9 April 2020, Thursday, 23:01
Stay at home!

Tom Stoppard: “They are about a free Belarus”

Tom Stoppard: “They are about a free Belarus”

Famous playwright Tom Stoppard tells in the interview to The Observer why he supports the Belarus Free Theatre.

As The Observer runs, the Belarus Free Theatre was set up in 2005 to produce uncensored work in response to the authoritarian rule of President Alyaksandr Lukashenka, who has viciously suppressed freedom of expression as well as political opposition. In August 2007, a performance was stormed by state police and 50 people were arrested. Now it is bringing its work to London. Here, Tom Stoppard explains why he is a passionate supporter.

How did you become involved?

– In 2005, I got an email from Belarus Free Theatre. They were emailing playwrights in America and England announcing their existence and saying they would like support from us. I wrote back and asked if they wanted us to visit? They said, yes, we'd love that.

What were your first impressions?

– It turned out to be brave and quite pathetic - they had nowhere to work, they were outlaws in a very authoritarian society. I met these very dedicated young people, husband and wife (Mikola Khalezin and Natallya Kalyada – founders of the Free Theatre – note of Charter’97). They had put together the theatre and were operating outside the confines of state culture; this made them very suspect and unpopular. Actors who joined them were penalised by being expelled from the state theatre or demoted.

Were you moved to support them because of echoes of the former Czechoslovakia?

– I was primed to receive their letter because of that, but it was the letter itself that moved me, they asked for so little. It was an odd situation in one way because it was similar to the bad old days in Czechoslovakia under Husak in the 1980s and in some ways it was worse; in Minsk, I was meeting friends and relatives of people who'd been murdered, disappeared. But unlike communist totalitarianism, it was in the open, in that there were organisations that printed brochures saying who they were and what they stood for.

Why is it important for audiences outside Belarus to see their work?

– The reason for coming is that it's a rewarding experience. The play Being Harold Pinter knocked me out. They wrote and asked if Pinter would allow them to do a programme of his work and I wrote to Harold who was very gracious. So the play is a collage of Harold's work and his Nobel acceptance speech, together with speeches from Belarusian dissidents. I had an email saying that what gives them hope is their trips outside Belarus. But that's not the end they have in view. What they are about is altering the political situation at home; ultimately they are about a free Belarus.