For the final chunk of the Staging a Revolution festival, Belarus Free Theatre (BFT) abandon their nomadic style, doing away with the practice of texting their audience a secret location at which to meet, to nest in what was once their theatre of residency: London’s Young Vic.
Despite the more traditional theatre setting, BFT’s core purpose remains the same: to expose Belarus’s political criminality, and give a voice to stories of injustice from their country, many of which have previously gone unreported. BFT are banned in their home country and there’s something humbling about being a member of their audience. Here in London we have the privilege of watching their productions, fuelled with authentic urgency and passion, without the fear of impending police raids, and knowing the company’s background provides a rare opportunity for us to feel thankful for our simple freedoms.
Written by the company’s co-founders, Nicolai Khalezin and Natalia Kaliada, Time of Women is performed in Russian by Kiryl Kanstantsinau, Maryia Sazonava, Yana Rusakevich and Maryna Yurevich. It tells the true stories of the female journalists Iryna Khalip and Natalya Radina, along with that of political activist Nasta Palazhanka, all of whom fought for democracy in Belarus, and were imprisoned around the time of the falsified presidential elections of 2010. However it’s not the stark contrast in lifestyle, or cruel prison conditions the women are subjected to, that Khalezin highlights – it’s in fact the similarities.
Sazonava, Rusakevich and Yurevich win us over in their raw, warm and relatable performances. As these three revolutionaries lounge about their prison cell, mocking the books on housekeeping and damsels in distress that has been deemed ‘appropriate’ reading material for women by the KGB, we know our own reactions would mirror theirs if we were imprisoned tomorrow. There’s even something disturbingly familiar in the KGB guard, and his enthusiasm for noodle soup. These characters, along with Khalezin’s Christmas tree set, remind us that Time of Women is in fact set in our own time, and in a country not dissimilar to ours in many of their sentiments and traditions.
Through the transactions between the guard (Kanstantsinau) and his imprisoned revolutionaries, we get a sense that discrimination works for and against women in Belarus. “There is no place for women in prison”, he declares, whilst slamming his fists on the table and bellowing in their faces that they should follow Christian leaders instead of getting into politics. Upon Nasta (Rusakevich) rising up to match his rage, he throws his arms around her in a patronising embrace, before granting her the requested toilet break. Khalezin’s guard represents the attitude of many powerful male figures in Belarus, who fail to view women as their equals. However his inspirational detainees, strong-willed women, are paving the path to change, both in the play and in their real life political activities.
William Reynolds’ video projection is the most visually effective thing about the production. What initially appears to be a video recording of the women in their cell, shot from above and to the side, turns out to be a live streaming of the stage, which we see for what it is when the canvas becomes transparent. This screen separates the free from the imprisoned, and in one poignant moment, it becomes semi-transparent, allowing us to watch the recording and live action simultaneously.
The English surtitles, projected onto the back of the stage as well as two walls of the auditorium, make us work harder than usual to follow the story. Given their necessity, the placement of the guard’s table so far below and to the side of the surtitles seems an odd choice. Relying so heavily on technology and translation also proves flawed when the screen breaks and we’re left watching Rusakevich perform her monologue without the aid of translation. Due to this technological hiccup, some of the final details including who betrayed who were lost on us English speakers, however I still felt moved by this powerful production and grateful for the freedom and equal rights we enjoy in the UK.
Time of Women played at the Young Vic on 9 November as part of Staging a Revolution. For more information and tickets, see the Young Vic website..