Look at a British theatre programme, and you will often see that several members of the cast have appeared on television in Casualty or Holby City. With the Belarus Free Theatre, however, the frequently recurring credentials are “was detained for her/his political activities”. These activities consist largely of working outside the state-controlled and state-censored channels of theatre in Europe’s last remaining dictatorship.
Since the company’s foundation in 2005, the regime of Alexander Lukashenko has repeatedly arrested, detained and interrogated founders Nikolai Khalezin, Natalia Koliada and Vladimir Shcherban, other performers and collaborators and even audience members. Khalezin’s contribution to this compilation evening portrays an interrogator who exhibits equal parts brutality and conformism delivering a monologue to, and torturing, a dissident student represented by a melon.
Eurepica. Challenge. is a compilation of a dozen playlets, each lasting 10 minutes or so, from across Europe (and one from America). The framing device – that of an airline flight passing over the various territories – is a little on the cutesy side, but also displays the surrealism and humour that are integral parts of the Free Theatre’s approach. The same cannot be said for all the material: Spaniard Angelica Liddel’s piece, for instance, is a dreary misandrist rant that might best be characterised as Federico García Dworkin.
The compilation’s principal themes, unsurprisingly, are exploitation and abuse: sexual, economic, social/ political and even ecological. In each case, subversion and complication of the issue proves more powerful than broad sketching.
As regards ecology, for instance, compare the piece by the Swede Anders Duus – in which an eco-conscious liberal travelling on the London Underground proves far more pernicious to an eastern European beggar than the simple racist soccer thug nearby – with American Aaron Landsman’s unsubtle slab of environmental platitudes mouthed while the entire company wolfs down (and sprays around the stage) potato crisps and cola.
Peca Stefan of Romania even parodies the whole notion of such programmes with a duologue between himself and a commissioning manager who wants him to write only clichés about his country for an international evening such as this. Macedonia’s Goran Stefanovski is similarly mordant: here he offers a monologue for a poet who metamorphoses from loyal communist to nationalist to exotic exile to enthusiastic passenger on the gravy train of internationalism, rewriting the same poem and spouting the same pieties in each incarnation.
Shcherban gets maximum variety from his cast of eight (six of them Belarusian): the two-and-a-half-hour evening includes video, shadow play, black-light sock-puppetry, rap, bicycling and even a bit of discreet arson. These are not political radicals as such, simply theatre-makers who want to make theatre in a free social environment. For this they are given grief not only by the Belarusian government but also by the British, which proved shamefully reluctant to issue them with visas on this occasion, suspecting them to be asylum risks.
After this week-long stint as part of the Almeida Theatre’s summer festival, the company unveils a new piece of work on the Edinburgh Fringe in August. It should be seen by those interested in theatre and in fundamental freedoms alike.