18 January 2018, Thursday, 18:55

Lear is dancing in the middle of Belarusian Horror


The Belarus Free Theatre in Minsk attempted the impossible: make under the terms of the last dictatorship in Europe critical theater.

The initiators of it has been driven into exile by the regime.

At the end, after all the dead and their executioners, we see two actors motionless, leaning against a white wall. It's the end of a horror ride through death sentences and their enforcement, by stories of injustice, cynicism and nightmares - from Malaysia, Ireland and Belarus, which occupies a focus on "Trash Cuisine".

The piece was the "Belarus Free Theatre" designed for the festival, "Imagining Europe". The ensemble's name means that this theater group does not agree with it what is happening in the country between Poland and Russia: suppression of freedom of expression, repression against political opponents, politically motivated arrests. Belarus, governed since 1994 by the infamous President Aleksandr Lukashenko practiced, the only European country to make matters even worse with the death penalty.

Only on 15 March this year, Dmitri Konovalov and Vladislav Kovalev were executed, shot in the back of a head. Their bodies were buried somewhere without their family members are informed of the locations. The two 26-year-old had been sentenced to death in November 2011. In the opinion of the court they had placed the bomb on the 11th April 2011 in the Minsk metro station "October Square" and killed 15 people.

The mother of the executed men on stage

Human rights organizations around the world had criticized with well presented evidences the process against incriminating the two by words as "unfair" and "questionable". Unsuccessful. On 16 March Lyubov Kovaleva received the notification from the authorities that her son was executed. Now the slender woman stands on the stage of the Amsterdam Stadsshouwburg. The lights are dim. It's quiet. The crowd remained standing after the ovations. Lyubov Kovaleva steps to the microphone, her voice trembling. She says: "I urge the authorities to give me back my son's body."

Wafted reality like an eerie mantra already throughout the play, it is now fully present. Like a train it moves towards you. Boom! For the Dutch viewers who live in a comparatively gentle country to have so much brutal reality is a shock. Some viewers gasping for breath with excitement, others cry.

The boundary between reality and theater is repealed. It is right in the middle: the Belarusian horror. These include a bold and drastic and the self-image of the theater - and it is sometimes critical views of those who are already critics of Lukashenko's regime.

«The point is you need to show it radically»

"But for us, the dictatorship is an everyday life," Nicolai Khalezin says. "You get up in the morning and think of your friends who are sitting in jail. And with these thoughts you go to bed at night. For people to understand this, you have to show that radically." Khalezin, stocky, long hair, is a former journalist. Because his employers were prohibited, he began to write plays.

Together with his wife Natalia Kaliada he founded the "Belarus Free Theatre" in 2005 - a bright spot in a conservative theater scene, which is funded by the state and therefore must refrain from critical experiments. So much desire for freedom has a price. Almost all ensemble members have been arrested before. For this purpose they are being watched by the security forces. A theater that challenges the Lukashenko government can work in Belarus only underground.

The ensemble, which formed of its actors playing themselves, in a home that make them available to friends. Once you've been in one of the fragile suburban building that you would never forget. Cold white walls, improvised seating made from car tires and planks. Tickets can not be bought, but you can donate after the performance.

Performers, audiences, the director — arrested

There is also no stage curtains. Because the audience is in the productions and always have the feeling of being part of the drama. And that can sometimes be fatal. As in 2007, when security forces stormed a performance and performers, audiences and director Vladimir Scherban were arrested.

The live performances of an intensity which are the existential conditions of the theater and its intransigence they owed to the audience. The theater works with music, projections, a strong body language. Often facts, stories or fragments of pieces from the Belarusian reality are involved.

A reality in which issues such as suicide, homosexuality, mental illness or torture are sensitive in every way. "If we treated these issues properly, they can ignite debates," said Khalezin while walking in search of the stage through the brightly lit corridors of Stadsshouwburg. "And that's why our government is not interested, that we reach as many people as possible."

Support of Jude Law and Kevin Spacey

In "Being Harold Pinter" the plays intervoven with the Nobel Prize speech of English playwright with texts of political prisoners. The piece "Minsk, 2011: A Reply to Kathy Acker" is a kaleidoscope of images and texts, explores the sexual identity. At the Fringe Festival in Edinburgh, it was awarded the top prize.

The theater was receiving a huge international support from the beginning - from Václav Havel and Tom Stoppard, more recently, Jude Law and Kevin Spacey. "We were extremely lucky," Kaliada says, a slender woman with piercing eyes, in the cafeteria of the Amsterdam Theatre. "The fact that we've been supported by these celebrities means some protection and, of course, that we can find finances to sustain ourselves. Even if that's a problem all the time."

Meanwhile, the theater has performed in half of the world, but especially the English theater scene took on the ensemble with open arms. This year's production of King Lear at London's Shakespeare's Globe was rousing.

"No oil and gas, only people"

Meanwhile, the ensemble has become cosmopolitan. In "Trash Cuisine" English and Australian actors perform. Khalezin and Kaliada live in London. Not by choice. "The December 19, 2010 had changed a lot," says Khalezin.

On the final day of the presidential elections, the regime had to disband a demonstration in Minsk brutally. Around 700 people were arrested in the following days. Also did Kaliada. "Fortunately, I was only 20 hours in custody," she says.

On 20 December the ensemble should fly to New York to perform. "We knew that they would arrest us. So we organized a departure in small groups." Khalezin and his wife fled to Moscow. From there they flew to New York. Then they went to England as a political refugee. From there, they also organize political protests. "There are still too few people know of our nightmares," Kaliada says. "We do not have oil and gas, only people. This is simply too uninteresting."

The Belarusian actors continue to live in Minsk and keep the operating theater alive. "We will connect via Skype with Minsk," Khalezin says. "So we can discuss with the audience." Whether to return at some point in their homeland? "If you think about it – then you're falling into a hole," Khalezin says. "It is now about one thing: to do something that in the future there will be a new reality for us."

By Ingo Petz, «Die Welt»