Belarus Arrests Free Theatre


Image by Phillip Retuta — Creative Commons License Some Rights Reserved

The Belarus Free Theatre, and members of their audience, were arrested this week during a performance of Edward Bond’s play Eleven Vests.

The story as reported here by the CBC:

Police in Belarus have stormed the performance of a play by an underground theatre group and detained the actors, director and other people at the performance.

British playwright Tom Stoppard told The Guardian newspaper on Friday he learned of Wednesday night’s raid through a text message sent by one of the Free Theatre’s directors.

“One had hoped that the days when artists were arrested for free expression were buried with totalitarian states, but Belarus is as close to a totalitarian state as you can get in Europe,” Stoppard told the newspaper.

The troupe was about to start a performance of Eleven Vests, a play by Edward Bond, at a house in the capital of Minsk when armed officers burst into the building and everyone inside, about 50 people, were taken to a police station.

Radio Free Europe reported several theatre professionals from France and the Netherlands were in the audience.

According to the playwright, everyone was released three hours later, but reports say a political activist who was in the audience remains in custody.

Stoppard accused authorities of a “grotesque” attack on human rights.

Nataliya Koliyada, managing director of the theatre, said police told her that neighbours had reported people were firing weapons at the house. Eleven Vests, published in 1997, is about authoritarianism.

Bond’s 1965 play Saved is credited with ending theatre censorship in England. At the time, all plays were required to be approved by the Lord Chamberlain, the head of the Royal Household.

Saved, which has a scene of a baby being stoned to death, would only be permitted to be staged with several cuts, the censor ruled. The producers ignored the proposed cuts and were sued after the play was staged. The case caused such a furor that it resulted in the abolishment of theatre censorship in 1968.

Belarus, a former Soviet republic, is ruled with an iron fist by its leader Alexander Lukashenko. Political opposition and countercultural activities are often shut down.

Stoppard has been an outspoken supporter of the Free Theatre and had planned to be at the performance but cancelled at the last minute.

Rock star Mick Jagger, Nobel Prize laureate Harold Pinter and former Czech president Vaclav Havel are also supporters of the troupe.

The Free Theater is barred from performing in Belarus and has no permanent space.  Nevertheless, it continues to survive, screening audiences before every performance.

In the Forum, read the open letter from Belarus Free Theatre’s Natalia Koliada, Director and co-founder, Nikolai Khalezin, Art-director, co-founder and playwright, and Vladimir Scherban, director.

The question has been asked too many times before: Why is a government afraid of a play, a performance, an audience?

- Bill Reichblum

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5 Responses to “Belarus Arrests Free Theatre”

  1. William Humbold Jr
    August 28th, 2007 00:58

    Vote YES to Free Europe Constitution at!

  2. helen
    August 30th, 2007 19:53

    this is terrible indeed - but it is not only happening to artists in “totalitarian” parts of europe - many artists have been arrested in the USA, most notably steve kurtz ( there is also the more recent case of academics arrested in germany ( it seems that the days of artists & academics being arrested for free expression are coming back again : (

  3. Deborah Hunt
    August 31st, 2007 09:00

    I acknowledge the courage and persistence of Free Theatre in the face of such repression. I can pass this information to all my contacts here in the Caribbean. If there is anything else I can do from such a distance please advise.
    Puerto Rico

  4. Hristina Mouratidou
    September 11th, 2007 08:04

    The Mostar Youth Theatre of Bosnia & Herzegovina wishes to express its members’ support to the artists of the Free Theatre. MYT is often experiencing political blackmail and financial deadends, because it brings together artists and young people from all nationalities of B&H, which goes against the ”divide-and-rule” policy of local polititians. May you emerge from this adventure stronger and more determined.

    Hristina Mouratidou (Greece, B&H)
    actress, drama pedagogue with Mostar Youth Theatre

  5. KadmusArts - where culture speaks » Blog Archive » Arts Presenters: Nikolai Khalezin and Natalia Koliada
    May 19th, 2008 04:39

    [...] Last August, the performers and audience of a Free Theatre performance were arrested. (Read the original story, and the theatre’s open letter.) Since then, the international community, including Tom Stoppard, Mick Jagger, Václav Havel and many others, have helped bring attention to the theatre’s struggle to create honest and truthful work. [...]

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