Last night was the first time I’d seen a play entirely in Russian; it was also my first time seeing Belarus Free Theatre perform. It was not, however, the first time I had heard of the underground theatre group as their reputation proceeds them, a guerrilla troupe forced to perform in secret before being exiled from their homeland. Belarus Free Theatre strives to use theatre as a vehicle for political change. Being Harold Pinter is one of the pieces that forms part of their two-week Staging A Revolution season. There’s an undeniable sense of urgency that underpins the evening, as impassioned and angered Russian prose tumbles out and the audience are forced to read the surtitles at breakneck speed. As the narrative rapidly flits between excerpts from Harold Pinter’s canon, to harrowing testimonies of Belarusian prisoners, it is a lot for the audience to process and take in all at once. Far from an easy watch, Being Harold Pinter examines injustice, human dignity and the state of your moral compass.
We are confronted by a stark black stage, a row of red chairs and a large-scale, piercing cut-out of Harold Pinter’s eyes. Pinter’s gaze is both omnipresent and duplicitous; at times, the windows to his soul are doted upon as if they belong to a deity and at other moments they have a totalitarian dictatorial quality. As Pinter, Aleh Sidorchyk explains that for him all characters begin as simply being A, B and C. Their basic relationships and the way in which they interact with each other come later, often spawned by the characters themselves and, much to his annoyance, sometimes beyond the playwright’s control. A series of vignettes unfolds: a discordant relationship between father and son, a woman suffering domestic abuse at the hands of her husband and a series of visceral military interrogations. These are segments that stand alone in their own right, but together are all united by the thematic thread of the abuse of power. This in turn provokes a sense of tangible unrest, and as a stunned audience watch on passively as these graphic and immoral ordeals unfold, there is a collective feeling of helplessness to intervene.
The relentless pace at which Being Harold Pinter hurtles through the text, coupled with my lack of my Russian linguistic ability, inevitably results in there being far too much verbal imagery to digest. However, Belarus Free Theatre’s performance quality is very physical, with images such as the entire cast being engulfed in a a sheet of tarpaulin, repeatedly catapulting themselves towards the front of it – all you can see is their trapped distressed outlines, as they struggle to break free. It is a simple but haunting visual. Presented as a striking metaphor for Pinter’s overbearing control over his characters’ destinies, this could also be viewed as a physical representation of governmental oppression suffocating individual human rights.
During her introduction, Artistic Director Natalia Kaliada explains that when the company perform in Belarus, the audience are told to bring along their passports so if their performances get raided by the police, the whole administrative process will run more smoothly. Yes, Belarus Free Theatre’s work is entertaining; but it is so much more than that, as at its core it has an important message that deserves to be heard by the masses. We live in a society where freedom of speech is a right we take for granted, but in many parts of the world being able to express yourself freely is still a constant battle. Belarus Free Theatre are tireless campaigners for the intrinsic human rights of justice, equality and ensuring that your moral compass is intact.
Being Harold Pinter played at the Young Vic until 14 November. For more information, see the Belarus Free Theatre website. Photo: Belarus Free Theatre