The Belarus Free Theatre arrived in London last week and seemed to take us from the 2010s to the 1970s. Everything was as it had been in the cold war. Just as Havel and Kundera came to speak for oppressed Czechs, so the actors from Europe’s last dictatorship are the most prominent and bravest critics of Belarus’s rotting Brezhnevian state. Just as Tom Stoppard was a friend to east European dissidents during communism, so he is a friend to Belarussia’s underground artists today. Following tradition once more, Stoppard welcomed them to Britain on behalf of Index on Censorship, which Stephen Spender created in 1972 to speak for persecuted Soviet writers.
Ironic asides, which so many artists deployed to survive and subvert communism, peppered my conversation with Natalia Koliada, the theatre’s founder and a woman with the relaxed courage of a committed democrat who accepts the risk of persecution. She tells the grim story of how the secret police have threatened her husband and forced her company to perform in bars or private houses or in the woods before an audience she must vet to ensure it does not contain informers, and then pulls herself up short. A grin breaks out on her elfin face and she declares: “Our dictator still calls our secret police the KGB. At least he’s honest about that.”
Carry on reading