For any other theatre-maker it would have been a crowning moment. In May, the Village Voice gave Belarus Free Theatre an Obie Award and, by rights, founder member Natalia Koliada should have been dancing in the streets. But although she was flattered to be given the $1000 Ross Wetzsteon Award, she was in no mood to celebrate.
"It was a great honour for us, but we couldn't enjoy it," she says. "We received a fantastic review by Ben Brantley in the New York Times, we had a wonderful audience, a waiting list of people to come to see it, but every day, when you get the news that one of your friends is dying, another friend is tortured, your parents' apartment is raided by the KGB, there is an attempt to kidnap your brother-in-law in order to get your husband back to the country . . . you cannot get the joy."
It is for reasons such as these that we find Koliada not in her native Belarus but in Glasgow's Tron Theatre where she is a guest speaker at a Refugee Week discussion. For as long as the repressive regime of Alexander Lukashenko persists, she is living in exile in the UK and will be back in Scotland again with a new show in the final week of the Edinburgh Fringe.
Back in December, she and many of her friends were arrested during a peaceful rally. One of the last of the 1000 or so who were rounded up, she recalls looking at the Minsk snow covered in blood and boots. "The only thing it would remind you of is the Nazi time," she says. "We were told to lie face down on the floor and the guy was saying that his biggest dream was just to kill us."
On this occasion, she spent 18 hours in prison without sleep, toilet, food or water. She was released only because of a bureaucratic mistake involving her surname. Thanks to a long-standing invitation to New York, she had a means of escape and got out with Nikolai Khalezin, her husband and fellow company founder, and Daniella, their 12-year-old daughter. Marya, their 17-year-old daughter, is still in Belarus.
"We are lucky that we left the country," she says. "All our friends are in jail. Andrei Sannikau, who is our very close friend and the main opposition presidential candidate, got five years in jail. Another friend of ours has told us his legs are paralysed and he needs surgery, but it's not provided in jail. We have been getting horrible news every day non-stop for the last six months. You have a phone and you try to think who you would call and there's no one."
Open, frank and without malice, she tells you her story with distressing candour. She is both eloquent and matter-of-fact about what it means to resist Europe's last remaining totalitarian regime. The only time she is in any way guarded is when I ask how she escaped. "Usually we don't say," she says, admitting to having hidden Khalezin beneath "many layers of blankets". "There's a possibility for other people to escape; it's still going on."
To get an idea of the intolerance of Belarus, a land-locked country sandwiched between Poland and Russia, you need only consider the kind of plays Koliada and her colleagues were putting on. Their first production, in 2005, was Sarah Kane's 4.48 Psychosis, a study of mental illness that is harrowing but not normally regarded as a political threat. "Whatever you choose, it gets prohibited for public discussion. We started with British playwrights, Mark Ravenhill and Sarah Kane, and there was no possibility to perform them. We checked the 27 state theatres and everywhere we got a denial because we don't have suicide, mental problems or sexual minorities in Belarus," she says with heavy irony. "When we are referred to as a political theatre, my question is, 'Do you consider Mark Ravenhill and Sarah Kane as political playwrights?' If yes, then we're political. We're just very interested in one human being's life and I think this is political."
They staged Kane's play in a Minsk nightclub, but knew from the start they would be banned. Khalezin had been a prominent journalist on three newspapers, all closed down by the authorities, and he would not be tolerated whatever he did. Forced out of public venues, they took refuge in a friend's house in suburban Minsk, a dividing wall demolished to make enough space for the actors and audience. Once they performed in the woods using a wedding celebration as cover. "Our audience in Belarus is the bravest audience in the world," she says. "It is not possible to imagine that people will come to the performance without their passports, which is the only form of ID that we have, because they know they could be detained. In order not to sit for many hours in the police department, you need your ID to reduce the time of your detention."
Increasingly, however, the only safe place to perform was outwith Belarus. Championed by Jude Law, Tom Stoppard, Sienna Miller, Kevin Spacey, Vaclav Havel, Sam West, Mick Jagger and the late Harold Pinter, the company has been seen all over the world. Today, Koliada finds it hard to imagine a return home. "When your neighbours have the phone numbers of the KGB to call right away if they see you . . ." she says, breaking off. "The moment we land in Minsk, there would be no chance for us to say hello to our parents before we were transferred to a KGB jail."
Now making its Edinburgh Fringe debut, the Belarus Free Theatre is devising a show about sexuality, feminism and the world's attitude to Belarus. In the midst of such political tension, it is easy to forget this is a company with art at its heart. "We are alive when we perform and we perform if we are alive," she says. "We wait for this moment when there is a chance to start a production of a new piece. We continue to say what we want to say and it doesn't really matter whether we do it underground or in Edinburgh."
Belarus Free Theatre, Pleasance Courtyard, 22–29 August.
© Mark Fisher 2011
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