LONDON — “Why is everyone in the KGB so stupid?” Irina, one of the jailed journalists asks, in Belarus Free Theatre’s intense and highly watchable “Time of Women.”
Pausing from the bowl of ramen he eats during every interrogation, the KGB man, one Colonel Orlov, shrugs.
“Who else would work here?” he replies. “This is not the Academy of Sciences.”
A comically grim acceptance of oppression’s dullness suffuses this 75-minute play, one of the 10 works being performed in a breathless cycle here this month by this groundbreaking theater company from the former Soviet republic. Founded in 2005 by Nicolai Khalezin and Natalia Kaliada, Belarus Free Theatre is a company that operates by stealth in its native Minsk and to acclaim outside the country. It performs surreptitiously in its home city, inviting audiences on short notice to private apartments for stagings of its politically charged shows. Some members of the company, subjected to government harassment and arrest, have gone into exile; the group’s performances in North America and Europe, meanwhile, have over the last decade earned it an international following and the admiration of such influential figures as Tom Stoppard and the late Harold Pinter and Vaclav Havel.
London audiences are being offered an extraordinary immersion in Belarus Free Theatre’s unusual style. Earlier in the company’s two-week “Staging a Revolution” festival that ends on Saturday, several shows were presented at “underground” locations that were disclosed to ticket holders by text, 24 hours prior to the performance. According to the company’s press materials, this was done “to encourage audiences to reflect on how the company operates in Belarus, where their existence is completely illegal.”
By the time I caught up with the festival this week, the performances had shifted to a traditional schedule, in the theater of the celebrated Young Vic, on London’s South Bank, where “Time of Women” received its British premiere on Monday night. (The company’s Belarussian version of “King Lear” and one of its best-known adapted works, “Being Harold Pinter,” are being staged there this week as well.) Performed in Russian, with English surtitles, “Time of Women” is an account of the prison experiences of three real women–journalists Irina Khalip and Natalya Radina, and activist Nasta Palazhanka–at least two of whom were taken into custody after a protest rally in December 2010. (Owing in part to breakdowns in the projection of the surtitles on the evening I attended, some details of their cases were difficult to nail down.)
The play, by the company’s co-founders, and directed by Khalezin, portrays the women–in the guise of actresses Maryia Sazonava, Maryna Yurevich and Yana Rusakevich–during and after their incarcerations on vague charges of fomenting a coup. The seemingly murky, improvisatory nature of the country’s criminal justice system is highlighted in the work’s best scenes, depicting the prisoners’ individual sessions with their inquisitor, Orlov (Kiryl Kanstantsinau). Eager to get their signatures on confessions, Orlov lays out a preposterously fluid range of possible sentences that suggest that penal guidelines are conjured out of thin air.
Orlov threatens, screams, bangs the table. It’s of no use. The women remain defiant, even expressing their contempt for him to his face. To them, it seems, the state’s punitive apparatus is of no more consequence than Orlov’s bowl of hot noodles.
Onto a screen are projected other interludes, via an overhead camera, of the women in their cell, resting on their three-tiered bunk bed as they swap stories and share worries about the fates of jailed husbands and friends. Then the opaque screen turns transparent, and we watch first-hand as the women perform their daily rituals, stringing up a sheet and singing loudly, for instance, to provide some privacy for one another, for washing or going to the bathroom.
That the production is talky and technically a bit rough only adds to its urgency, the sense that the information it imparts simply needs to get out, in any way possible. The evening amounts to a gritty, candid and altogether vivid portrait of the women’s plight, enhanced by the actors’ vibrant performances.
All three prisoners were eventually released, apparently after a few weeks, though “Time of Women” is not explicit on the whys and wherefores. For this company, the details are less important than the blanket indictment being thrown over an entire system.