If any theatre group knows how to spread a message, it’s the Belarus Free Theatre. Kicking off their tenth anniversary festival Staging a Revolution two weeks ago, the group took political refuge in the UK after being forced out of their country by dictatorship.
The initial performances, which included Sarah Kane’s 4.48 Psychosis and Generation Jeans by co-founder Nikolai Khalezin, were held in undisclosed locations; attendance was only admitted once the recipient received a text message with an agreed meeting point, and ticket-holders were asked to bring their passports with them, a custom upheld in Belarus underground theatre should anyone be arrested. The festival came to a close in the Young Vic, BFT’s home for the last four years, with Being Harold Pinter, King Lear and Time of Women.
Maryia Sazonava as Irina Khalip and Maryna Yurevich as Natalya Radina. Credit: Nicolai Khalezin
In the smaller, downstairs theatre of the Young Vic, Time of Women took to a stage bedecked with a Christmas tree on one side, a desk on the other, and a box – which would soon be revealed as a prison cell – in the centre. The heroes were three women imprisoned for protesting against the apparent rigging of Alexander Lukashenko’s 2010 presidential win, and were played by Maryna Yurevich, Maryia Sazonava and Yana Rusakevich. The play followed a simple structure: each woman would, in turn, divulge her experiences in prison, then we would see how she and the other two women coped within the cell, and then she would be interrogated and bribed by a prison official, played by Kiryl Kanstantsinau. This structure allowed small insights into her life as a free woman, an imprisoned woman, and a woman facing freedom at a cost.
Though simple in concept, the meaning did occasionally slip away, befuddled at times by the poetic language and complex symbolism that didn’t quite ring true of their characters. It is also important to note at this point, that the play was entirely in Russian, with subtitles projected above and either side of the stage. This would not have caused an issue, had it not been for a technical fault halfway through; the subtitles stopped working for about ten minutes, rendering most of us feeling completely alienated from a play that was already battling with challenging concepts.
That aside, it was a moving play, with each of the women providing standout performances that brought forth the fear and passion felt by those arrested – an event that drew the world’s attention and was reprimanded by artistic figureheads, Ian McKellen among them. Though the festival has now closed, the BFT continues to stage plays of rebellion against injustice in a country so close to home. In this way, it might be beneficial for KS4-5 students to get a feel for theatre with a cause; Time of Women proved that challenging concepts could be met with simplistic design and structure, and political theatre is seldom touched upon in drama classrooms. However, I would not recommend BFT as suitable for anyone below KS4; the subtitles were fast-paced and the potentially controversial themes – though no doubt the driving force behind the group – may be difficult to grapple with among younger students.