Entertainment & Arts

Belarusian thespians fighting for freedom

Members of the Belarusian Free Theatre performing
Image caption Members of the Belarusian Free Theatre have travelled as far as Sydney to perform

A theatre company from Belarus are touring London and New York to draw attention to limits to free expression at home. Speaking to Outlook from the BBC World Service, the founder of the company explains the reason for her mission.

In her hometown of Minsk, Natalia Koylada is both a celebrated thespian and public enemy.

Belarus is one of the last dictatorships in Europe, and performing theatre that challenges social norms is enough to land a lengthy jail sentence.

Currently travelling between London and New York, Natalia is effectively on the run along with her troupe.

Her company, the Belarus Free Theatre, was set up in 2005 by Natalia and husband Nikolai Khalezin.

He was one of the best-known journalists in Belarus and wrote for three of the country's top newspapers.

But when president Alexander Lukashenko came to power in 1994, he clamped down on freedom of expression and all three publications were closed down.

When he lost his job, Nikolai decided to turn his resistance efforts to playwriting and set up the company to give fellow writers a platform for resistance to draconian censorship laws.

"There is no official censorship law in Belarus," Natalia explains. "But Belarus authorities like to use this phrase 'not recommended.'"

Lukashenko rules Belarus with the help of the KGB or secret police, a remnant of Soviet era repression that is still alive and well.

Nikolai likes to describe the KGB as "the most honest organisation in the world", so blatant in its mission to repress that it hasn't changed its methods or even its name.

Silence and suicide

Members of the KGB together with the government's arts council swoop on theatres demanding to see the name of the directors, writers and cast and examine scripts for any reference to subversive themes.

Image caption Actor and Old Vic director Kevin Spacey has been a staunch supporter of the theatre company

But these themes are not always overtly political.

A recent performance of British playwright Sarah Kane's play 4.48 Psychosis was banned because it addressed the issue of suicide.

"This is the most weird, the most scary part," says Natalia. Belarus has one of the highest rates of suicide in Europe, "but it is not possible to talk about these things."

Soon after its inception the theatre was forced underground/ Performances were held in private houses and clubs or under the cover of weddings and birthday parties.

Seeing one of these productions is a challenge. Spectators first have to call the theatre manager and leave their phone number.

Once the troupe has found a place to perform, they call back and assign a covert meeting point where the audience gathers before being led to the venue.

Audience members are told to bring their passports in case they are arrested.

Despite the danger involved, their performances have attracted up to 1,200 people.

Image caption The company's productions deal with themes such as suicide, taboo in Belarus

"Our audience in Belarus is bravest in the world," Natalia proudly asserts.

But it is not just their courage that sets the Belarusian Free Theatre apart from other theatre groups.

The company's performances are critically acclaimed around the world for the quality of their work.

They have attracted the attention and support of playwright Sir Tom Stoppard, Kevin Spacey of London's Old Vic and Sir Mick Jagger among others.

In December, popular support for underground resistance in Belarus became public when mass protests hit the streets of Minsk.

The protest challenged the Lukashenko presidency after elections that were widely thought to be fraudulent.

Natalia was there on 20 December with her children, along with thousands of other families and peaceful demonstrators.

"I have been to all the protests for the past 16 years," she remembers, "but I have never seen such a horrific scene."

Critically acclaimed

After the rally - during which thousands of heavily armed secret police descended on the crowd - the snow-filled streets were stained with blood.

"They didn't care whether they hit a child or a woman, they just beat horribly."

She recalls looking into the eyes of the policemen with horror.

"You look in the eyes of your fellow citizen - it is not like a person who has come from another country - and they are telling you if you say a word the Nazis would be like a dream to you."

Natalia was arrested and spent the night in jail. But many of her friends and colleagues were not so lucky.

After the protests the troupe came under constant surveillance and those who were able to left the country.

Now, four months on, she says most of her friends who are left behind are still languishing in prison or under strict house arrest.

In some cases the authorities have threatened to take their children away.

"We cannot go back." Natalia says. For the time being, they remain in exile relying on the support of friends abroad while they continue to push for change at home.

More on this story