An exile theater with a warning for Europe

LONDON — When the players of the Free Theater of Belarus started working on European dogs “Three years ago they thought it was a dystop...


LONDON — When the players of the Free Theater of Belarus started working onEuropean dogs“Three years ago they thought it was a dystopia play.

Set in the year 2049, it imagines the continent bisected by a wall. On one side is a Russian superstate, where a dictator has eliminated almost all opposition, and where people cannot speak their native language or even perform folk dances. On the other side is a Europe that either failed to realize the Russian threat, or prevented it from absorbing Belarus, Ukraine, the Baltic states and beyond.

Yet at a rehearsal in London last month, the day before Russia invaded Ukrainethe nightmarish world of the room didn’t seem so far-fetched.

Maryna Yakubovich, an actress in the production, which opens at London’s Barbican Theater on Thursday, said rehearsing the play felt like a premonition at times. “It’s, like, ‘Oh my God, it started to happen,'” she said.

Natalia Kaliada, one of the founders of the Free Theater of Belarus, said when she and her husband, Nicolai Khalezin, decided to put on the play, they thought it would be a ‘warning shot’ about the dangers of rulers undemocratic left unchecked. But scheduled performances in London and New York in 2020 have been postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic. Now that warning shot seems to be too late.

Like the war in Ukraine enters its third week, the performance of the Free Theater of Belarus may seem accidentally timely. But this is just the latest attempt by the company in its 17-year history to warn of rising authoritarianism in Eastern Europe.

The company knows these dangers only too well. Since its formation in 2005, it has faced repression in Belarus, which is headed by President Aleksandr G. Lukashenko, who is known as “Europe’s last dictator” in part for his government’s crackdown on the opposition and its stifling of free speech. The troupe was long effectively banned from performing in Belarus, but they continued to perform at secret venues in Minsk, the capital, even after Kaliada and Khalezin were forced into exile more than ten years ago. The pair settled in London – where they developed close ties with theaters such as the Young Vic and the Almeida – but continued to rehearse with actors in Belarus via Skype.

These clandestine shows, at venues including a converted car garage that once belonged to the US Embassy, ​​have also won the troupe some high-profile supporters in the United States. In 2015, New York Times chief theater critic Ben Brantley visited the company in Minskand hailed his “spirit of provocative and exhilarating fraternityadding that it was something “rarely found among young people these days in money- and shock-proof Manhattan.”

Now even that window to perform in Minsk is closed. The theater’s entire 16-actor cast fled Belarus last year to avoid a potential prison sentence for opposing Lukashenko’s regime.

The Free Theater of Belarus was now homeless, Kaliada said. “We are refugees.

She added that she had hoped its members would be granted asylum in Britain, so they could set up a refugee-run theater there, but the process can take years and asylum seekers are almost always work bans. After its four performances at the Barbican, the company would most likely relocate to Warsaw, a city with many refugees from Belarus and Ukraine, Kaliada said, but added that a final decision has yet to be made. .

The company’s finances are precarious, Kaliada said, although she has a clear vision for the future. In addition to finding performance space, the company would establish a school where its members could give acting lessons to refugee children, she said. All of its future plays would be broadcast live in Belarus, so the company would continue to reach people there.

“It’s a pretty tough time,” Kaliada said. “We try to solve several problems 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 some nine million people – seemed on the verge of a turning point after Lukashenko declared victory in a vote widely dismissed as fraudulent, leading to massive street protests. It was a “beautiful and powerful” moment, Kaliada said. “It was like her country was waking up from a bad dream,” she said.

Then brutal police repression against the demonstrators put an end to these hopes.

Several actors from the company were arrested during the crackdown around the election. Sveta Sugako, the company’s production manager, said she spent five days in jail in a tiny cell with 35 other women. None of them received food or clean water for three days, she added. After Sugako refused to sign a confession saying she participated in the protests, a policeman grabbed her and strangled her, she said.

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

During the recent rehearsal in London, the atmosphere was cozy. When they weren’t performing, the actors checked their phones for news from home.

“Of course we left Belarus, physically,” Yakubovich said, “but mentally we’re still here.” The news was “never good,” she added.

Then there was the situation in Ukraine that had to be dealt with. Russia was using Belarus as a staging point for its impending invasion, and many of the Enterprise had fled Belarus via Ukraine, or had friends and relatives there. Marichka Marczyk, a Ukrainian musician who performs a live soundtrack for the show, said she had just received a text message from her brother in Kyiv, Ukraine, with instructions if he was killed in the fighting: “Burn my body/scatter the ashes,” he wrote.

Roman Liubyi, a Ukrainian video animator working on the production, said his wife and 5-year-old daughter were also in Kyiv. He planned to leave rehearsals to get them out if a war started, he said, and then join any fight against Russia.

While her colleagues struggled with the news, Kaliada, the company’s founder, watched from the sidelines.

She could imagine Russia absorbing both Belarus and Ukraine, she said, just as she did in “Dogs of Europe.” Yet even though the company has faced many years of exile, “Belarus is with us,” she said. “We will have a house.”

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Newsrust - US Top News: An exile theater with a warning for Europe
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