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Theatre of Fortune

Introduction

The Belarus Free Theatre announced itself seven years ago by email. Along with a few other playwrights, I received a letter asking for ‘a message of support’. It didn’t seem much to ask. So after further exchanges of messages I went to Minsk to meet the group. Nikolai (Kolia) Khalezin and Natalia Kaliada, husband and wife, both writers, were at the airport to greet me. Hefty Kolia with his fair hair pulled back into a ponytail and dark gamine Natya, smiling and waving.

Aware that the ‘Democratic Republic’ of Belarus was a police state, I was as surprised as I was alarmed to see that Kolia was wearing a ‘protest’ T-shirt emblazoned with the faces of four men who had crossed the dictator, Alexander Lukashenko, and had subsequently ‘disappeared’. They had been murdered, Kolia explained, and he spoke the truth.

Much has changed since that day we met in the summer of 2005. Back then, the spirit of rebellion was in plain sight. Nobody wears a protest T-shirt in Belarus now. The change happened literally overnight. In the presidential election of December 2010, Lukashenko, who had felt himself secure as the figurehead of national independence, found he had lost the confidence of the voters. He annulled the election and cracked down on every trace of opposition. The former Soviet Republic is now a throwback to the lost world of Communist dictatorships.

Meanwhile, things have changed for that outlawed theatre group. As the Belarus Free Theatre, the troupe has built up an international reputation in exile. They have many troubles but they endure. It has been a privilege to witness their journey.

Tom Stoppard, London, February 2012.

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