Juan Holzmann

Theatre and transgression in Europe’s last dictatorship

Juan Holzmann goes underground in Minsk with the Belarus Free Theatre on the eve of their London festival, Staging a Revolution

In a drab residential street in foggy, damp Minsk, four students are at work in a squat white building that was once a garage. They vocalise sequences of letters, clap their hands, throw their arms in the air, discuss their actions. Each — three girls, one boy — is elegant, light of limb, fiercely concentrated. The room they are in is about 20 feet by 20, with two blacked-out windows and four square lights on the ceiling. It’s not certain that all the bulbs are functioning.

Down a tiny corridor is a bedraggled kitchen full of empty bottles that are, in fact, props. Upstairs there is a tiny rehearsal space, with a ballet-style mirror. The modest complex feels like a cross between an abandoned cricket pavilion and a bicycle shed. It is the only performing space, in Minsk, of the Belarus Free Theatre (BFT). Young Belarusians, such as these four, are lining up to take lessons there.

Performances, like rehearsals, all take place in secret. Audiences find out about them via social media. They’re contacted by mobile phone, meet outside a shop and are walked to the venue. Addresses for shows in private apartments are also texted. The procedure is being replicated in London, where the company is currently being celebrated in a festival called ‘Staging a Revolution’.

The BFT’s three co-founders, Nicolai Khalezin, his wife Natalia Kaliada and director Vladimir Shcherban, live in London. They were granted asylum in Britain after fleeing Belarus in the wake of Alexander Lukashenko’s rigged 2010 election. They campaigned to have political prisoners released. Kaliada was detained for 20 hours without water or sanitation, and threatened with rape. On a subsequent BFT visit to America, the couple appealed to the US government to place sanctions on Lukashenko — they met Hillary Clinton — and asked EU leaders to do the same.

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