Minsk. Probably best known to many of us as the parochial European city to which Phoebe’s scientist boyfriend relocates in Friends. Minsk 2011: A Reply to Kathy Acker, however, by the Belarus Free Theatre, is a stark and unapologetic glimpse into the reality of living and working in the city. So unapologetic that the production has been confronted by much darker and dangerous issues than the usual tribulations of casting, design and direction. Belarus is under the shadow of the last remaining dictatorship in geographic Europe and Minsk itself is under a kind of serious socio-political oppression that would shock most in and around the UK. Behind the Belarus Free Theatre is married couple Natalia Kaliada and Nicolai Khalezin; as well as producing Minsk 2011, they run the company itself, which recently visited Shakespeare’s Globe with a Belarusian King Lear for the Globe to Globe season. Now, they return to London for the London International Festival of Theatre with their Fringe First award-winning production.

Kaliada explains, “I’ve been in jail, my husband has been in jail, but this is the life that we have chosen”. Yet for them, this play is not exclusively about politics, it is about theatre. The play was inspired by Kathy Acker’s play New York City in 1979, which explores sexuality in New York at the time. Minsk 2011 follows suit, examining the strip clubs, underground raves and gay pride parades that exist underneath the oppressed surface. Obviously the play throws up an interesting antithesis; as well as showcasing exactly what’s happening in Minsk society, it is also a work of theatre that displays the cast’s talents. In fact, it is only recently that the company has acquired new members, as for the previous seven years new actors were too afraid to join, unsure of how serious the consequences would be. However, as Kaliada explains: “If creating theatre means that it will attract the right kind of attention to my country, I will do it if it helps.”

Bringing the play to England has been both incredibly exciting professionally, yet terrifying personally, for Kaliada, her husband and colleagues. Members of the company and artistic team were unsure as to whether they would be let out of the country to travel abroad to perform the play; they were sent one by one on different flights, anxiously hoping that everyone would arrive safely. The poignant thing about this theatre company is that it is not just the play itself that has a dramatic and gripping story to tell, it is the members themselves. “In our country it is so oppressed, the way people are arrested, the way they are treated. They are harassed and threatened to be raped. So the way that sexual violence develops in such ways, it is very interesting to see another side of it. Like when Kathy Acker was talking about her time in New York, it was interesting for us to go the same way as her, and explore it in that way.”

It is this sexual violence that develops in extreme social situations that Kaliada and Khalezin wanted to represent theatrically. This theme of sexual violence is where they had the idea of using Kathy Acker as inspiration and together with director Vladimir Shcherban (who Kaliada credits as instrumental in how the piece came about), the company have created Minsk 2011. The members of the company itself have dealt with so much adversity simply for performing a play, that it makes the drama and tension of the play undeniably real. A shocking example of this is that one of the young members of the theatre group was warned, at 20 years old, that she would lose her education if she joined the company. I asked what her answer was. “Her answer to this was that it was her choice, and that there was only one free theatre company doing something this unique, and she wanted to be a part of this company.”

This kind of oppression may seem alien to audiences in the UK, but Kaliada emphasises that the production as a whole is still easy for us to relate to. “If you think about the difficulty that younger people have in communicating with older generations, this is like that. Except it is a whole country unable to communicate with the government. I think whatever country you are in this feeling of your voice not being heard is relatable.” Ultimately, Minsk 2011 shows the value of one human being’s life. What could be more pressing and direct for audiences anywhere and everywhere?

With so much drama both politically and personally (Kaliada tells me how her parents’ apartment was raided by the KGB), it’s almost impossible to stop yourself asking, why? Why do Kaliada and the rest of the company continue to put themselves at so much risk? “It is because you don’t have any other choice. When you understand that, it is just your life.” This is a woman whose bravery is startling. “People know that if you join the Belarus Free Theatre, you lose your job, your education; you may be beaten or arrested. So I do this for so many people. I see these decisions being made by all members of the company, and of course it is a unique feeling when you do this play and you understand that everything is sold out. I know we’re doing something right.” That level of sacrifice to the play cannot go unappreciated or unnoticed, and it is almost unnerving to hear her talk so capably and defiantly about the horrors that people in Belarus have experienced. There is a thrill in the pride and absolute satisfaction of knowing shows are selling out. “Not only politically are we helping, but artistically I feel very excited about what is to come.”

Ultimately, what will propel Minsk 2011 is the unique duality of story on and off stage. The Belarus Free Theatre company is not only made up of talented actors, director Vladimir Shcherban and the phenomenal work of Kaliada and Khalezin,but also it beats with the hearts of pioneers who are artistically forging a new hopeful path for their country. The collective voice of the company ensures it is not just spectacular theatre that you witness, it is a glimpse into their incredible personal story. Surviving under the last dictatorship in Europe has seen them empowered to perform for what they believe is right. Artistic concerns over bad reviews are put starkly into context: this is a company fighting for its right to freedom of speech and theatre in its home country. Kaliada offers this challenge to us all: “The only way to understand it is to see it.”

Fuel Theatre presents Minsk 2011: A Reply to Kathy Acker by the Belarus Free Theatre at the Young Vic Theatre as part of the London International Festival of Theatre until Saturday 23 June. For more information and to book tickets, visit Fuel Theatre’s site here.

Image credit: Belarus Free Theatre