Despite the harrowing story it tells, Discover Love comes to us by way of a celebration: against all odds the Belarus Free Theatre have lasted for 10 years. They are marking this anniversary by hosting Staging a Revolution, a two week festival and retrospective of their work taking place across London. Reaching a decade hasn’t been easy – Belarus is Europe’s last dictatorship and BFT’s dissenting, tolerant voice has been a far from welcome presence to the country’s ruling elite. When they happen in Minsk, their shows take place in secret locations, the venues only revealed to their audience by SMS the night before. Despite these precautions the Belarusian secret police still pay them plenty of attention, so all in attendance make sure they show up with their passport, to help speed things up if they get arrested.
In Staging a Revolution they are trying to give London audiences a feel of what this experience is like. So having got our text message the night before and with our passports in our pocket, we find ourselves just after 6pm on a Friday night milling around in the courtyard of a church in Shoreditch. We’re then led in small groups through the weekend racket of this part of town, and down a dark alley to a door in a railway arch where a makeshift theatre has been set up. It’s a long, narrow space, with the sound of trains rolling directly overhead. Throughout this festival all performances are for a couple of nights at most, but it wasn’t just the 100 or so people in the audience who got to see it – the performance was being broadcast on the internet throughout the world (and if you’re interested in seeing it for yourself it will be available to stream BFT’s website for a fortnight afterwards).
What this company does would be important whatever their actual theatre was like, but that the shows they make can be so good is what makes them truly great. They are at their strongest when they are closest to home – Minsk 2011: A Reply to Kathy Acker, which focuses on the unique aspects of life in Belarus, is far more compelling than their climate change piece Red Forest. The story Discover Love tells – about Belarusian woman Irina Krasovskaya whose husband was kidnapped and murdered for his role promoting democracy – is a realistic portrayal of life in Belarus.
This could have very easily been a heavy piece, but it’s testament to writer and director Nicolai Khalezin’s skill that it is a work full of lightness, humour and charm. A lot of the credit for this comes down to Maryna Yurevich’s incredible performance in the lead. Holding our attention in what is almost a monologue, she tells Irina’s story – from warm childhood memories to the pain of her husband’s disappearance – with energy and emotion. Her remarkably expressive face manages to show the joy of the early scenes as much as, heartbreakingly, it shows her devastation towards the end.
Despite (or maybe because of) the repression they’ve suffered, this festival has an amazingly convivial atmosphere. After a charming introduction from Natalia Kaladia, one of the artistic directors of the company, the audience wave via Skype to the other audience who are watching in Belarus. The night ends with us all sharing some borscht, having a drink or two, and taking part in a discussion on forgiveness with the real Irina Krasovskaya. Which is maybe a way of saying that this all comes with a lot of baggage – from the secret location of the performance and the warmth of the welcome, to the company’s situation in their homeland. But this shouldn’t make us think that that is all it is. It’s clear from Discover Love that this is a theatre company working at a very high level, producing powerful and vital work from within one of Europe’s darkest regimes.