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Belarus in Focus 2011

7 Nov

Brendan McCall, (Norway)

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When Theatre is 'Thoughtcrime'

Nearly half a century later, the British dramatist expanded on this view during his acceptance speech of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2005.  While believing that such “assertions still make sense a writer I stand by them,” Pinter emphasized that “as a citizen I cannot.  As a citizen I must ask: What is true?  What is false?” (2)

The right to question is a freedom dramatists and journalists inherently enjoy around the world.  But unlike journalism, a play can debate and pose questions.  The true and the false can be in dialogue through the characters and story unfolding live before the audience.  The theatre is a “safe” space.

Perhaps the exercise of such freedom is what also makes theatre so intrinsically political.  Audiences assemble in a public space, to watch and to listen.  Words stimulate thought, and actions generate feeling.  For most actors or playwrights in the Western world, the risks taken to perform a play do not involve risking one´s life.  Most of the anxieties facing theater artists in the US and Europe today are economical, “getting butts in seats.”  The times of underground theaters performing plays under the spectre of totalitarianism ended with the fall of the Berlin Wall, right?

Unfortunately, the answer is no.  In Hungary and Belarus, theatre remains an act of political defiance in world reminiscent of George Orwell´s novel Nineteen Eighty-Four.  And no, things are not “doubleplusgood”.

Last November, an article by Helen Shaw of Time Out Magazine caught my eye while my group, Ensemble Free Theater Norway, was in residence in Chicago. The article, seemingly buried in the back of the magazine, painted a grim portrait of journalists and theatre artists in present-day Hungary.

Since the center-right nationalist party Fidesz took office in April 2010, I read, independent journalism and various cultural institutions were becoming targets within the country.  Theaters and other public buildings were forced to now display the party´s Manifesto, or be accused of working "against the State."  Major festivals were being cancelled as promised funds from the government vanished. Independent theaters were getting "polite recommendations" to have their work reflect positively on Hungary.  Prominent Hungarian cultural figures and journalists found themselves on a list of "Jews, Bolsheviks, and homosexuals."

Isn´t this the same script used by the fascists of the last century?  

Returning to Oslo in December, I got a shocking email from human rights activists in Belarus, marching in protest against the “re-election” of President Alexandr Lukashenko.  Former US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice may have once called Belarus “the last true dictatorship in Europe,” but the brutal assaults against peaceful protesters on 19 December 2010 in Minsk shows a disturbing new level of censorship and danger.  

Rival political candidates were assaulted by the KGB, and at least one, Uladzimir Nyaklyaev, was abducted from the hospital for eight days.  Another, Andrei Sannikau, was tortured so extensively that he has suffered brain damage, according to Amnesty International researcher Heather McGill.

During the dark days of Christmas that followed, radio and newspaper offices were looted in Minsk, continuing the crackdown on free speech.  On 25 December, the Minister of Education said in a statement that he would try in absentia all students and teachers who took part in the protests.  On New Year´s Eve, Lukashenko denied the renewal mandate of the Minsk office for the Organization for Security & Co-Operation in Europe (OSCE), and has continued to refuse to release over 600 political prisoners.

Among these “enemies of the state” were my friends and colleagues Artsiom Zheleznyak, Natalya Kolyada, and Nikolai Khalezin of Belarus Free Theater.  Since their formation in 2005, this independent theater group has been risking their lives to make theatre.

The group cannot advertise their performances, and must perform in secret; audiences learn of a play´s location at the last moment through mobile-phone text-messaging.   Yet, despite these strategies of working covertly, members of Belarus Free Theater have endured multiple arrests.  Recently, so have their audiences, and people are advised to now always bring their passports to their performances.

When Belarus Free Theater visited Oslo last September to perform their playDiscover Love at Det Norske Teatret, I recall one incident vividly.  Before the show backstage, Co-Director Khalezin informed me that he and his family had just received death threats from the Belarusian government.  That fact that he shared this with me so calmly was extraordinary.  Even more extraordinary that threatening a theater director with death, however, was that--for Khalezin and his colleagues--this had become almost ordinary.

After their release from prison last month, Khalezin, Kolyada, and Zheleznyak have literally gone underground.  Knowing that their movements are mostly being monitored by the KGB, they do not travel together.  They do not use their phone; their whereabouts are inconsistent and undisclosed, even from their children.

Yet, they continue to make theatre.

