Ian McKellen | Writings | Activism | Belarus Free Theatre

5 December 2010 | The Free Theatre of Belarus

An Introduction

Delivered at the Young Vic
Presented by Index on Censorship

Since it was founded in 1974, the Young Vic has lived up to its name by sponsoring young writers, young directors and actors and their young audiences – a theatre that looks to the future. Never more so than with tonight’s double bill from the Free Theatre of Belarus.

So we complain: battling against the cold and the planned closures of the week-end tubes, we enjoy the show and discuss it over a drink. We go where we want and we speak our minds, with no security forces at the door, no censorship to trouble our democratic rights of self-expression and freedom of movement.

Back in Belarus, just five hours flight from London, there is precious little freedom for anyone, particularly the theatre people we shall meet tonight and their audiences. Belarus, that tattered remnant of the Soviet Empire is called “Europe’s last dictatorship”, under the control of its almighty president Alexander Lukashenko. In his capital city of Minsk, the last KGB flag flies, enemies of the state disappear, Jewish memorial sites are replaced by multi-storey car parks, the death penalty is enforced for civil and military crime.

President Lukashenko is up for re-election in two weeks’ time. Human rights observers are sceptical as to the legality of the inevitable outcome. Political resistance is all but impossible when the state runs the television, the radio, the press and most of the population’s employment. The most eloquent and courageous opposition is not a political party nor a trade union: it is this theatre company you are about to see.

It was founded five years ago by two human rights activists, husband and wife Mikalay Khalezin and Natallya Kalyada – both with us this evening. They are joined by Uladzmir Shcherban, who was dismissed from the Belarusian National Theatre when he directed a play by Mark Ravenhill. The Free Theatre have produced Sarah Kane, Harold Pinter and Tom Stoppard as well as their own Belarusian writers, who write about freedom and about what it means to be a citizen of a dictatorship, what it could mean to be a Belarusian.

Yet, the Free Theatre is forbidden to exist; free in only one sense - the audience doesn’t pay to see the plays. So performances can only take place in private homes, in abandoned industrial sites, even in clearings in the forests that cover 40% of the Belarusian landscape. Audiences are advised to carry their passports in case the security forces are also in attendance.

They have managed to travel and perform abroad, to acclaim. In July they will be guests of the Almeida Theatre with a new work by seven international writers including Wole Soyinka. But we don’t have to wait, tonight there are two ground-breaking plays from their existing repertoire.

Just two months ago, a good friend of The Free Theatre, the journalist Oleg Bebenin who co-founded the country’s pro-democracy movement was found hanged in his house. The authorities call it suicide but there was no note and his friends can’t believe it. His death is more than a puzzle, a tragedy: it is for his friends a signal, designed to frighten people into silence.

As you watch “Numbers” and “Discover Love”, remember that this company has been intimidated by the agents of the state: by harassment campaigns, by arrests and death threats. Every friend the Free Theatre can make outside Belarus is an insurance policy they take out against their own disappearance. The Young Vic and Index on Censorship ask you to show your support by signing the online petition at zoneofsilence.org.

This evening will not be reported in their media back home but that doesn’t mean that the authorities are unaware that Natallya, Mikalay and Uladzmir are with us. It doesn’t mean that the people of Belarus will be unaware – news will be whispered in bars, supermarkets and in school playgrounds.

All the world’s a stage and all the men and women merely players.
They have their exits.
– and now, their entrances.

Ian McKellen, London, 5 December 2010

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