Chicago’s daily papers and online entertainment media announced January 18th, that the Belarus Free Theatre will make its Chicago debut Feb. 1-27 at the Goodman Theatre with its international success, “Being Harold Pinter.” The piece is interesting (I may be the only Chicago critic to date who’s actually seen it), but not as interesting as meeting Nikolai Khalezin and Natalia Koliada, the husband-and-wife team who co-founded the Belarus Free Theatre in 2005. If you have the opportunity during their month-long stay to meet them or—even better—break bread with them, by all means do.
Belarus, once a Soviet Socialist Republic, is one of the few Eastern European nations that remains a police state dictatorship. The Free Theatre, based in the Belarus capital, Minsk, was founded as a political and artistic statement in firm opposition to the government. As a result, the company has been harassed, censored, pressured and arrested more times than you have fingers and toes, sometimes reduced to giving covert performances in private apartments.
Four years ago, a powerful triumvirate of politically-involved playwrights took up their cause. When Vaclav Havel, Tom Stoppard and Harold Pinter asked the theater world to pay attention—and indirectly the political world—the response was immediate. In 2007 Khalezin and Koliada were invited by the European Union to the EU’s big annual theater awards, the Premio Europa, in Thessaloniki, Greece. That is where I met them. They returned the next year with their entire company, performing two pieces at the Premio Europa (again in Thessaloniki) and receiving the EU’s second-highest honor for New Theatrical Realities (and the 10,000 Euros that go with it). The prize for New Theatrical Realities typically has been used to support the work of artists laboring in the shadow of threats and coercion.
The Chicago debut of the Belarus Free Theatre is long overdue, given that they have appeared more than once in New York and Los Angeles, and given that I’ve been writing about them for four years. Hey, just shows you how much clout a theater critic has. Curious thing is that “Being Harold Pinter” isn’t the troupe’s most politically powerful piece, but it’s the most accessible since English-speaking audiences know who Pinter was (he died in late 2008) and are familiar with some of his work.
Those of us making theater in the United States like to believe in our courage to raise important social, ethical, moral and/or political issues in the works we create and present. But none of us—no, not one of us—really put our asses on the line every time the curtain goes up. The Belarus Free Theatre does, persevering in a country where theater as an outlet for political thought still is feared by a bully government.
The Belarus regime is curiously ambivalent about theatre. On the one hand, the government wants the recognition and respect that cultural prominence brings, but they also want their artists to follow the party line and not raise embarrassing social or political issues. Of course, you know artists; you can’t have it both ways. The problems of the Belarus Free Theatre are typical. Government censorship of plays—many written by Khalezin—is heavy: no dirty words, no politics, no sex. “Well, that leaves drinking,” I said when we first talked in Thessaloniki. “No, not even that!” Nikolai laughed as we refilled our wine glasses on the lovely cafe terrace.
The government issues them exit permits to take their work to European festivals (the carrot of prestige), then holds their national identity cards for two months when they return so they can neither exit again nor even travel within Belarus (the stick). The government has withdrawn their license to operate, leading them to perform in private apartments until restoring the license. The Belarus Free Theatre welcomed an American production of Nilo Cruz’s “Anna in the Tropics.” The government media gave it great play (prestige), and then sent the censor to provide daily notes to the visiting troupe. The American guest director joked that he was left only with conjunctions. It makes an “expletive deleted” have much more value than just a dirty word.
“Being Harold Pinter” is presented by the Goodman Theatre in partnership with Northwestern University and the League of Chicago Theatres, following an engagement at New York’s Under the Radar Festival. The play—featuring text drawn from many Pinter plays—is adapted and directed by Vladimir Shcherban and produced by Nikolai Khalezin and Natalia Koliada. It’s presented in Russian and Belarusian with English supertitles.