An Exiled Theater with a Warning for Europe

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An Exiled Theater with a Warning for Europe

LONDON — When players at the Belarus Free Theater began work on “Dogs of Europe” three years ago, they thought it was a play about a dystopia.

Set in 2049, it envisions a continent cut in half by a wall. To one side sits a Russian superstate, where a dictator has put an end to almost all protests, and where people cannot speak their native language or even dance folk dances. On the other side is a Europe that has failed to realize the Russian threat, or prevent it from absorbing Belarus, Ukraine, the Baltic states and beyond.

Yet at a rehearsal in London the day before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine last month, the nightmare world of drama didn’t seem so far-fetched.

Marina Yakubovich, an actor in the production opening Thursday at the Barbican Theater in London, said the play’s rehearsal sometimes felt like a foreshadowing. “It’s like, ‘Oh my god, this has started to happen,'” she said.

Natalia Kaliada, one of the founders of the Belarus Free Theatre, said that when she and her husband Nikolai Khlezin decided to stage the play, they thought it would be a “warning shot” about the dangers of undemocratic leaders who go unchecked. left. But planned demonstrations in London and New York in 2020 were postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic. Now that warning shot is too late.

As the war in Ukraine enters its third week, performances at the Belarus Free Theater may be mistakenly timed. But it is the company’s latest attempt in its 17 years of existence to warn about rising authoritarianism in Eastern Europe.

The company is well aware of those dangers. Since its formation in 2005, it has faced repression in Belarus, over which President Alexander G. Lukashenko, who is known as “Europe’s last dictator” for his government’s hegemony over the opposition and suppression of free expression. The troupe has long been effectively banned from performing in Belarus, but continues to do so in secret locations in the capital, Minsk, even after Kalida and Khlezin were forced into exile more than a decade ago. The couple settled in London – where they developed close ties with theaters including the Young Vic and Almeida – but continued to rehearse with actors in Belarus via Skype.

Those secret shows, in locations including a converted car garage that once belonged to the US Embassy, ​​also won the troupe’s high-profile supporters in the United States. In 2015, Ben Brantley, chief theater critic for The New York Times, visited the company in Minsk, praising its “fiery, spirited fraternal spirit”, saying that it was something “you rarely see among young people”. Are driven by money, shockproof Manhattan.”

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Now, even that window for performing in Minsk has closed. The theater’s entire 16-member acting troupe fled Belarus last year to avoid possible jail time for opposing Lukashenko’s regime.

The Belarus Free Theater was now homeless, Kalida said. “We are refugees.”

She said she hoped its members would be granted asylum in Britain so they could establish a refugee-led theater there, but the process could take years and asylum applicants were almost always banned from working. Are being given. After its four-demonstration run at the Barbican, the company will most likely set up base in Warsaw, a city that has many refugees from both Belarus and Ukraine, Kalida said, but added that a final decision had not yet been made.

The company’s finances are uncertain, Kaliada said, although he had a clear vision for the future. He said that as well as finding a venue to perform, the company would set up a school where its members could give acting classes to refugee children. All of its future plays will be live-streamed in Belarus, so the company will continue to reach out to people there.

“It’s a very difficult time,” Kaliada said. “We’re trying to solve a lot of issues at once.”

The company’s experiences over the past two years show how quickly fortunes can change in Eastern Europe. In August 2020, Belarus – a country of nearly nine million people – looked on the verge of a turning point after Lukashenko declared victory in a vote widely dismissed as fraud, leading to massive street protests . It was a “beautiful, powerful” moment, Kaliada said: it felt like her country was waking up from a nightmare, she said.

Then a brutal police crackdown against the protesters dashed those hopes.

During the period of repression around the election, many of the company’s actors were arrested. The company’s production manager, Sveta Sugako, said she spent five days in prison in a small cell with 35 other women. He said that none of them were given any food or drinking water for three days. After Sugako refused to sign the confession saying she had participated in the demonstrations, a police officer caught her and strangled her, she said.

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Sugako said she didn’t want to leave Belarus even after that experience. “I was prepared to sit and wait in prison,” she said, but other members of the Belarus Free Theater persuaded her to leave, pointing out that the company has no future if all its actors are behind bars. Huh.

The atmosphere at the recent rehearsals in London was gloomy. When not performing, the actors checked their phones for news from home.

“Of course we have left Belarus, physically,” said Yakubovich, “but mentally we are still there.” The news “was never good,” she said.

Then there was a conflict situation in Ukraine. Russia was using Belarus as a stage for its impending invasion, and many members of the company fled to Belarus via Ukraine, or were friends and relatives there. Marichka Marzik, a Ukrainian musician who performs a live soundtrack for the show, said that she had received a text message from her brother in Kyiv, Ukraine, instructing whether he had been killed in the fighting: “My Burn the body / scatter the ashes,” she wrote.

Roman Liubi, a Ukrainian video animator working on the production, said his wife and 5-year-old daughter were also in Kyiv. He was considering skipping rehearsals to take them out if the war broke out, he said, and then joining any fight against Russia.

While his colleagues grappled with the news, the company’s founder Kaliada watched from the sidelines.

She could see Russia absorbing both Belarus and Ukraine, she said, as she did in “The Dogs of Europe.” Yet even if the company faced several years of exile, “Belarus is with us,” she said. “We’ll have a house.”

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