Evening. A leafy Oxford suburb in early summer. I take my place in the theatre amid academics and indefinite Russophiles, knowing that as soon as the lights dim, I will be transported far away. This is Minsk 2011, performed by the legendary Belarus Free Theatre.
The Theatre was founded in 2005 by husband and wife Nicolai Khalezin and Natalia Kaliada. In Minsk, they performed in private apartments until they moved into exile abroad. Tonight’s play is Minsk 2011: A Reply to Kathy Acker” (watch the trailer and an interview with Natalia Kaliada).
Acker was an American punk writer who linked New York society to its sexual identity; and this is a Belarusian reply. Dressed in khaki plainclothes, florid housekeeper jackets and lacy black lingerie; the actors rap, shout and whisper. One character pulls back his clothes to show off his numerous scars one by one. Each has its own story, whether innocent or brutal. He explains: “Scars adorn a man. Many girls find it sexy. In this respect, Minsk is a beautiful and very sexy city. Welcome to Minsk! The sexiest city in the world!”
The play is a series of scenes with no definite characters or plot. After sundown, a workers’ stalovaya (cafeteria) is converted into a nightclub. A young, interchangeable Katya arrives from the provinces to begin her studies and slowly slips into the underworld. There are snapshots of the year 2011 – familiar to anyone who followed the headlines – from the presidential elections of December 2010, rigged in favour of Alexander Lukashenka, to the “silent protests” that lulled the capital last summer. As if in slow motion, we revisit the explosions that hit the Minsk metro in April 2011. A survivor smells “sugar and blood” as she trips over the dead bodies. They had only gone out to buy food products, before prices rose even further.
“Belarus is not sexy,” says Natalia Kaliada’s character towards the end. “The sexiness of a country is its oil, gas, diamonds, and access to sea and mountains. Belarus is the only country in Europe where there is no sea and no mountains. Belarus is flat. … For the world to notice us, we have to take – our – clothes – off!”
And she does. The play reaches its climax, with the cast singing a plaintive Belarusian folk song in the background. But even in this faceless urban landscape there is a human touch. The cast sits on a make-shift river bank overlooking Minsk, dangling their feet in the cool water. One by one, each character (or perhaps each actor?) shares a simple memory or wish linked to Minsk. To return to his own four walls, to see her baby again, to restore a sense of normality. In this city they have so little but, at the same time, everything.
It was an entertaining evening. Those in the audience who survived the swearing and an hour of squinting at the English surtitles (the performance was in Russian) certainly learnt something about Belarus. The actors spent a lot of energy; a special mention goes to the four women actors, whose roles were particularly demanding. The play picked up speed and went beyond being merely provocative, to touch on serious themes. It illustrates the repression of minorities – sexual minorities, but not only – by the authoritarian regime (in 2010, Minsk police broke up a Gay Pride march after only 15 minutes).
Beyond the nightlife and the glitter, the play says something valuable about Belarus. It shatters the stereotype, popular in the western media, of Belarusian society as a grey, neo-Soviet lump. What is left is not the overused concept of “civil society”, organised and democratic. Rather, it is a kaleidoscope of young people with their own identities, anxieties and dreams – just like in any other country. The Belarus Free Theatre’s style may not be to everyone’s liking. But, watching it perform on stage, you may catch a glimpse of Belarus behind the scenes.
Annabelle Chapman is a postgraduate student in Russian and East European Studies at Oxford University.
Watch the Belarus Free Theatre perform Shakespeare’s King Lear here, at the 2012 Globe to Globe festival in London (in Belarusian with English subtitles).