What is it about theatre that causes such anxiety in authoritarian regimes, such as the ones in Belarus and Hungary?  Perhaps it´s due to the fact that, as Peter Brook wrote in his book The Empty Space, “the theatre is the last forum where idealism is still an open question." (3)

Another, more personal, answer may be found in the words of Khalezin himself, in talking about Belarus Free Theater´s first production, 4.48 Psychosis.  He describes Sarah Kane´s play as “about a woman´s psychological decay, homosexuality, and suicide.”  Khalezin goes on to say that, while “there´s no politics in the play,” it doeshave something that is “threatening to a dictatorship: open conversation.” (4)

In recent months, both Fidesz and Lukashenko are doing a frighteningly thorough job of controlling print and digital media.  And while live theater--like public assembly and freedom of speech--remains defiant and alive, it is still under threat of becoming what Winston Smith called a "thoughtcrime."

In January, Belarus Free Theater performed Being Harold Pinter as part of the Public Theater´s Under The Radar Festival in New York.  Adapted & directed by Vladimir Shcherban within a spare aesthetic, the piece combines fragments from Pinter´s speeches and dramatic writings with testimonies of Belarusian political prisoners.  A review in The New York Times called this sold-out show “a testament to the power of a single playwright to inspire, illuminate, and give articulate voice to  powerlessness.”  

Yet what awaits them upon their eventual return to Minsk?  What about the others in Belarus and Hungary who do not have a voice, do not have freedom to speak, to listen, to question?

The courage of groups like Belarus Free Theater, and what they are willing to risk to perform a play, is inspiring.  As a theater-maker working in the democracies of Scandinavia and North America, I am fortunate. I do not live in a society of state-sponsored censorship.  I do not fear being imprisoned for performing a play, or assaulted by the police for participating in a peaceful protest. To be frank, my “problems” are rather common and mundane, and are similar to many of my colleagues in New York and Oslo.  By living in a democracy, my primary enemy isself-censorship.  

But a threat to human rights in these countries is a threat to me.  Threats against these artists, journalists, and teachers is cause for alarm, not just for Belarusians or Hungarians, but for anyone living in a democracy.  

As the drama of these horrible events unfold, my choice is simple: will I remain a spectator, or will I get up and act?

Being Harold Pinter´s closing line, taken from his Nobel acceptance speech, gives me clear direction: “despite enormous odds which exist, unflinching, unswerving, fierce intellectual determination, as citizens, to define the real truth of our lives and our societies is a crucial obligation which devolves upon us all.  It is in fact mandatory.” (5)

Since 20 December, I have been circulating a petition to international theatre artists from around the world, opposing these human rights abuses.  This has been forwarded to my leaders of government here in Norway, as well as in the United States.  I have also been working closely with the Norwegian Helsinki Committee here in Oslo, to learn what steps I (or any citizen) can do.

Black Box Teater in Oslo helped me to organize a reading of Being Harold Pinter in January, timed to coincide with Belarus Free Theater´s performances in New York.  Another colleague of mine, Bari Hochwald, is organizing one in Los Angeles this February.  I also hear one is scheduled to occur in Chicago.  And I was heartened to learn that Kolyada and other Belarusian activists met with the current US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton.

The future of Hungary and Belarus remains uncertain, not just for theater artists but for all of their citizens.  I cannot measure the impact of these readings, letters, or petitions to various governments.  I am not holding my breath that political change in Belarus or Hungary will be determined by my staging of a play-reading in Norway.

Nonetheless, it is worth doing.  Like those in Hungary and Belarus, I make theatre.  We tell stories not just to entertain, but to provoke and to question, to think and to feel.  Our job is to give voice to those who are silent, and give power to those who are powerless.  

Hopefully, in time, this work will also inspire audiences everywhere to speak and to act, and to return Orwell´s story to where it belongs: to the world of fiction.

Note: Since first writing this article in January 2011, Belarus Free Theater have presented their play Being Harold Pinter to unanimous acclaim in New York and Chicago, broadcast a translation of their play Discover Love for Swedish radio, and had readings of their play done by actors and activists from Los Angeles to Oslo, Norway.  While supported by outspoken allies such as Tom Stoppard, Jude Law, and Ed Harris, the members of Belarus Free Theater remain living in exile from their homes in Minsk since January, as they will be arrested and imprisoned immediately should they return.  


(1) : from Harold Pinter, "Art, Truth & Politics: The 2005 Nobel Lecture" in The Essential Pinter (Grove Press), 2006.

(2): from Pinter, ibid

(3): from Peter Brook, The Empty Space (Touchstone), 1968.

(4): from Ingo Petz, "Arrests After the Second Act", Süddeutsche Zeitung, 2007.

(5): from Pinter, ibid.

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