Almeida Theatre, London N1
Opened 20 July, 2011

When you look at a British theatre programme, you will often see that several members of a company have appeared on TV’s Casualty or Holby City. With the Belarus Free Theatre, however, the frequently recurring item is “was detained for her/his political activities”. These activities consist largely of working outside the state-controlled and -censored channels of theatre in Europe’s last remaining dictatorship. Since the company’s foundation in 2005 the Lukashenko regime has repeatedly arrested, detained and interrogated founders Nikolai Khalezin, Natalia Koliada and Vladimir Shcherban, other performers and collaborators and even audience members. Khalezin’s contribution to this compilation evening portrays an interrogator who exhibits equal parts brutality and conformism delivering a monologue to, and torturing, a dissident student represented by a melon.
Eurepica. Challenge. [sic] is a compilation of a dozen playlets, each lasting ten minutes or so, from across Europe (and one from America). The framing device – of an airline flight passing over the various territories – is a little on the cutesy side, but also displays the surrealism and humour which are integral parts of the Free Theatre’s approach. The same cannot be said for all the material: Spaniard Angelica Liddel’s piece, for instance, is a dreary misandrist rant which might best be characterised as Federico García Dworkin.
The principal themes, unsurprisingly, are exploitation and abuse: sexual, economic, social/political, even ecological. In each case, subversion and complication of the issue proves more powerful than broad sketching. As regards ecology, for instance, compare Swede Anders Duus’s piece, in which an eco-conscious liberal travelling on the Underground proves far more pernicious to an eastern European beggar than the simple racist soccer thug nearby, with American Aaron Landsman’s unsubtle slab of environmental platitudes mouthed whilst the entire company wolf down (and spray around the stage) potato crisps and cola. Peca Stefan of Romania even parodies the whole notion of such programmes with a duologue between himself and a commissioning manager who wants him to write only the clichés about his country for an international evening such as this. Macedonia’s Goran Stefanovski is similarly mordant, with a monologue for a poet who metamorphoses from loyal Communist to nationalist to exotic exile to enthusiastic passenger on the gravy train of internationalism, rewriting the same poem and spouting the same pieties in each incarnation.
Shcherban gets maximum variety from his cast of eight (six of them Belarussian): the two-and-a-half-hour evening includes video, shadowplay, black-light sock-puppetry, rap, bicycling and even a bit of discreet arson. These are not political radicals as such, simply theatre-makers who want to make theatre in a free social environment. For this they are given grief not just by the Belarussian government but also the British, which proved shamefully reluctant to issue them with visas on this occasion, suspecting them to be asylum risks. After this week-long stint as part of the Almeida Theatre’s summer festival, the company unveil a new piece of work on the Edinburgh Fringe in August. They should be seen by those interested in theatre and in fundamental freedoms alike.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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