To stage a Revolution
The array of theatres in Minsk when we lived there 1997-99 was perfect for a family with smaller children. Within walking distance, we had them in a row: the circus, the puppet theatre, the cinema showing animated films every Saturday, the opera house with its basic performances of classical ballet and opera. All with a repertoire that had not changed since the days of Brezhnev or even Khrushchev. Time had stopped in 1974. During these two years we managed to see most of the classical stories performed both professionally and conventionally. At the circus were animals that had not visited Swedish circus rings in decades: tattered tigers, listless monkeys and ostriches, subdued by the hand that waved the whip.
Even at that time the inhabitants of Minsk were demonstrating, even then they were met by brutality. Walking home through the city I would see the riot police waiting in their busses, behind the visors, glimpses of young boys from the country. In unmarked cars older expressionless men in uniform.
And they always met behind the circus. Two kinds of theatre: all dictators see politics as stage art.
Surely though it is finally time to change the repertoire.
By Kristoffer Leandoer, Swedish writer, translator and cultural critic
Twenty years ago, Dramaten began a collaboration with representatives for Belarus Free Theater and with the Janka Kupala Theater, the national theater in Minsk. The collaboration consisted of Dramaten receiving guest performances and that some of us at Dramaten visited Belarus. The artistic director at the time, Valery Rayeuski visited Dramaten. The visit was mediated through the Swedish Institute, which then resulted in a staging of "Erik XIV" under the direction of Valery, in an advanced scenography (a water basin) with financial help from The Swedish Academy.
In my role as a dramaturge at Elverket, I traveled to Minsk together with Elverket's producer Ulrika Holmgaard. Also present on the trip were the director and author Dmitri Plax - our guide into Belarusian society in terms of culture and politics - the playwright and author Stig Larsson and the composer Dror Feiler. The purpose of the trip was to meet Belarusian colleagues. The director Nathalie Ringler (she speaks Polish and a little Russian) staged a Belarusian play that we saw at the premiere at the Janka Kupala Theater. There we met the then theater director of Janka Kupala, and actors connected to the theater. I remember that we were very warmly welcomed and that the handwritten theater posters reminded us of the financially privileged situation that Dramaten enjoys.
We also visited several places in the city, I remember, among other things, a market in a centrally located square where farmers sold vegetables directly from their trucks, wearing beautiful aprons cut from colored paper. For me, the journey was very instructive, I had at this time no deeper knowledge that there was a then called "soft dictatorship" only 800 km from Stockholm. That dictatorship now appears, in the light of what has happened during 2020, anything but "soft" – if it ever was.
A book I read at the time that shed a lot of light on the situation in Belarus, which was then still called "Belorussia", was Kjell Albin Abrahamson's "Vitryssland: 89 millimeter från Europa" ("Belorussia: 89 millimeters from Europe") published in 1999. The title refers to the 89 millimeters that differ in track gauge between Europe and Belarus, which results in that trains cannot roll unhindered into Belarus from the west - in the book, a metaphor for the country's isolation. The fact that the country was much closer to its great neighbor to the north and east is illustrated by the "funny" story about the hot line between the Russian and Belarusian government in Minsk consisting only of a loudspeaker.
Contacts with Belarus Free Theater and The Janka Kupala Theater resulted in a collaboration around a number of activities, including a several-day drama seminar that contained writing exercises, talks on dramaturgy, translation work and directed, staged readings both in Stockholm and in Minsk of newly written texts. This happened in three rounds. A Belarusian director staged a play in Stockholm with Swedish actors and a Swedish play was staged in Minsk with Belarusian actors but with a Swedish stage director.
When I came home from Minsk I wrote – inspired by the trip and as a part of the aforementioned seminar - a play that took place in Belarus titled "The Sparrow from Minsk". Although the play was not about the gymnast and defector Olga Korbut who left for the USA. Instead, the play was about a political prisoner who returned home to Minsk and his wife after many years of absence. A couple of scenes from (the otherwise not staged play) "The Sparrow from Minsk" were performed on the Elverket, one of the stages of Dramaten, which at the time was an artistically independent stage under the wings of Dramaten. The point being that the trip to Minsk made a strong impression on me and on all of us. The collaboration lasted until approximately 2006, after which there was a long break until 2020.
