I know most of you all want to write something insightful, stirring, meaningful, and gobsmackingly clever and on point. But what if what you wrote got you into trouble. Serious trouble. Like dead.
Belarus. The Republic of. You know. To the left of Poland. To the right of Russia. Don’t worry I had to check a map in order to write that. It’s a smallish land-locked country population 9.5 million who like a bit of potato and cabbage. It’s dotted with picturesque farmlands and ancient castles. It’s got all the charm and history of a classic European state. It’s also what the US calls Europe’s only remaining “outpost of tyranny”.
President Alexander Lukashenko, the alleged democratically-elected leader of Belarus, doesn’t mince words in the capital Minsk; what he says goes, since 1994. If you’re a Belarusian who doesn’t agree, hey, there’s always room at a Belarus prison for you. Protests over Lukashenko’s actions are met with brisk and harsh punishments. He is known as the only dictator in Europe.
Which brings me to the crux of this post. Belarus Free Theatre. Born of a simple question, they attempt to answer: what happens when you are declared an enemy of the state simply for making art?
- conduct or speech inciting people to rebel against the authority of a state or monarch, and in this case a dictator.
BFT is a seditious theatre company that takes the lives of writers, directors and performers to the literal edge of life. They dare to protest. They are the only known theatre company that operates both in secret in their own country and in exile. They were the first company in the world to create write, rehearse and perform theatre via the internet, out of necessity.
Belarus Free Theatre has just finished a short tour of Australia, namely just one venue, in Melbourne. If I had had the money, I would have trotted down the length of the country to see the work they presented at the Malthouse Theatre in Melbourne, Burning Doors.
In truth, I had never heard of BFT before, and I don’t think I’m alone in that. You can view bits and pieces of their work on a number of Youtube videos. I’ve seen most of them. The performances seem a hot mix of performance art, narration, and symbolic gestures. Many reviewers are stunned at the poignancy and immediacy of the production Burning Doors.
One reviewer, Chris Boyd from the notoriously conservative national newspaper The Australian, said whilst the play was raw and admirable in its purpose, and he was hesitant to criticize a group of artists who were risking their lives to tell important stories, he didn’t feel there was enough artistic merit in the work itself. It wasn’t capital-A Art.
Hmm. I do know what Chris means. Even allowing for the terrible way theatre performances can look on video, the youtube shows I saw were very…direct. They weren’t especially profound. They did not dig out my heart. They confronted me with facts, not emotion.
But is artistic depth what these writers and performers trying for here? It just might be completely beside the point. Telling the truth might be the point. Getting the message to someone like myself who had never heard so much as a squeak about Belarus until a couple of days ago, that might be the point.
“BFT is getting very seriously noticed in many ports around the globe. Nothing, surely, could annoy an absurd European dictator more.” The Spectator