What do we know about Belarus? I personally did not know enough, apart from its geographical position, some scattered pieces of information from the media and a couple of Eurovision songs. Celebrating their tenth anniversary, Belarus Free Theatre’s mission is to educate their audience. Their piece Zone of Silence is a part-verbatim, part-physical theatre performance that aims to paint a cohesive picture of Belarus, its people and its problematic past.
The location of the performance is unknown up until the day before it. The audience members receive a text telling them where to go and to bring ID with them. As we later learned, whenever the company performed in Belarus they asked their audience to bring their passports with them, in case the KGB found out about their secret location and arrested the company and its audience. The fact that this is happening now and not fifty years ago makes this piece even more dangerous, important and urgent.
Directed by Vladimir Shcherban and devised and performed by Pavel Haradnitski, Yana Rusakevich, Aleh Sidorchyk, Dzianis Tarasenka and Maryna Yurevich, the performance involves three parts: ‘Childhood Legends’, a verbatim piece where the performers tell their own personal memories relating to the school system, their teachers and their relatives; ‘Diversity’, in which they portray people on the outskirts of society; and ‘Numbers’, a series of cold, hard facts about the country accompanied by physical sequences.
The stage only features a chalkboard, a white chair and a handful of props. We are immediately immersed in this production as the performers start to talk in Russian and Belarusian with unrelenting speed and raw energy, while we try to keep up, reading the English surtitles and simultaneously taking in the symbols, mannerisms and traditions of this culture that is so very different and distant. But the speediness and franticness do not take away from the piece; on the contrary, they give a unique rhythm to it as we are transported from story to story, getting a glimpse of character, a pinch of humour and a bit of sorrow on the way. Because Zone of Silence isn’t just a portrait of Belarus – it is a frustrated cry, a tragedy told with surprising humour and excellent imagery. Each performer brings something new and intriguing to the stage, and they successfully command the space both as individuals and an ensemble, telling, showing and occasionally singing stories. And although the venue was surrounded by ear-piercingly loud fireworks, the audience gave its undivided attention to these strikingly intimate moments.
Zone of Silence is innovative, unswerving and unapologetic. The Belarus Free Theatre’s production might make you angry, hopeful, or horrified, but their work certainly cannot be ignored.
Zone of Silence played at a secret location on 7 November as part of the Staging A Revolution season. For more information and tickets to the rest of the season, see the Belarus Free Theatre website.