February 22, 2008 / 12:20 AM / 10 years ago

Dissident Belarus troupe fills London theatre

<p>A performance of "Being Harold Pinter" by members of the Belarus Free Theatre in Belarus is seen in this November 7, 2007 handout photo. REUTERS/Nikolai Khalezin/Handout</p>

LONDON (Reuters) - Life in the former Soviet republic of Belarus can test the creativity of non-conformists in the arts.

Independent-minded actors and writers say they have to walk a fine line between pleasing censors in officially approved theatre and organizing performances covertly, using elaborate ploys to avoid detection.

The Belarus Free Theatre is one such group, using private apartments and wooded areas around Minsk to which audiences are invited via furtive text messages and phone calls on the day.

Yet this month the group is advertising openly and drawing full houses for two plays at London’s Soho Theatre.

Founded by Natalia Koliada and her husband Nikolai Khalezin in 2005, the group hopes to use clandestine theatre to change what it sees as the stifling hardline atmosphere created by veteran President Alexander Lukashenko.

Lukashenko is accused of crushing freedom of speech and assembly. He is barred from the United States and the European Union, which say he rigged his re-election for a third term in 2006.

“Because of the total control on media you cannot write or broadcast anything, so the only thing was to write plays,” Koliada told Reuters. “The idea was to change the situation by way of the arts.”

Most of the 23 members of the Belarus Free Theatre trained in the national theatre, but were forced out after joining the independent group, and many have since been arrested. Two members still working in state theatre were barred from traveling to Britain for the London dates.

The group does not have a wide audience in Belarus. In some cases, performers outnumber the audience. However, the group’s production of “Being Harold Pinter” in London is selling out and impressing the critics.

The play mixes the British playwright’s taped acceptance speech for the 2005 Nobel Peace Prize, excerpts from his plays and letters from Belarussian opposition activists who have run into trouble with the authorities.

MORALITY, NOT POLITICS

The Free Theatre is supported by several Western dramatists, including Pinter who allows it to perform his work without charging a fee, and Tom Stoppard who decided to visit Belarus after receiving a letter from the group.

“We don’t talk about politics, we talk about morality,” Khalezin said, speaking through a translator.

“We do not stage political performances, but we always say there is a dictatorship, there are political prisoners, there are kidnappings and murders. We say everything we think,” Koliada said.

The “dictator” refers to Lukashenko, who, since coming to power in 1994 has consolidated control over all aspects of public life.

Lukashenko remains broadly popular, especially outside the capital, by exercising control over the economy, propping up wages and maintaining state subsidies. He says he has spared his 10 million compatriots the turmoil of other ex-Soviet states.

Lukashenko routinely denounces Belarus’s small liberal and nationalist opposition as treacherous and financed by the West.

In recent months, he has sought better ties with the West and several of what his opponents call “political prisoners” have been freed. Activists say only three remain in jail.

The European Union has cautiously praised Belarussian authorities for the releases and expressed the hope that a parliamentary election in September will herald further change.

The husband-and-wife team believe the EU should exert more pressure for change, effectively calling for economic sanctions.

“Nine countries of the EU still support dictatorship because they trade with him,” Koliada said, stressing this was her personal opinion. “Economic sanction is the only way.”

“Any dictatorship can exist as long as it is financially supported,” Khalezin added.

Editing by Ron Popeski and Andrew Dobbie

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