"JUST imagine, you sit down in the evening to talk to your friend: the next day that friend is kidnapped and killed. It was my husband and his friend Dmitry Zavadsky. They sat and discussed their lives, their wives and their children. The next day he was kidnapped and killed. Imagine that your father was beaten up near your apartment and the guy who did it says: 'Don't go to the police, I am from the police.' Imagine your two daughters aged 11 and 16 hiding a laptop computer when police come calling. This happened to my two daughters."
A slight, thirtysomething woman with a boyish haircut, in jeans and denim jacket, talks, without pathos or drama, about her life in Belarus, a small country in the middle of Europe, ruled by the maverick dictator, Alyaksandr Lukashenka. Her name is Natalia Koliada, and she is a founding director of the Belarus Free Theatre, an underground theatre group recently introduced by Sir Tom Stoppard at a London event organised by Index on Censorship.
Sitting in a comfortable auditorium on the Farringdon Road, it is hard to imagine the life that Natalia and her husband, the playwright Nikolai Khalezin, lead in Minsk. But the audience, which consists of British playwrights, actors, directors, writers, journalists and diplomats, does not suffer from a lack of imagination. Nikolai and Natalia look like characters from Mr Stoppard's play Rock'n'Roll, his play about dissidents in Czechoslovakia under Gustav Husak. They have certainly become characters of his life.
Five years ago, Mr Stoppard received an email from Nikolai and Natalia. The two artists were asking for a message of support. The request was "almost heartbreakingly pathetic," says Mr Stoppard. "I have a big desk and a secretary and all kinds of equipment. I could tell my secretary: 'Give these people my message of support' and then I could go to lunch." Instead, he went to Minsk, to meet Nikolai and Natalia, their friends, and the friends and relatives of people who had been murdered or beaten up. He talked about theatre with young playwrights and chatted about contemporary music with a local DJ.
I accompanied Mr Stoppard to Belarus. The trip felt like a continuation of Rock'n'Roll, which he had just completed. There are magical moments in Mr Stoppard's plays when characters touch a word or an object that puts them in touch with a character from different era. This trip was one such moment.
Five years later Mr Stoppard's interest in and support for the Free Belarus Theatre is as strong. Early this month he and the actor Sam West led a group of British artists to the Belarusian embassy in London to protest against a new law censoring the internet. There was no affectation in this action. It was the same sense of responsibility that took Mr Stoppard to the Soviet Union in the winter of 1977 to accompany a friend from Amnesty International visiting Soviet dissidents.
Visiting Minsk five years ago, Mr Stoppard talked about the prime importance of talent in any artistic endeavour. No play, however political and worthy, can captivate an audience unless it is actually good. But without this sense of empathy and personal courage, it may also struggle. "Courage is perhaps the most personal and fundamentally the most expressive of human hopes and human self-identity. Of all aspects of life art brings to the surface, the part of it which expresses us at our most intense is that part when we have to show just a little courage," he says.
The Belarus Free Theatre has both talent and courage, as its production of Numbers shows. Miming sketches and theatrical metaphors are enhanced by dry and often bizarre statistics projected on to a wall: 72% of Belarusians find it difficult to define the word "democracy": every third Belarusian died in the second world war: over 40% of the adult population want to leave the country: on October 15th 2006, 242 Belarusian cows broke through an electric fence, swam over the Bug river and illegally crossed the border into Poland. According to the Polish border guards, this was the first case of such a mass crossing of domestic animals to the EU. Just imagine.