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Staging a revolution

Natalia Koliada’s work has made the director of the Young Vic reconsider the value of the arts

September/October 2015

David Lan, 63, is an Anglo-South African director who runs the Young Vic theatre in London. In 2013 he began work as artistic director of a new arts complex planned for Ground Zero in New York. Natalia Koliada, 41, is a producer, human-rights activist and co-founder of the Belarus Free Theatre

Belarus is one of the most tormented parts of eastern Europe. Over the past 150 to 200 years it’s been part of Russia, it’s been part of Prussia, it’s been a part of the Austro-Hungarian empire, it’s been everything except itself. It became independent after the fall of the Berlin Wall, but nonetheless is still run on crypto-Soviet lines, and it’s a dictatorship. What is remarkable about the theatre company and acting school that Natalia Koliada set up ten years ago, is that it is one of – as I understand it – the very few places within Belarus where there is any freedom of thought, of political expression but also of cultural expression. And that really means the ability of people to be themselves and to become themselves. It’s a refuge for humanitarian values.

Natalia, her husband Nicolai Khalezin and their close colleague Vladimir Scherbin started this theatre company to be frankly and deliberately oppositional, to suggest there are other ways of being than those thought acceptable by the state. From the start they were subject to intense pressure from the police: they were closed down, they were raided, they were beaten up, some of their colleagues were jailed, journalists close to the company were killed. About four or five years ago they reached a point where they had to leave the country. Natalia, her family and her colleagues now have refugee status in England, but they continue to make theatre, and they continue, extraordinarily, to teach via Skype and to support their group of acting students in Minsk, despite the fact that they can’t, any longer, go home.

The company still performs underground in safe houses in Minsk – I’m not going to say where exactly, because that’s the whole point – but it’s prepared, it’s rehearsed, and then at the last moment the audience is told by text where the performance will be. Despite these precautions, periodically the police find out and raid them, stopping the shows. But the company also tours widely, and has just come back from a very successful season playing a show called “Trash Cuisine” in New York. Wherever they go, the artistic quality of their work is recognised, its unusually poetic quality. The juxtaposition of the spoken word and what they’re doing with their bodies at the same time is where their originality lies. They usually perform on a pretty much bare stage, and the angle from which the subject is approached is always surprising. It’s quite expressionistic, finding meaning in images created mostly just with people’s bodies. Its power lies in its complete theatricality.

Because of the repressiveness of the regime the company live under, a lot of their work is very personal and expresses individual character. They’re particularly interested in sexual politics, the politics of the gay-liberation movement and so on, partly because it’s exactly that kind of self-expression, the thing that makes people people, that is repressed in Belarus. So although the work is political, it’s not at all didactic; it’s poetic, it tries to speak to the potential of all people to live full, complex, imaginative lives.

As well as the work that Natalia produces as artistic director, she campaigns tirelessly at the highest poli­tical level all over the world – in America, in Europe, at the UN – for freedom in Belarus, continually trying to give this voiceless country a voice in the West. And yet physically, she is very slight. She’s thin, she’s not very tall, she has short hair – there’s not a lot of her. It’s a constant surprise that somebody who has so little physical materiality on this planet has such energy and persistence and stubbornness and resilience.

One thing I have learnt from her is to take absolutely nothing for granted. Every single resource we have is needed by somebody. The value of what we do in the arts in the West can seem to be mostly to do with the egos of the artists, the awards they hope to receive, and the money they hope to make from commercialisation of the work, and so on and so on – it can seem what it’s really all about is getting into the right papers and being seen in the right part of town. But working with Natalia, seeing and experiencing the consequences of making art in the circumstances she has endured, that has had a powerful effect on everything I plan or try to do. 

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