The Free Theatre of Belarus

Mark Ravenhill files an amazing report on something called the Free Theatre of Belarus. Although it sounds like Kafka’s fictional Nature Theater of Oklahoma, it’s an actual theater company managing a harrowing existence in Minsk. Known mostly for its retro Soviet government overseen by a lunatic president, Alexander Lukashenko, Belarus is also home to another holdover from Iron Curtain days:  Samizdat literature.

The Free Theatre of Belarus performs guerrilla style, staging performances in found spaces in the rickety margins of the capital city. Audiences receive text messages and email announcements of performances with only a few hours notice. Most of the members of the troupe have either been fired from the state theater or been arrested for dissonant activities, or both. Periodically the authorities descend upon a performance, round up everyone  who can’t run away fast enough, and throw them in jail–women, children and foreigners included.

Revenhill says the performances and are polished and professional, despite the improvised performance spaces and constant threat of arrest. Many of the actors are classically trained under the old Soviet system so they have "stunning vocal and physical command" over their material. Their current repertoire includes a trilogy called, appropriately enough, Hidden Voices. The audience is underground art hipsters and, on the night Revenhill attended, "a French documentary film-maker, a German theatre-festival programmer, a couple whose formal dress picks them out as figures from sympathetic western embassies." No one was arrested that night, but sitting in the audience Revenhill admitted to guiltily "enjoying this feeling of fear as I wait for the performance to begin."

Despite official disapproval, the Free Theatre of Belarus managed to travel to Britain, where they’re currently performing Being Harold Pinter and Generation Jeans on London’s West End. Later this month they’ll move on to Leads before returning to Lukashenko’s theater of the absurd nation.

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