Belarus Free Theatre’s King Lear. Alex Sidorchik as King Lear. Photo: Courtesy of Shakespeare’s Globe.
Volume 1

Belarus in London

In many ways, for the inaugural issue of European Stages, there might be no company more ideal for analysis than the Belarus Free Theatre. Founded in 2005 by three artists—Natalia Kaliada, Nicolai Khalezin, and Vladimir Shcherban—then based in Belarus, they moved much of their permanent home base to London in 2011, when husband and wife Khalezein and Kaliada fled as refugees from Alexander Lukashenko’s repressive government. However, a base of performers and company members has remained in Minsk, and they often rehearse and work together at a distance through Skype and similar telematic technologies. With support in London from a network of theatre makers, including Tom Stoppard, Joanna Lumley, Kevin Spacey, David Lan, Jude Law, and many others, they continue to perform both in Belarus and worldwide and seek to draw attention to the political situation of the Belarusian dictatorship.

Over the past six months, we had the opportunity to see two drastically different productions: their newest, the devised Trash Cuisine, which was first staged at the Young Vic in June 2013, with support from the London International Festival of Theatre and went on to win the Impatto Totale Award at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, and a brief one-week remounting of their production of King Lear at the Globe Theatre, originally staged as part of the 2012 Globe-to-Globe festival. The two plays showcase much of the range of the company, with not only differences in the production sources, but a key difference in language as well. Trash Cuisine is primarily performed in English, while Lear makes a distinctive political statement through its use of Belarusian, which is described by an overwhelming majority of Belarusian citizens as their “mother tongue” despite the fact that Russian is far more widely spoken (the two share the title of official language).

Located in the center of Eastern Europe, Belarus is bordered by Russia, Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, and Ukraine; its history is, as in much of that area, a complex one of brief independences alternating with dominance by more powerful neighboring governments. In the twentieth century, Belarus was largely split geographically between Polish and Soviet control until the collapse of the USSR; it has been an independent republic since 1991. Lukashenko, a former officer in the Soviet Army, who as a Deputy in the Supreme Council of the Republic of Belarus in 1991 was the sole deputy to vote against dissolving the Soviet Union, has served as its President since 1994. The country has often been described as the “last remaining dictatorship” in Europe.

Belarus Free Theatre's Trash Cuisine. Photo: Tristam Kenton.

Belarus Free Theatre’s Trash Cuisine. Photo: Tristam Kenton.

Trash Cuisine opens with French actor Philippe Spall, new to the company, describing that the ninety-minute performance will be a gustatory world tour, although anyone expecting Brechtian culinary theatre would be well advised to stay away. With a political agenda throughout exploring questions of repression and torture, the show is a revue of sorts, moving through a series of brief and stylistically devised scenes that use food as prop and metaphor in incredibly powerful physical depictions, combining Shakespearean monologue, verbatim testimony, and taiko drumming in its world-spanning episodes. The overall effect is of the incredible brutality and unfairness of humanity, but walking away from the evening (after dropping a donation in the bucket to contribute to their campaign “Give a Body Back” www.freebelarusnow.org/bodies) what remains is a series of vivid images and unsettling moments.

Some of the moments traffic in shocking juxtaposition. The opening scene (after a brief Shakespearean interpolation from Richard III, the discussion of the murder of the princes in the tower) depicts two governmental executioners—one from Belarus and one from Thailand, both played by women, who compare different methods and practices, while sitting at a table center stage eating strawberries and cream and drinking flutes of champagne; the back-and-forth of Wimbledon tennis is replaced by a serve and volley discussion of methods of execution. Another scene offers an array of diners at white-linen covered tables who lip sync testimony from British human rights lawyer Clive Stafford Smith describing the Georgia (the US-state, not the former Soviet Republic) electrocution of Nicky Ingram in detail. While the content here might be similar to a Tricycle Theatre-style tribunal play, the shifting of the physical representation creates a sense of physical unease in the audience as we palpably begin to take in what happens to a body as it is electrocuted. The audience struggles whether or not to laugh as one of the performers, Stephanie Pan (who also provides a stunning moment as she masterfully and rapidly flails on a taiko drum), comes center stage with just a handheld microphone to introduce, in the style of a stand-up comedian, her latest impressions. Yet these “impressions” are not of people but of modes of murder, including the gas chamber, stoning, hanging, beheading, firing squad and electric chair. The levity with which she treats them, “I like the electric chair because it’s longer than a firing squad, but it’s shorter than stoning, um, so you can do the whole thing” belies the difficulty of the moment. Her performance style draws us in and provides a moment of familiarity through the form of stand-up, before we once more are defamiliarized by the almost irreverence of the content.

While many of the scenes ultimately remain at a distance geographically or politically, the fleeting thought that these are horrors that happen “over there” is replaced with another uncomfortable reality for UK audiences in a scene about Liam Holden, the young Irishman falsely convicted of killing a British soldier, who was the last person to be sentenced to execution (by hanging) in the UK. Although eventually released after seventeen years in prison, this scene draws upon his testimony of the tortures that forced his confession, techniques including water-boarding, which of course is a reminder that these are not stories to ignore or place in neat historical boxes.

Perhaps the most powerful and disturbing moments in the play for us were those that involved the preparation of food. Through this most material and familiar element we are drawn in to the various scenes; food lets us connect to these stories, lets us be drawn in to them before it then reels us back through its unconventional use. The most affective scene was a retelling of a “mixed” marriage in Rwanda between Hutu and Tutsi in which the husband is commanded to kill his children, ultimately preparing and serving his wife their “meat.” The scene is narrated by an actress in the role of the wife as beef is fried in a pan onstage. The smell of the frying meat wafts through the theatre, forcing us to further physically encounter the tale and be left with its lingering smell. The horrific ending of this scene, is almost too much to bear; the wife recounts that “Rukundo put the plate beside the bed, threw off the blanket and cut the shirt on my belly. He ripped open the seam of the caesarean section with the same knife, which he’d used to cut into pieces the body of his youngest son. He dumped fried pieces of meat from the dish into the exposed cavity.” Our senses are assaulted, making an impression that we cannot be immune to these histories. Perhaps as fitting juxtaposition the performers return to Shakespeare, “O my offense is rank, it smells to heaven.”

