Arrests after the second act

Ingo Petz on a Belarussian theatre group that's immune to intimidation.

And now it's the theatre. At the premiere of Edward Bond's piece "Eleven Vests," special forces from the Belarussian police stormed the performance by the Belarus "Free Theatre" in a private apartment in Minsk. Actors, directors, and audience members - 50 people in total - were arrested. (more)

That was a week ago and they've all been released again, but the theatre's founder Nikolai Khalezin is still pretty shaken up. "Police used to burst into our performances with machine guns but they disappeared just as fast. A mass arrest like this is a first." Khalezin thinks that this is a concerted effort on the part of the police, the special forces OMON and the secret service KGB "to exert pressure." He is used to this kind of situation. "But now it's affecting those who have never been arrested before. I'm afraid that some of them won't come back."

Khalezin is an experienced dissident. He has spent a lot of time in jail. As a journalist, he worked for newspapers that ceased to exist long ago. As a dramatist, he became famous with his piece "Ja prishel" (Here I am) which gleaned many international awards. He founded the "Free Theatre" in 2005 with his wife Natalja Koljada, a human rights activist. "All theatres in Belarus are state-owned," says Khalezin: "The directors and creative directors are appointed by the Ministry of Culture. The performances are censored, the programs are old and musty. We want to offer an alternative, a modern theatre that discusses social problems with a degree of creative freedom."

In its performances and plays, the group exposes the myth of a regime that likes to present itself as a generous, infallible, do-all state. "The first play that we put on, '4.48 Psychosis' by Sarah Kane, is about a woman's psychological decay, homosexuality and suicide," says Khalezin. "There's no politics in the play but there is something that is threatening to a dictatorship - open conversation. The dictatorship says: 'We have no suicide, no alcoholism, no drug abuse.' And we say: we have to talk if we want to solve problems."

The project is often referred to as "political theatre" but Khalezin definitely does not consider his art political. He says that would be too boring and adds, "We don't have a single classically political play in our repertoire." For him, "uprightness" is more important than the classic political play. But it comes at a price in Belarus. Almost all the members of the ensemble have served time behind bars. Director Vladimir Scherban was fired by his state employer for being involved with the "Free Theatre," as were other actors. The performances take place in bistros, cafes, apartments or in the woods. But even these places get discovered, says Khalezin.

A visit to the "Free Theatre" feels like a conspiratorial meeting. The secret, but always sold-out performances are announced by mobile phone text message. Actor Denis Tarasenko says that many colleagues are envious of his work in Khalezin's group, "because we can act freely." The ensemble takes part in festivals in Europe. Khalezin will present "Generation Jeans," a compelling monologue about inner freedom and rock music, at the Spielart in Munich in November. The British paper The Guardian gave the play "Being Harold Pinter" the best ranking possible. Pinter himself was so enthusiastic about the collage that has been assembled from his Nobel Prize for Literature speech, plays and letters from political prisoners in Belarus, that he gave the "Free Theater" the rights to his plays for free. The stagings, packed with strong imagery and experimentation, are captivating. At the end of the Kane piece, the actor whispers: "Look, look how I'm disappearing. Look, look." Then the candle flame goes out - which Belarussians understand as the death of their already comatose nation. "Belarussians are not used to this kind of contemporary relevance in their theatre," says Khalezin. "Many respond like children. They're shocked: Aaarrrgghh."

Two years ago, British dramatist Tom Stoppard gave a course in Minsk and said: "I wish that all my plays would be performed by a theatre like this." Since then he's been one of the theatre's patrons. Another is the writer and former Czech president Vaclav Havel. And the group recently met Rolling Stones singer Mick Jagger in Warsaw. Such famous sponsors bring glamour but also protection against even more drastic repressive measures.

Khalezin once said that his project will be complete when Belarus is democratic. Today he adds, "That would be the end of underground theatre, but not the end of our theatre. Believe me. We have something to say to the people, even if they're sitting in well equipped, big halls."

This article originally appeared in the Suddeutsche Zeitung on Thursday August 30, 2007.

Ingo Petz is freelancer who spends much of his time in Belarus.