In our second Edinburgh Festival preview we take a look at Belarus Free Theatre, the hard-hitting theatrical protest group who won a Fringe First in 2011 for their show Minsk 2011. They will be returning with their new production Trash Cuisine at the Pleasance Courtyard. The play is an excoriating statement against global torture and capital punishment, and you can see the official trailer here. Both playscripts are now available to buy in a new collection.
The company will also be taking over Martyrs’ Monument in Grassmarket, along with protest group, Free Belarus Now, as they revive their Give A Body Back campaign in Edinburgh at 11am on Tuesday 20 August. Click here to volunteer.
In a similar vein to recent action taken outside the Houses of Parliament and in London’s Trafalgar Square, volunteers will fill bodybags and litter the public square with living ‘corpses’. The peaceful protest is intended to highlight the human rights violations in Belarus, shedding light on the hundreds of people who have “disappeared” or been executed, Europe’s last bastion of dictatorship.
An underground company dedicated to performing uncensored work in their homeland,Belarus Free Theatre have had to struggle for their right to perform in a country where freedom of expression and human rights are hugely repressed. Founded in March 2005 by husband and wife team Nikolai Khalezin and Natalia Kaliada, with associate director Vladimir Shcherban, their performances in Belarus are held secretly, in small private apartments, the location of which, due to the risk of persecution, must constantly be changed.
If you wish to pledge your support to Belarus Free Theatre you can sponsor an actor or company member through this fundraising site.
Despite suffering every form of intimidation and harassment, BFT continue to produce great theatre that is recognised internationally, and their commitment to free expression and unflinching political activism has won them many influential friends in the UK, not least the Young Vic who gave Trash Cuisine it’s London premiere in May.
I first came across the Belarus Free Theatre when they received the ‘New Realities’ prize of the European Theatre Union in Thessaloniki in 2008. All I knew about them was that they were a theatre company active in Minsk, capital of Belarus that had been driven underground by the repressive brutality of the Lukashenko government, the so-called ‘last dictatorship in Europe’.
That night they gave a celebratory performance to the audience that had gathered from across Europe in a vast polyvalent civic hall. My seat was right at the back, far over to one side. The light was dim, the acoustics appalling. By now, post ceremony and speeches, it was very late at night, so after half an hour I wished them well and went for a stroll along the boardwalk that lines the beach front…
A few months later they stopped off at the Young Vic on a tour of London theatres led by Michael Billington who had championed their Being Harold Pinter when it played the Soho Theatre some months before. I’d been aware of it but, hey, London is a big place, no way I can keep up with everything.
In ten minutes I’d got the picture: the precariousness of Natalia and Kolya and Vladimir’s existence in London, their actors back home in Minsk able to perform only in secret locations and subject to continual harassment and worse. By the end of the afternoon I’d agreed we would hold a fundraising event for the company.
Which we did. I still hadn’t seen a full BFT performance. As the invited potential supporters took their seats, my fingers were tightly crossed behind my back. I guess I was feeling something like: so what if this isn’t genius, they’re theatre people in need of help, so…
The lights went down. The performance began.
© Nicolai Khalezin
When you see their work for the first time you know in seconds what a truly, uniquely brilliant company it is – how powerful, poetic, courageous and blissfully Political with a big P. Their style is idiosyncratic not to say quirky, their vocabulary playful but with a very sharp point indeed. They share some of that trademark blend of despair and hilarity that characterised much of the dissident East European theatre of the 80s but their subject – human individuality, human desire, human dignity under the most intense pressure – is made new by the brightly angular originality of their bold, free, lyrical theatrical language.
They speak truth in a world saturated by lies – a world which is theirs but, of course, is ours as well. The texts printed here give some small indication of the power of a BFT performance. If reading them encourages you to seek them out wherever in the world they are – and these days they’re in demand in every country bar one – you won’t need to cross your fingers behind your back. UNESCO should declare them a world heritage site. They haven’t – so I hope you’ll support them in any way you can.
Artistic Director, Young Vic