Saturday, 16 September 2017

I WENT TO MINSK FOR ABOUT A DAY AND NOW I THINK ALL YOUR THEATRE IS BOURGEOIS YEAH

Five nights a week, behind the door of an anonymous building in suburban Minsk that is supposed to be a garage, some theatre shows happen.
The shows are free, and announced on the afternoon of performance by WhatsApp message, with places – anything from 30 to 55 – allocated on a first-come, first-served basis to those who dial a burner phone manned by Nadia from Belarus Free Theatre, who jots the names down on a paper list.
Belarus Free Theatre are outlawed in their home country, though maybe it’s more complicated than that sounds to us. On an admittedly glancing first visit it would seem like a mistake to imagine Belarus as some sort of Stalinist throwback. Instead it is what it is: a poor Eastern European country with a democratic deficit and a heavy Russian influence.
Belarus Free Theatre were last clamped down on in March, and a couple of years back the KGB – they still have the actual KGB in Belarus – forced them to leave their previous headquarters-cum-performance space. None of this would be likely to happen in the West. But with founders Nikolai Khalezin and Natalia Koliada exiled to London – Nikolai had to miss his father’s funeral because he doesn’t dare risk a return until he has obtained a British passport – and the company something of an international cause célèbre, it doesn’t feel like crushing Belarus Free Theatre is President Lukashenko’s actual number one priority. The company are pretty sure the KGB know they’re here, pretty sure the odd spook has come to see a show, and pretty sure they’ll be made to move on at some point. But not right now.
I have reviewed a couple of Belarus Free Theatre’s London shows and always found them a bit frustrating – spirited but dated agit prop designed to tell comfortable Western audiences about the bad things that are happening elsewhere. In Minsk both the shows and the context feel radically different.
For starters there is a genuine, undeniable, tacky thrill to opening a boring door and stepping into a sweaty, illicit theatre audience. Out here as a foreign observer to do a feature on a new London night Belarus Free Theatre is starting, there is clearly no actual danger to me. But to see theatre outside of a designated, government-sponsored building, staged on the most DIY of lines – a couple of portable lights and a projector operated by a woman on a precariously-balanced laptop – is pretty remarkable.
It reminds me – perhaps banally, but oh the thrill – of the best ATP chalet parties, makes me think how much the iconography of anti-establishmentarianism has been co-opted by music in the punk era and after. But was punk really anything more than one generation exercising its privilege to tell another generation to fuck off? Was rave really much more than hedonism? Were they causes of change or were they symptoms?
I don’t think there is a vast amount of counter-culture in Belarus, but this is definitely it: young people, queer people, disabled people, the inevitable vegans… they’re here because theatre is the thing most palpably pricking the system. Theatre, of all things! Imagine what most Western theatre writers would give to be able to say that. It’d be like after years of playing Dungeons & Dragons suddenly discovering you could actually summon a magic missile.
The first show I see, House No 5, is a darkly humorous series of skits about disability (made with a mix of disabled and able-bodied performers). It is a bit hit-and-miss (I follow along on a translated script). But it is the only real forum in the country for this stuff to get talked about. I think we fret a lot about diversity in the West precisely because we have a monolithic, well-funded, well-intentioned framework that is meant to allow every voice to be heard, and we rage that it doesn’t work as ought. But there is something immensely powerful in saying ‘fuck that, we’re going off grid’. It is easy for me to sit here and fantasise that British theatre makers who have a problem with British theatre might just up sticks and put radically different stuff in an unlicensed shed somewhere. But it’s a thought.
The second show I see is The Master Had a Talking Sparrow. I suppose you’d call it immersive theatre: the garage is turned into a Belarusian living room in what I’m assuming is the late ‘70s/early ‘80s (Boney M play on the radio). We are gathered for a traditional meal, with heavy plates of smoked meats and boiled vegetables on the table, plus copious amounts of actual moonshine (it is perhaps one complication of Belarus Free Theatre that a free show in which the audience gets a full meal would surely not be possible without the outside funding they receive, though they’re hardly a western construct).
