Theater Commentary: Menace in Minsk

Given the timidity of so many American theater companies, who seem to reserve their courage for implementing new marketing schemes, reminders of what creative risk is all about serve a useful purpose. Some theater artists around the world face jail when they perform on stage. On August 22, special forces of the Belorussian police raided a private apartment in Minsk and broke up a Free Theatre production of Edward Bond’s play Eleven Vests. Over fifty people, audience members and artists working with the troupe, were taken to jail and released three hours later.

Bill Marx

According to Radio Free Europe, it is the first reported case of Belorussian officials closing down a theater performance. The strong-arm tactics in Belarus are a depressing throwback to the days of censorship in Soviet-dominated Eastern Europe, when theater companies performed plays by “decadent” dramatists, Samuel Beckett among them, for small invited audiences in private homes or out-of-the-way clubs.

Still, technology has changed the rules for underground theater since the Cold War. Audience members are alerted to the group’s secret performances via mobile phone text messaging. Free Theatre has no permanent space, presenting plays in apartments, cafes, and restaurants until the police catch on.

Audience leaving
Audience leaving Eleven Vests
Photo courtesy “Free Theatre” Belarus

Free Theatre is an unregistered stage troupe in Belarus. “Legitimate” theater companies in the country are state-owned and perform material that has been ok’d as safe by the authorities. The maverick troupe doesn’t perform what would be considered conventional political theater, but chooses plays that the-powers-that-be perceive as attacks on the wholesome image of Belarus.

“The first play that we put on, 4.48 Psychosis by Sarah Kane, is about a woman’s psychological decay, homosexuality and suicide,” says [Free Theatre director Nicolai] 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.”

I would say that by staging Edward Bond’s Eleven Vests the Free Theatre is making a fairly direct assault on the repressive government of Belarus. Written in 1997 for Big Drum, a lauded student company that tours British colleges and universities, the script deals with institutional control of young people as well as violence in school and in the army. To my knowledge, the play has never been received a production in America.

Photo courtsey “Free Theatre” Belarus

Free Theatre performed Eleven Vests on August 23 in a private home rented in a village near Minsk. The authorities were present and made the proceedings difficult.

According to Mr. Khalezin, local police commanded by two KGB officers in civilian clothes who had participated in the Wednesday raid initially blocked access to the house, claiming that they had received a bomb threat call. Khalezin, local police commanded by two KGB officers in civilian clothes who had participated in the Wednesday raid initially blocked access to the house, claiming that they had received a bomb threat call. They reportedly stopped every vehicle heading for the house and checked the passengers’ IDs but later allowed the people to enter the house.

Unlike the ad hoc companies in Eastern Europe, Free Theatre has garnered publicity in the West, attracting a cadre of celebrity supporters, including Mick Jagger, British playwrights Tom Stoppard and Harold Pinter, and former Czech president and writer Vaclav Havel. Still, the troupe’s notoriety hasn’t held off government interference. The troupe is scheduled to tour Finland, Germany, Sweden and Armenia this fall. Perhaps an enterprising American stage company will consider bringing Free Theatre over here.

1 Comment

  1. Ian Thal on September 3, 2007 at 3:55 pm

    It’s certainly not surprising that Tom Stoppard is a public supporter of the Free Theatre of Belarus. Some three decades ago he wrote a short play entitled Cahoot’s Macbeth about another theatre company forced to perform covertly in living rooms because the unnamed police state has banned them from working in the legitimate theatre.

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