The Belarus Free Theatre
The Belarus Free Theatre’s first performance was in 2005, when they staged Sarah Kane’s 4.48 Psychosis in a café in Minsk. The café owner lost his licence after two performances. The cast and crew lost their jobs with the state theatre. Between 2006 and 2010, their performances of, among other pieces, documentary plays by political prisoners were staged in private apartments and in forests. They were often broken up by KGB operatives toting machine-guns. At a performance during the 2010 protests, everyone in the audience was arrested and beaten. The creative directors moved to London. But the theatre still performs in secret locations around Minsk. I went to one a couple of months ago. They called me on my mobile a few hours before the play and told to come to a bus stop by a supermarket. ‘Wait on the corner. We’ll come and collect you. You can try to guess who else is there for the play.’
The journey took me out of the unspoilt Stalinist centre of the city. (The architecture is known as ampir in Russian, which sounds like, though doesn’t mean, ‘empire’, and contains the word for ‘feast’, pir. ‘Feast of Empire’ is a good way to describe Minsk’s elephantine Soviet neo-classicism.) The supermarket was in a suburb of factories and apartment blocks. Dawdling on the corner were a couple of dreadlocked students who I assumed were going to the play; the others were young professionals who could have blended in anywhere. Everyone was chatting casually; the subterfuge was clearly quite normal for them. A young woman came and checked off our names, then led us up a muddy track to a building site. In one of the buildings was a space the size of a classroom with two rows of benches for around thirty viewers. The other half of the space was the stage.
The plays were three monologues by a young local playwright, Maxim Dosko. I was expecting appeals to democratic values but instead they focused on the daily lives of students and the working class.
The first was the story of a young man who drinks so much on a Friday night he gets alcohol poisoning, passes out and ends up in hospital. He reflects on how unreal the world around him seems. The actor spent most of the time on his knees, telling his story into a laptop, his face projected onto the white wall behind him. Belarus – routinely referred to in the English-speaking press as ‘Europe’s last dictatorship’ – has a veneer of Soviet nostalgia (the architecture, the KGB, the military parades) but isn’t stuck in a 1970s time warp. One-fifth of the population have EU visas. The IT sector is booming: Belarussian programmers design everything from the augmented reality app MSQRD to the online game World of Tanks.
The second character was a plumber, delighted with his life and work, despite the time it takes him to get to work every morning, to be drenched in shit for low pay. He wins a traditional weaving contest and is rewarded with a trip to London. But he can’t wait to get home, and when he does is ashamed to tell his co-workers about his trip. President Lukashenka’s strategic message – unlike Soviet propaganda – doesn’t promise a glorious future, but threatens that any alternative to his rule (he has been in charge since 1994) would be worse: Russia is corrupt and violent; Ukraine is at war; the ‘approach’ of Western Europe is associated with the Second World War, which is constantly invoked in Belarus (even more than in Britain) as if it happened yesterday. When the plumber reels off Belarus’s accomplishments at the start of the play, he includes the fact that a quarter of the population died in the war, a statistic repeated on plaques and posters across the capital.
The third speaker was a factory worker who loses his job and goes on a drinking and fighting spree. He is full of inchoate anger, living in a world where there is no idea of the future and where the present never admits to itself what it is. I was reminded of his monologue when watching footage of the recent protests across Belarus. They took a lot of people by surprise – many thought the Belarusian capacity for protest had been crushed – and, unlike in 2010, weren’t initiated by intellectuals but by the angry working class, responding to a new law which fines people for being unemployed. The protesters say there are no jobs. Lukashenka has responded with mass arrests. The other day I received an email from the Belarus Free Theatre saying three of their company were behind bars.