The show – based on a compendium of interviews conducted by journalist Zmitser Bartosik – is basically a reminiscence on civilian life in Belarus during the Second World War conducted over the dinner table. Though passions run high at times, there is barely any dramatic structure: the meal happens, people talk, we’re all a bit drunker by the end, but there’s no big revelation or sudden twist, and the whole thing is baggy enough to allow fairly robust interjection from the audience.
What’s radical is that the equivalent to this conversation – which might have happened word for word in the period it’s set – would be profoundly unlikely to happen today. That’s because the national discourse over the war has been studiously sculpted in present-day Belarus.
The atrocities committed by the Soviets during the first half of the war have been played down to almost nothing, because this is an increasingly awkward narrative. Earlier in the day I am taken to the Kurapaty woods, one the most haunting and horrible places I have ever been, a few acres of woodland just outside Minsk where the trees are intermingled with hundreds of wooden crosses marking the hundred thousand-plus people executed here by the Soviets. It is an official memorial, visited by President Clinton in 1994. But in the Putin era the government prefers to ignore it, and there are periodic attempts to tear down the crosses and desecrate the memorials. It is huge and stunning and significant, but it isn’t even in my guidebook, rather damningly.
There were also atrocities committed – on a smaller scale – by the Belarusian partisans who fought, among others, the Nazis, now venerated as an entirely heroic, patriotic movement.
And of course there were the Nazis themselves, who committed terrible atrocities – and these are the only ones the state really cares to remember.
The Master Had a Talking Sparrow is defined by its reasonableness – it’s a bunch of people chatting about what the war was like, and acknowledging that the partisans, in particular, did bad things too, in some cases because they’d been pushed over the edge by the occupations, in some cases because if you give a man a gun and say he can do what he likes, the first thing he’ll probably do is shoot his annoying neighbours.
In its reasonableness the show is a radical attempt to protect the past from revisionism as these events move out of living memory. It is a time capsule, and it has more genuine *purpose* to it than perhaps any other theatre show I have ever seen, and despite the interactive niceties, it is utterly untainted by the frivolity of plot – it has a mission and nothing gets in the way of it.
I think it affected me so much in part because I’ve been thinking recently about the British difficulty in coming to terms with ‘our’ own past (I obviously have another ‘our’ at least as problematic). One difficulty, maybe, is that rather than suppress the truth about what happened on our own soil, we outsourced most of our atrocities and are now content to view them as distant foreign events (though I believe there was suppression too).
I thought Tanika Gupta’s recent Lions and Tigers at the Globe did a pretty good job of explaining how Indians probably viewed the British in the pre-independence era and why it is that the British Empire was not universally beloved. But ultimately I thought it was a bit grounded in the conventions of being a play, all subplots and climaxes. But it does strike me that in the blah blah Brexit era British theatre maybe has a responsibility to talk about British past in a way that goes beyond a pieces of entertainment with a couple of painful truths tossed in. We know Amritsar happened - why don't we give a shit, really? It should be huge, 9/11 with us as the bad guys. Instead it's just ‘history’. Why do we persist in mythologising Winston Churchill but missing out the bad stuff? Can theatre fulfil the social function of keeping our unwanted past alive? Or do we shrug and hope somebody makes a hit film? (Mike Leigh's imminent Peterloo flick looks important).
Anyway. Context is everything. I was just a foreign journalist, invited out to write what were clearly expected to be positive things about the company. There couldn't really be a British equivalent to Belarus Free Theatre; undoubtedly many British theatres would be viewed as too radical for Minsk in their way. It is probably more important to have the right to free speech and not get it quite right than it is to not have the right but illegally get it correct to an audience of 30 (in a country of nine million). But so much of our theatre feels based on the idea that radical things are possible by sticking within the boundaries of a government-sponsored entertainment industry and perhaps tweaking the audience mix a little. And I wonder if that absolutely has to be the case.
NB this is clearly not the article I went out to write, about Belarus Free Theatre's Kitchen Revolution - that'll follow in October and be essentially London focussed with this as a backdrop. If you are a big money commissioning editor stunned by these words and would like them bashed into something less indulgent, we can talk. We can always talk.


















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