We meet on the steps of St John’s Church, all gathering quietly with only a few murmurs of guessing scuttling between groups. We are all slightly clueless to the situation but know that this was where we had to be. Soon, we are escorted through the darkened, autumnal streets of London to a car park under Westminster, a seemingly ideal place for a political protest on November 5. At the locked door we are asked for our names and then lead deeper where we see a small set up of food stalls and rows of seats facing a make-shift stage; all accompanied by blaring music.
This mysterious, undercover introduction is reminiscent of the underground theatre of Belarus, where any talks of politics against Alexander Lukashenko, the current President who has rigged the elections since 1994, are forbidden. Belarus Free Theatre took it upon themselves to stage productions underground where each of the audience would only be told the location a day before the production, just like we were.
Discussing the details of freedom, Generation Jeans, is written and performed by the Artistic Director of the company, Nicolai Khalezin. In his monologue he explores the notion of Generation Jeans and the stories of those who are part of it. We hear of his small school business, his first arrest and everything else that has effected his story as an activist. The music that accompanies the performance, by DJ Laurel, goes hand in hand with the writing. It’s an additional component that helps everything come alive, especially helping us to picture the vinyl swaps and trading of Belarusian, Polish and British/ American music that were so strictly controlled.
The Jean Generation is the generation of freedom, those who strive for something beyond the communist regime that prohibits the buying and selling of jeans and rock music. In his rock star sunglasses and blue denim jeans, Nicolai Khalezin is a perfect example of this generation. The history and personability of the whole piece makes it engaging and the surtitles, as it’s performed in Russian and Belrusian, are not distracting at all as Khalezin is one of the most engaging individuals I’ve watched and could hold an audience without the translation.
The final and most powerful image of the piece revolves on one piece of history. During a protest against Lukashenko’s rule the red and white flags used by protestors, which represented courage and compassion, were taken by the police. A youth activist took it upon himself to raise his denim shirt as the new flag, hence initiating the Jean Revolution. It’s this image that sticks in my mind, reminding me of the struggle for freedom.
It is impossible for these productions to take place openly in Belarus and the company are putting themselves at risk by performing these important freedom productions. The heads of the company train their performers through Skype, after seeking asylum in the UK, which allows them to continue to stage a revolution in Belarus. I commend them for bringing this series of productions to London and helping us learn of the repressive society, but not only that, of helping us to become aware of some of the similarities today. Sure, we’re not about to get arrested for expressing our opinions but, as shown in the post-show talk, there is more than we think.
As we talk of freedom and politics it’s wildly exciting to see Belarus Free Theatre lead the way and create such a defining piece of theatre. With the addition of live streaming the performance to audiences all over the world, you can see how much effect this company is making. The quality and importance of these shows is beyond anything I’ve seen in a very long time and I can’t wholly review how incredible the show was; it’s something you need to experience and be effected by yourself. So take this opportunity to stand up, take action and join the revolution.
Belarus Free Theatre is Staging a Revolution until 12 November. For more information and tickets, see the Young Vic website.