Belarus Free Theatre shed light on the suppression of human rights in Europe's last dictatorship
On the Northern Bank stage of the Lyric Theatre, Lynne Parker’s lavish new production of Macbeth is played out against the backdrop of Diana Ennis’s vast, sophisticated, split-level set. Parker’s revival of a play written almost 400 years ago is unsparing in its dramatic portrayal of blood letting, political manoeuvring and supernatural intervention.
Meanwhile, in the Naughton Studio alongside, a banned company from one of the most oppressive political regimes on earth is bearing witness to a series of sickening, all too real horrors taking place on the streets of Belarus every day of our own lives.
No fancy set design is in evidence here, only a few basic props – a length of shabby scarlet velour, a few plastic chairs and a screen on which are projected English surtitles and news footage of peaceful public demonstrations and violent arrests.
Belarus Free Theatre was founded in March 2005 by Nicolai Khalezin and his wife Natalia Kaliada, both of whom appear in the nine-strong cast of Minks 2011, A Reply to Kathy Acker, to give the production its full title.
All its members have suffered just about every imaginable form of intimidation and harassment under the regime of Europe’s last dictator, Alexander Grigoryevich Lukashenko, yet the company continues to flourish underground, drawing on the experiences and creative expertise of its members as artistic resources.
Minski, 2011, A Reply to Kathy Acker, has been developed as a companion piece to New York in 1979, which was presented in a secret location in Belarus in 2010. It is based on an award-winning story by the American punk poet Kathy Acker, which examines sexual identity and the way in which society defines and moulds itself through the prism of sexuality.
Born into a wealthy Jewish family, Acker’s was a troubled, unloved life. Openly bisexual and twice married, she immersed herself perilously in the dark side of life and worked for a while as a stripper, an experience which is mirrored with uncompromising honesty in this bold, subversive piece.
The sex industry is clearly a big deal in Belarus. Much money is made from it. Yet sex, as it is presented here, is anything but erotic.
Our first encounter is with a strong, honest-faced young man, who runs through the scars on his body, beginning with the one caused by a childhood prank and ending with the deep wounds of torture and punishment beatings. He comments sardonically that some girls find scars sexy. 'Welcome to Minsk,' he concludes, 'the sexiest city in the world.'
Women are less than commodities in a country where sex workers are forced to submit to shocking double standards of officialdom. Lap dancers are permitted to perform, as long as they are licensed and formally approved.
Prostitutes, meanwhile, are routinely called upon to work as street cleaners – and in a particularly vivid scenario, a series of first-hand statements relating to unspeakable violence and abusive language are immediately succeeded by women stepping forward to brush the stage clean of the evidence.
This is a country where it is illegal to look another person in the eye for more than three seconds, where public applause will inevitably result in detention, where actors can be expelled from state theatre companies for taking part in street rallies and for cooperating with Belarus Free Theatre.
One performer tells of being hassled by police and abused by homophobic skinheads after a Gay Pride march in 2010, an event symbolic of a city landscape in which all gay clubs have been closed.
Production budgets may be almost non-existent – indeed, post-show donations for future performances are gratefully accepted – and working conditions unimaginably restrictive, yet this vibrant young company does not believe in taking the easy option in presentational terms.
Like a constantly shifting kaleidoscope, the audience is whisked from seedy nightclub to subway train, from works canteen to strip show; a young woman is stripped naked, covered from head to toe in black paint then rendered invisible by being wrapped and taped in white paper.
All that remains is her sweet, clear voice. And through all the humiliation, the screams of agony and wails of protest resound in unequivocal translation from the projected surtitles.
Each performer has his or her own personal story of exile and detention; one cast member had to be smuggled out of the country to come here, another cannot go back; none are allowed to speak their own native language.
Yet what cannot be taken from them is their undying love of their country, its ancient traditions and folklore and their hope for a brighter future. In a heart-breaking final scene, they join in a resonant chorus of a favourite old folk song, while raising the scarlet sheet and slowly disappearing beneath it like a blanket of blood.
Full marks to the Belfast Festival at Queen's for the vision and determination to import one of the most indelibly significant pieces of theatre to have hit Belfast in a very long time.