Belarus is a country that borders those in the EU – and yet it has been described as ‘Europe’s last dictatorship’. Many people in western Europe know little about the former Soviet state nestled between Poland and Russia but it is a place where government agents threaten, kidnap, torture and murder citizens for daring to oppose it.
The Belarus Free Theatre is one of the cultural groups banned by the government and their performance of Discover Love at Nottingham Playhouse last night was a bold statement against this repressive regime. The cast members should have performed as part of the last month’s NEAT11, but had their passports and visas revoked.
On one level, this is a simple true-life love story. A young girl Irina (played by Maryna Yurevich) describes her almost idyllic childhood and she appears to unfazed by the fact that she is living under the Soviet regime. She eventually falls in love with a teacher, Anatoly (played by Oleg Sidorchik) and the tale is infused with a warm humour, with the iron grip of Moscow seemingly a world away from this small village in Belarus. Their relationship matures over the years and they build careers and have children after moving to the capital Minsk. Their story is incredibly human – they struggle financially and their relationship goes through some difficult patches, but they remain united.
Half way through the play, Anatoly utters five words which resonate like a death knell: “And then they killed me”. It sounds strange to hear him say it in the first person and it makes the audience gasp – these ordinary lives that we had been following are suddenly cut short by the disappearance of one and the grief of the other. Anatoly is tortured and killed by the government and his story is mirrored by countless others who have faced human rights abuses in Belarus. In some ways, it reminded me of Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, except these events are not fictional nor do they hark back to a bygone age.
There was a real sense of physicality in this production. The actors drove the narrative forward not just with their powerful words, but also with the way in which they used their bodies on stage, particularly in the scene where Anatoly is tortured. The lights are dimmed and he throws himself around, depicting the terrible beatings inflicted upon him.
Overall, this was an incredibly moving show – my only minor criticism would be that not all of the music fitted the action on stage. And as powerful as music is, sometimes silence – or nothingness – can evoke the mood more effectively.
For details on up coming shows, visit the Playhouse website.