The first night of the play “Time of Women” about the situation in Belarus staged in the Polish Theater in Warsaw became both a sensation and a shock.
The play is dedicated to the political prisoners still kept in Belarusian jails.
“Time of Women” is a story of six Belarusian women: sister of former political prisoner, presidential candidate Andrei Sannikov Iryna Bagdanava; leader of the campaign We Remember Iryna Krasouskaya; editor of charter97.org Natallia Radzina; journalist of Novaya Gazeta, Sannikov’s wife Iryna Khalip; director of the Belarusian Free Theater Natallia Kaliada; daughter of former political prisoner Dzmitry Bandarenka Yulia. There is only one man in the play; his character is based on both playwright Mikalay Khalezin and former political prisoner Dzmitry Bandarenka.
Iryna Khalip and Natallia Radzina were arrested on the day of the presidential election, 19 December 2010; they both went through KGB jail. Natallia Kaliada was detained and had to flee the country. Iryna Krasouskaya’s husband, businessman and public figure Anatol Krasouski, was kidnapped and murdered. Iryna Bagdanava and Yulia Bandarenka were fighting for liberation of their family members.
With other words, women from different backgrounds - journalists, one PhD, one psychologist, a Jagiellonian university alumnus and the directors of the Free Theater – had to turn to politics to draw Europe’s attention to the political prisoners.
The play was staged in one of Poland’s leading theaters by director of the Belarusian Free Theater Mikalay Khalezin. A completely new piece was rooted in the plays “Generation Jeans” by Mikalay Khalezin and “They Had Dreams” by Natallia Kaliada. In the play, well-known Polish actors were involved: Ewa Makomaska, Anna Cieslak, Marta Alaborska, Małgorzata Lipman, Lidia Sadowa, Adam Biedrzycki, Marta Kurzak.
Almost all women who are the prototypes of the characters came to the first night. Only Iryna Khalip couldn’t arrive; she cannot leave Belarus according to the court’s decision. However, her husband, presidential candidate Andrei Sannikov who has recently been released after 1.5-year imprisonment, and her parents, Lutsyna Belzatskaya and Uladzimir Khalip, came to Warsaw. Andrei Sannikov finally got a chance to meet with his sister Iryna Bagdanava. Dzmitry Bandarenka watched the play together with his wife and daughter – he was released just two months ago.
Henryk Wujec, the counselor of the Polish President, and European deputy Marek Migalski who actively advocates for the liberation of Belarusian political prisoners were among the viewers, too.
The play was a shock to the public. The actors were crying on the stage when telling the stories of the Belarusian women, and the viewers were crying on their sits. Even the five women couldn’t hold back tears. The play made Iryna Bagdanava, Natallia Radzina, Yulia Bandarenka, Natallia Kaliada, Iryna Krasouskaya feel everything anew.
The authors and characters of the play “Time of Women” shared their impressions from the first night with charter97.org:
Mikalay Khalezin; producer, playwright:
”The characters of the play were crying because they had experienced everything in real life. The Poles were crying because they realized it. The actors were crying because they achieved what they aimed at, which demanded extraordinary emotions. There was so much tears and laughter during the entire process of work with the play. They said that they had never experienced anything like this before. Two crucial things have happened. The first is of a social nature: Belarus is much more interesting as an object in a work of art than a journalistic topic. The second aspect is purely creative. For me, it was crucial to see how the actors and characters would interact. This issue is very important in terms of art. The actors and characters are alike. We were looking for actors who resemble the characters. I studied their portfolios and resumes. I took references and gathered information about their lives. Their professionalism came third, but in the end it became the most important thing, when it turned out that the actresses and characters have similar views on life and on the play. Right now I wonder what will happen to the play in future. We’re going to have a set of six performances, in autumn “Time of Women” will become a regular performance in the repertory. And I want to see the audience’s reaction.”
Natallia Kaliada, playwright:
”The last 16 months were truely the time of women. Part of the women were in jail, in a place where no man should ever be. They went through what most of people all over the world never experience in their simple lives. And basically there is no contradiction, because life must be happy. But women cannot be in jail, and their children – in orphanage. Other women tried to fight for their men who were in the same jail. The voices of the Belarusian women made the world understand that our country does exist. In the Belarusian language, the genus of the world Belarus is feminine, and the time of women is now.”
Iryna Krasouskaya, leader of the campaign We Remember, one of the characters:
“Today I was crying because of my fate, and because of the fates of all my friends whom I saw in the play. It’s like going through it all once again. It hurt so much. Families’ and people’s lives are ruined. People never return, people die young and beautiful. Love dies. This play is about a lost generation that grows and lives in captivity. All these tears that we’ve seen today are about that. I am crying about the motherland that I’ve lost, about the fate of my country.”
