Call me a philistine, but going to a theatrical performance largely made up of snippets of Harold Pinter dialog and performed in (I think) Belarusian was not a natural choice for a Friday evening.
But it turned out to be a good one. Being Harold Pinter, a production of the Belarus Free Theater, was a brilliantly-acted production with (to me, the philistine) stretches that went nowhere (well, we are talking Pinter here) followed by passages of quite extraordinary power. Excruciatingly brutal and disturbing enough in themselves, these later passages only gained strength when specifically tied to the increasing repression in Belarus, the not so former Soviet republic frequently described as the last dictatorship in Europe, repression that the cast of Being Harold Pinter knew only too well.
In a subsequent Q&A with the audience Natalia Kolyada, a co-founder of the company, explained the grim realities of the Belarus Free Theater’s existence, moving quickly from venue to venue, sometimes performing in lowered voices in private apartments or sometimes (as I read in this excellent NY Times piece) out in the forests. A lively, engaging woman, Kolyada has been arrested three times. Her husband has been arrested four times, and was beaten up outside their house last year, an assault with chilling historical resonance in Minsk, the Belarusian capital and the city where legendary actor-director Solomon Mikhoels was assassinated on Stalin’s orders by a hit-and-run car in 1948. Almost all the others performing on Friday night, as well as the director, also have a history of arrests by the security forces.
To his great credit, the late Harold Pinter (a man with generally unpleasant politics) was a strong supporter of the Belarus Free Theater, his widow still is. Tom Stoppard, a playwright with a long and honorable record of opposition to the old Iron Curtain regimes, had been to Minsk to see them. Good for him. This extraordinarily courageous company needs all the help it can get. Those of its members present on Friday night had had to slip out of the country. As to what awaited them should they choose to return, well….
Just across the street from the theater is the KGB bar. It’s a place well worth visiting, and the, er, quirky choice of name is explained here. Nevertheless after hearing just a little of what the Belarus Free Theater had had to suffer at the hands of the Belarusian KGB (yes, it’s still called that there), it’s impossible not to think of the outcry if somebody opened a place named after the Gestapo. Some tyrannies, it seems, still continue to be more equal than others.
And, yes, the tyranny in Belarus has lasted for far too long.