© Antonio Zazueta Olmos
Natalia Kaliada: 'In Belarus it's very simple – everything's repressed'
The exiled co-founder of the Belarus Free Theatre on the company's new play and the escalating brutality in her homeland
When I interviewed you last year, you'd been forced to leave Belarus and were living with your husband [the playwright Nikolai Khalezin] and your daughter in exile in Britain. Your friends were in prison, some had been tortured, your family had been threatened. Has anything improved?
Nothing has changed for the better. Everything has changed for the worse. There were two executions recently. Belarus is the only country in Europe that uses the death penalty. New arrests are taking place. New people are going to jail for long-term sentences. Even rock concerts are banned in Belarus. Nothing has changed since the Soviet Union.
Few people realise that there is a repressive dictatorship right in the middle of Europe.
Most people have no idea. It's only a two-and-a-half-hour flight from London and it's a place where people – our friends – have been imprisoned, stripped, electro-shocked and tortured in a KGB jail.
You and Nikolai formed the Belarus Free Theatre as an underground theatre in Minsk. Now you are in exile, you try and raise awareness of what is happening there. How does your new play – Minsk, 2011 – do that?
When you live in a suppressed society, many things happen, but one is that a culture of sexual violence develops and grows very fast and this is what we explore. The whole country is isolated, freedoms are suppressed and violence is one of the things that grows out of that.
We put on a play before called New York, 1979, by the punk writer Kathy Acker, who wrote about America via the prism of sexuality, and it became obvious to us that events that took place in New York in 1979 didn't reach Minsk until 2010. Everything changed in Belarus on 19 December 2010, when thousands of people got arrested when they took to the streets to protest against the falsification of the presidential elections.
How much of your new play is based on personal experience?
The whole piece is based on the experiences of company members. The actors share their stories and what has happened to friends. The text I wrote, for example, is called "Belarus is not sexy" and I talk about my experience in jail, when I was threatened to be raped with the leg of a chair.
That was when you were arrested after protesting that the presidential election had been rigged. What happened?
I was in jail for only 20 hours, so I never really want to talk about it because some friends were in jail for 16 months and some are still in jail. But if what happened to me took place in 20 hours, my question is what is happening to others? I was told I would be taken to a wood and raped there and Nazis would be like a dream to me. What is in the head of the person who says that? This is the way the system works – they train people to hate anyone who is different.
There was no water, no toilet, no sleep. There were men's floors and women's floors and people had to stand facing the walls both sides of the corridor with their hands behind their backs. The only similar image that I have is from Stalinist or Nazi times.
The play explores sexuality. Is sexual politics in Belarus synonymous with other sorts of politics?
I don't like to divide anything. In Belarus, it's very simple: everything is suppressed. If you are different, then you will be suppressed. Of course people try to resist. But the mechanism of repression, the whole machinery of Belarussian dictatorship, is very well developed. The best-paid strata of society are police and special forces.
Take the gay parade. It takes the police 16-20 minutes to arrest everyone and for them to be taken to the woods where they are threatened with rape or death. Last year, 3,000 people were arrested simply because they were in the main square.
Can theatre really play a role in changing the regime?
It's not the role of theatre to change the situation. This is the role of people. But I do believe that one person could make a change. And if there are many, then … well, you hope. But it doesn't all depend on what happens inside the country. The main question is whether the EU will finally show some ambition after 18 years of dictatorship and take action.
Is there still underground theatre in Belarus?
The BFT performs every week. All our actors make an amazing decision to keep working. We have new students who we work with every day via Skype. We have training going on with the Belarus underground – only a month ago, it was raided by the KGB. Our problem is financial support because our actors can't work in any other theatres; in Belarus, we have only state theatres.
Are you still homeless?
We had somewhere to stay, but now the people have returned. Nothing has changed. Your friends are in jail. You don't have a permanent place to live. People are being executed without any legal background. And we just do theatre. We're surrounded by very big questions about existence, but we just continue to push. For your children to have food, and be educated, and not be on the run. For the theatre to continue. We just have to make our voices heard and those of the people who cannot talk.
Has the Arab Spring deflected attention from what's going on in Belarus?
Absolutely. Belarus is not a fashionable regime. Nobody is talking about Belarus. Many of the countries of the Arab Spring have natural resources – oil, gas and so on. In Belarus, we just have people.
The Belarus Free Theatre does at least have some friends in high places…
It does. Tom Stoppard, Jude Law, Sam West, Michael Sheen, Joanna Lumley, David Lan of the Young Vic, which gives us a home. They're all British artists who've taken moral positions and given us extraordinary support. And on 23 June, the comedian Mark Thomas is holding a gala night to raise money to send to our actors in Belarus. The UK is the strongest place of our support.
Interview by Carole Cadwalladr, The Observer, 3 June 2012