Belarus Free Theater is an underground theater group. They have no official registration, no premises. Rehearsals and performances (which are always free to the public) are normally done secretly, in small private apartments, which due to security and the risk of persecution must change constantly. The group has performed in street cafes and on the countryside, even in the woods. Members of the group have been repeatedly harassed by the authorities and fired from their jobs at state-run theaters. Belarus Free Theater was founded in 2005 by playwright and journalist Mikalay Khalezin and theater producer Natalya Kalyada. The duo was also a married couple. The purpose was to protest in an artistic form against the authoritarian regime. Performing arts and satire are a way of criticizing totalitarian regimes that are difficult for them to silence, I'm for instance thinking of the attention that Pussy Riot has received although the Russian regime has tried in various ways to silence them.
Last year, 2020, Dramaten resumed contact with the Janka Kupala Theater. The cooperation between the two national theaters began given the escalating political situation in Belarus following the alleged rigged elections in favor of incumbent President Alyaksandr Lukashenka. He received 80% of the vote, while the general opinion is that it was the opposition leader Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya who actually won the election (she received just under 10% according to the authorities) which she ran in since her husband Siarhei Tsikhanouski was imprisoned for traveling around the country interviewing people about the situation in Belarus, interviews he published on Youtube and which were seen by many followers. After Siarhei was arrested, Svyatlana managed to get registered by election authority as well as to collect the 100,000 signatures required for her to run for presidency. After the 2020 election, Tsikhanouskaya fled to Lithuania to avoid imprisonment.
Readings are currently taking place all over the world of the play that the playwright Andrey Kureychik wrote during the first weeks of protests in Belarus. The international name of the project is “Insulted. Belarus(sia)”, in Swedish the play was called “Sista droppen. Belarus(sia)”. The readings take place in support of the people protesting peacefully in the streets both in the capital Minsk and all over Belarus. It is important that European countries – politically and in other ways – pay attention to what is happening in Belarus and show their support for the democratization of the country. In line with that ambition, Dramaten chose to renew its collaboration, this time with The Free Janka Kupala Theater, the underground theater led by the theater director Pavel Latushka, who was fired by the regime.
The reading of Andrey Kureychik's play “Insulted. Belarus (sia)” took place at Elverket on October 27 in the presence of, among others, Sweden's Foreign Minister Ann Linde. An personal video greeting from Pavel Latushka also reached Dramaten's theater director Mattias Andersson and the foreign minister the same evening. In Kureychik's play, we encounter seven people and their way of experiencing the first month of the Belarusian revolution. The play is a depiction of a country that is facing democratization after 26 years of dictatorship.
All the characters in the play have real role models, in some of them one can recognize past as well as current Belarusian leaders, others are less known citizens who with great courage – sometimes at the price of freedom or even life – defied the current regime. The performance can be described as a fictional documentary since direct quotes appear from Belarusian leaders. The reading was performed by actors at Dramaten: Stina Ekblad, Lena Endre, Hulda Lind Jóhannsdóttir, Hannes Meidal, Pierre Wilkner and Nina Zanjani. Mikael Nydahl made the translation into Swedish and Dmitri Plax directed the reading.
The evening was a collaboration between Dramaten and the Swedish Institute with Anders Öhrn at the helm. The reading was mentioned by both the Swedish and foreign press. The BBC drew attention to Dramaten's reading in a report in which Stina Ekblad, in the role of opposition leader Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya, performed an excerpt of the play. The reading of “Insulted. Belarus(sia)” took place in Bente Lykke Møller's beautiful scenography done for Dramaten's performance “Kvinnostaden”, consisting of three very high, white walls, a heater and a sink being the only details. An image that worked very well as a setting for “Insulted. Belarus(sia).” The wall in the back was used as a canvas for a giant projection of the Belarusian flag in the final scene of the performance.
Andrey Kureychik is a well-known playwright in Belarus. He is also a screenwriter and producer. The reading, which lasted about an hour, was followed by a panel discussion where we met Andrey Kureychik on stage in a conversation with Dramaten's artistic director Mattias Andersson and with the author and board member of Swedish PEN Marit Kapla, moderated by Fredrik Wadström, journalist at Swedish Radio.
"The role of the theater in a time of change" was the title of the panel discussion.
