With performances held in secret and at considerable risk, the BFT is using the stage to fight censorship in a dictatorship. Its extraordinary work should be seen all over the world
Belarus Free Theatre Clear, visually inventive and rigorous ... Belarus Free Theatre at the Young Vic. Photograph: Keith Pattison
A week ago last Sunday, on a night when most theatres are almost empty, the Young Vic in London was packed. Jude Law and Sienna Miller were appearing on stage together. Ian McKellen, Jonathan Dimbleby, Samuel West and Adjoa Andoh lent a hand. But the star turn was a company called Belarus Free Theatre. The standing ovation was for them, and the cheers lasted for minutes. Because by any measure, what it does is extraordinary.
Belarus Free Theatre is an underground group based in Minsk. "Underground" not because it's cool and edgy, but because Belarus is a dictatorship and any opposition, artistic or otherwise, can be swiftly and harshly silenced. Citizens of Belarus are subject to extreme censorship and human rights violations, to which other governments turn a blind eye. Resistance activists have mysteriously disappeared or been kidnapped, imprisoned and killed.
The BFT runs plays that tell people what's going on in their country. It is subject to continual harassment and death threats. But it doesn't stop. Most of its actors have been expelled from the state theatre for their involvement with the BFT, and are classified by the KGB as "unstable elements". Producer and writer Natalia Koliada and playwright Nikolai Khalezin have become human rights activists as well as theatre practitioners. They feel that their country has been forgotten.
I first encountered the BFT when director Lyndsey Turner and I visited Belarus last summer for a week of workshops with its young apprentices. On our last night in Minsk we saw the company play to a home audience. It wasn't just another night at the theatre.
The BFT has to perform in secret, at considerable risk: performances have been raided by police and multiple arrests made. Audience members are contacted by text message and told to meet at a secret location, from whhich they are taken to the show. At the moment the company uses a near-derelict house where two rooms have been knocked together; the audience, some of whom have travelled for hours to be there, squeeze on to benches at one end of the space and the play is performed at the other. The anticipation is palpable. At the end, the applause comes with a wave of relief, not just because the police didn't storm the building. Many of the audience have seen nothing like this before; to hear the problems of their country spoken about honestly makes them feel a little braver and less alone.
At the Young Vic evening organised by Index on Censorship, the BFT performed two pieces. The first was Numbers, a devised play that explores modern Belarus through statistics ("72% of Belarusians find it difficult to define the word 'democracy''', "13 model agencies, in collaboration with the ministry of culture, sold Belarusian young women into sexual slavery"). Then Discover Love, the story of Irina Krasovskaya and her opposition-activist husband Anatoly Krasovsky, who was kidnapped and murdered. This has particular poignancy after the recent suspicious death of Oleg Bebenin, a journalist and close friend of the BFT. The two pieces work powerfully together, guiding the audience through an abstract world of percentages into a devastating personal story.
The work of the BFT isn't just good considering the difficult circumstances under which it is created - it's good full stop. It's clear, visually inventive and rigorous, with humour next to deep sadness. It deserves to be seen all over the world. Who knows what might be achieved if people in Belarus were allowed free access to it?
What the company needs more than anything is the solidarity of the global theatre community. The more international friends the company has, the more likely that people in Belarus will join its struggle for democratic freedom (and the less likely that members of the company will disappear). There's a petition you can sign. The BFT will return to London next July for a week at the Almeida Theatre. You should go and see them there. And you won't be arrested for it.