Belarus Free Theatre's King Lear. Alex Sidorchik as King Lear. Photo: Courtesy of Shakespeare's Globe.

Belarus Free Theatre’s King Lear. Alex Sidorchik as King Lear. Photo: Courtesy of Shakespeare’s Globe.

The piece also concludes with food, and violence. A line of performers appear and sit at stools on the very downstage edge of the space and begin to violently and repeatedly dice whole onions as we hear the story of two young men mistakenly arrested and jailed by the KGB. As their story is told and their blood drips down the upstage wall, we witness this chopping, which was accompanied by the sharp sounds of the chopping and the intense smell. While the onions themselves surprisingly didn’t produce tears, the detritus was propelled forcefully, hitting our legs and feet (as we were seated in the front row) and we smelled of onion all night; the horrors of the stories produce enough tears in themselves.

An incredibly powerful evening of theatre, Trash Cuisine leaves you wishing that you’d eaten before the performance, as it brings together stories of government-sanctioned human brutality from across the world. The one odd moment in the piece is Spall’s description of the cooking and eating of the Ortolan. While a strong piece of theatre as he devours a game bird of some sort (quail perhaps) with a napkin over his head, little is made of a connection between human rights and animal rights, or the presence of this (outlawed) delicacy in François Mitterand’s final meal, or any political overtones that might connect this recipe, or the rituals surrounding it, to the rest of the evening. Yet the effect and effectiveness of the evening remains strong due to the power and presence of the company throughout the piece.

An earlier piece and their first full Shakespearean production, King Lear was a production initially commissioned for the Globe in 2012. Cut to a rapid hundred minutes or so, the play flies by, although the insertion of a twenty-minute interval seems a very strange and unnecessary choice. The production is strong and clear, with a definite Eastern European feel to it. A small upright piano stands upstage left and is used throughout to underscore the events of the performance, with many of the characters playing it during the evening. Aleh Sidorchik is central to the evening as Lear, who first enters wheeling an old-fashioned pram base with a wooden trunk sitting atop it. An armored gauntlet on his left hand replaces the crown as the marker of kingly presence, and in his first entrance he appears with a long white wig and faltering steps, yet reveals the wig and gait as artifice, seeking to split his kingdom while he remains surprisingly youthful.

He reveals the trunk to be filled with dirt, metonymizing the kingdom he wishes to distribute and as each of the daughters perform their love for him (through song and dance), he fills their dresses with heaps of it, so that both Goneril and Regan appear pregnant with land by the end of the scene. That scene is played, with aid from the piano, as a sort of competitive striptease seduction scene as each of the daughters rises from benches set either side of the stage and on which all the characters sit for the first scenes of the play, and indeed, as they raise their dresses to receive the promised land, they knowingly reveal their undergarments. Cordelia’s refusal to join in becomes here a chance for her to ridicule her sisters, copying their actions with a self-aware sense of absurdity.

In the style of most of the Globe-to-Globe performances from the 2012 festival, the play is performed in the company’s own language with supertitled brief scenic descriptions appearing alongside the stage to signify major actions. What at first seemed like a potential loss in translation through these synopses soon became a freeing opportunity to sense Shakespeare as familiar enough to allow for different cultural observations and attention to sound, gesture, and nuance. The strength of this performance is largely in its use of props and objects; in addition to those already discussed, particular mention must go to the use of two plastic tarps in the second act. The first of these, bright blue and covering most of the stage, embodies the storm as the cast members wave and shake it to a violent frenzy. Lear stands upstage and it hides his lower half as he strains into it, the rattle of the plastic creating not only the watery appearance but blowing winds and cracking cheeks of the noisy storm. As the storm settles and the tarp is dropped to the ground, it becomes the heath itself, with its caves and hiding places for Lear and Poor Tom, as well as his followers. The discovery of Tom, played largely under the tarp, seems to have drawn some of its choreography from the monster’s discovery in The Tempest, and Lear’s recognition of Tom’s innate nobility uses the tarp to good effect as well, as he leads all the onstage male cast to strip fully, showing that all are the same underneath, while using the tarp for strategic coverage (not privacy). Perhaps the most striking use, however, is of the second tarp, a red plastic sheet, under which the final battle takes place. While the audience does not see any of the fighting itself, the shifts and thrusts under the tarp make for one of the most effective battle scenes we could recall.

The use of these simple objects to such great effect inspired us to think about the classroom and devising processes we teach our students and it reminded us of the dual purpose and meaning of the most familiar objects around us. Ultimately, the Free Theatre of Belarus reminds us of the theatrical power behind the elemental in life. From food to dirt to the detritus surrounding us, the company defamiliarizes the familiar as a reminder to not take what we have for granted, to use what we have in our power to try to say something meaningful. The play ends in the same physical shape as the beginning, alike, but vastly changed; the dirt of Lear’s kingdom spread across the stage and the pram base now the bier for Cordelia’s corpse. This Lear is a folktale, a return perhaps to its source in a pre-Roman Celtic England, an antique Europe, but here reflected and refracted through Belarus’s complex history of its own troubled land grasps and claims. While none of this is made literal, the brutality and the dirt-strewn stage seem clearly intended to evoke it.

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