss some of the obscure ways they have staged performances, “we’ve held a production in a bus before with a fake bride and groom incase the KGB arrived”.
Koliada put great emphasis on the fact that they “want to experiment” to ensure the company will never become boring, as is usually the way when a theatre becomes too comfortable. This is confirmed in a Skype call to a production about to begin in Belarus. Skype is the company’s way of bridging the gap between themselves, their students and their audiences. Their unique approaches will undoubtedly guarantee their continued success in all chosen fields – be it theatre, activism or teaching.
Staging a Revolution can be watched online until 1 December.