"What is it like to portray a revolution in the form of drama while you are in the middle of it?", read one of the questions that Andrey tried to answer. For those of us who work with theater in Sweden, it is difficult to understand what it means to, like Andrey, work as an artist in a dictatorship. As long as Alyaksandr Lukashenka remains in power, Andrey will not be able to return home, and the fear of punishment that could befall friends, colleagues and relatives in his homeland is something he is constantly forced to carry with him. Free speech comes with a price tag, in Belarus as in many other places in the world.
The reading and the conversation are available at the link:
JACOB HIRDWALL is a playwright at Dramaten and works as a director and writer. He is a member of Swedish PEN.
The old opening line from Andrey Kureychik's "Insulted. Belarus (sia)":
OLDSTER: I hate theater. Never been attracted. It's a bunch of crap. Bullshit. You see it, what good is it? What is it, entertainment? Full-grown adults mucking around, baring their bare butts, laughing at something? Hee-hee, ha-ha. What smart person is going to act like that? It's all fake. Stupid. Goofing off. Look at those foreheads! Those huge arms and legs! You could plow a field with those. Put somebody like that on a tractor, he'll plow a good ten hectares for you... In one day. Maybe more. And these women – you should have babies... make borscht! Provide the State a little support. Be useful. But what good comes of some painted-up guy wiggling his ass on a stage?
They're all vermin. What more can I say? Vermin. Scum of the earth. Traitors. They feed out of my hand, then bite the hand that feeds them. I fed them all with my left tit, and they... Traitors.
That's why there's no theaters in villages. Villagers won't put up with that crap. Peasants, they're... They're of the earth. They're pure. You can't fool them. Villages don't have any picture galleries either! Because look how pretty it is out the window! You don't need pictures for that. Anyway, how can you call those things pictures? A kid could do that! Chagall-shmagall. Thirty million dollars, forty, give 'em a hundred, a kid could still do it!
We had apple trees out our window. Then a meadow, where the kolkhoz horses grazed. Now there's a noble animal. I don't know why, but I've been attracted to horses my whole life. They're quiet and they obey. They work until they drop. Never ask for anything. Yeah, mares can be a bit feisty, but you just give her a little crack on the head, and she'll calm right down. Then put blinders on her, and you can run her into fire or water. She's loyal. Like a country should be. Workhorses. Loyal. She'll eat from your hand, won't even lift an eye. Sometimes I even have dreams: “Horses” would make a good country!
We'd find common ground. A few oats, a few whacks and she'd work for me and love me.
English text © copyright 2020 by John Freedman
The concluding exchange of remarks from Andrey Kureychik's "Insulted. Belarus (sia)":
CORPSE: When absolutely everything hurts, it seems like nothing hurts. The feeling wasn't of blood seeping out of a wound. It just seeped out everywhere. Your skin bleeds as if you were sweating. Because battles like this happen once in 100 years... I mean the battle between good and evil. In the sense that everything is totally clear. I understood immediately that my life was over. And I understood instantly that they would cover up my murder. They'd cremate me in a crematorium. List me as missing. Or bury me in a forest. Or hang me as if I committed suicide. Fuck 'em, though. It won't help. Belarusians are a unique people. They'll put up with stuff forever. For decades. Sometimes a whole life. And then, snap, their patience pops. Belarusians have been insulted. And you can't defeat that kind of insult. Just like you can't defeat BATE!
CHEERFUL: After all those nights in the prison van, the gym and the prison, my dress looked nothing like what I bought for the price of two monthly stipends. It's a dirty, tattered, white-red-white rag. The blood stain has darkened, and it's covered by brown spots of vomit. Still, it's the most fabulous dress in the world! I wouldn't exchange it for anything! Here we are standing in this cramped cell, and what marvelous people there are around me: they're all so polite and smart. Microbiologists, teachers, musicians, actors, students. The woman who crawled into the prison van after her son and husband. People snatched off the streets all these days: priests, journalists, students, miners and workers, attorneys and doctors. These are the best people on Earth. Belarusians. There is a new, true Belarus here in this cell. And we all feel the love. You can't defeat love. Isn't that so, Universe?
NOVICE: Hello. My name is Svyatlana, I'm a housewife, the mother of two children. I am the president-elect of Belarus. What are you willing to do for love?
English text © copyright 2020 by John Freedman