Uladzimir Khalip, playwright, father of the play’s character Iryna Khalip:
“It is hardly a play. I’d say it is a memory of what has happened with all of us since that December. It is basically a part of life. And it seems to me that the best thing about the play was that the authors didn’t try to avoid great emotions and tension, which resulted in such a clot of pain that even those who weren’t involved, who probably didn’t know about anything – even they felt it, and the feeling stayed with them. As for the artistic aspect, the play was outstanding. Khalezin made a smart decision: he chose Brecht instead of Stanislavski. The actors didn’t turn their lives into the lives of the characters. They didn’t become Natallia Radzina or Iryna Krasouskaya. They were watching from aside and the events echoed in their hearts, which resulted in such a profound, such an exquisite play of the highest level of emotions, taste and measure. And that was the most important thing, because it was very easy to end up with another hysterical play. A great miracle of art has happened.”
Andrei Sannikov, former political prisoner, presidential candidate:
“I couldn’t watch it as a play, as a work of art, because from the very first minutes I saw real stories that me, my family and friends have gone through. I have never had this feeling before. My recent life was on stage. The characters were on stage and in the public at the same time. Right now I can evaluate neither the play nor the performance. The feeling is completely unique. Obviously those were the stories from our lives, but the uniqueness of the present situation is that you’re not a viewer during a performance, but a participant of the actual events. People are in jail, this nightmare is still happening in Belarus. It feels good to watch plays about the times of Solidarność. We are used to movies about the war. But when it comes to Belarus, it gets painful.”
Pavel Selin, host of the Russian TV channel NTV:
“Khalezin is a bad guy. He disappointed me so much that it made me cry. I know three words in Polish, but during these three hours I knew exactly what was going on on stage. I’m not a theater connoisseur, but I believe that this is a unique theatrical occasion when nearly all real characters were in the audience. And the fact that one of the real characters, Iryna Khalip, couldn’t come to Warsaw because she is basically under house arrest, has made it all worse. It is sharp, it is living and it is still hurting so much…”
Dzmitry Bandarenka, former political prisoner:
”This is undoubtedly a horrible psychological experiment. I am being a little bit ironic, but it is true. There are many things there that make the essence of the recent story of my life, the life of my family and friends. It was hard to watch, because on stage the emotions were strong, and by my side there were my wife, daughter, Andrei Sannikov’s family, friends… The emotions on stage and in the audience were mutual. I had to control my feelings when tears came to my eyes. The play is unique in this regard. I had a feeling that the Polish viewers understood perfectly well what it all was about.
Henryk Wujec, counselor of Poland’s President Bronisław Komorowski, was in the audience. He said: “I understand everything very well; I spent three years in prison in the wartime…” And his wife was in prison several months. It proves once again that Belarus and Poland have common history, even though today we are two independent states in different geopolitical formations. But we share one human history.”
Iryna Bagdanava, Andrei Sannikov’s sister, a character of the play:
“It was unbearably hard to watch the play although my Polish is very poor. I hardly cried during the entire performance. Tears came close when the characters of Natallia Radzina and Iryna Khalip were speaking, but when Marta screamed, it was the scream that I had inside of me all this time, and I couldn’t hold anymore… I thanked her for the scream because I couldn’t do it myself. By the way, she said she had had doubts if she should do it. But I said that even if she won’t make that scream in future performances, I needed it today. All that pain that I felt for Andrei, for the family – it should have come out in someone’s scream…”
Natallia Radzina, editor of charter97.org:
“I know that Mikalay Khalezin didn’t tell the actors that were playing us when to cry. They chose those moments themselves. And I was shocked that Lidia Sadowa chose the moment… with a spin-a-hoop. After I fled before the trial, trying to get rid of the fear and calm down, I spent the first days with a spin-a-hoop. Spinning until I got bruises. And in the play, Lidia spins the hoop and recalls why I hated the prison chief – for making me read the letter from my mother, the only one I had and that had been censored, in his office. She tells about the cell that feels like a coffin where you were buried alive; about my dreams in the investigation isolation cell; about Aleg Biabenin murdered in autumn 2010; about my choice to stay faithful to my friends because it’s impossible to live after a betrayal, about my dreams of getting on a train and arriving to Kobryn at dawn. What Natallia Kaliada and Mikalay Khalezin have done is beyond understanding. All these moments in the play are the result of our long conversations during one and a half year. It is hard to watch our stories, but these are stories of just seven Belarusians - while there are thousands of broken lives. It is the time of women not because there are no men. There are lots of brave men who suffer for Belarus’ freedom. But this is a call to all others. Defend your women, defend your families, defend your country.”