It was pretty fraught, the first time I visited Belarus. Would I be stopped and arrested at the border because of my links to Belarus Free Theatre (BFT)? It was perfectly possible. We had managed to obtain a visa, by stating that I wanted to study Belarusian castles!! The most nerve-racking moment was at passport control. But, as it was 01.00 in the morning, they were fortunately just bored and exhausted and let me through.
My week in Minsk was devoted to working with the company on Shakespeare. One night they were due to give one of their underground performances. It was just coming up to 7pm and the packed audience was gathered outside the venue. I was acting as a very makeshift Front of House Manager; I turned to my right and three KGB officers were standing there in full uniform. At the time I was on my mobile to my younger son in England. I simply said, “Will, I think I’ll call you back....”!
The company negotiated with the KGB for about three-quarters of an hour before they finally, and curiously, let the show go ahead. It was about trans sex. Maybe they thought it wasn’t politically dangerous, just about a bunch of ‘sexual freaks’, and clearly not an attack on their hideously autocratic dictator Lukashenko. The audience jam-packed the place and although it was early evening the heat was indescribable. The show was watched in England by Vladimir, the director, Natalia and Kolya on Skype. It was brilliant.
Working on Shakespeare with the BFT ensemble in Minsk was certainly challenging; our translator was struggling and the group was varied in their understanding of English. As crucially, we couldn’t have been further away, method-wise, from the way they normally work. Of all the writers that demand the most forensic examination of text, it’s Shakespeare, and BFT don’t work with text, they devise their own...
Clearly there were linguistic and artistic bridges to cross. Physically it was unbelievable. Their headquarters was a very old disused garage. It was the pits! I don’t believe any English company would have agreed to work under such conditions. How they endured it and kept coming in to work every day I don’t know. We were in the middle of a heatwave and, with a corrugated iron roof, it was like a cooker inside. Over 40 degrees. But their astonishing commitment and sheer hard work made it all possible.
My visit made me realise that oppression is so deeply rooted in Belarus that people are now no more than just depressed. It’s the only way of life they’ve known. Political anger and resistance have been crushed and have disappeared. The sound of laughter in Minsk is rare; the emotional psyche of the country is joyless. I visited cafes and pubs and supermarkets, where whoever serves you never looks you in the eye. My characteristic form of communication tends to be through humour, but I saw nothing of it in Minsk. Except in this glorious oasis of humanity, at BFT.
On the first night of BFT’s residency at the Almeida, Natalia asked me to come on stage at the end and talk to the audience about the situation in Minsk. I explained that if we were there, just two hours' flight away, the KGB would most likely raid and arrest us. All of us. In the audience that night was Andrei Sannikov's sister, Irina Bogdanova. Sannikov was at the time incarcerated in a Belarusian prison for peacefully demonstrating after the 2010 so-called presidential ‘elections’, in which he was the main rival to Lukashenko. I remember Irina so clearly; she was a deeply sad and exhausted person, emotionally punch drunk.
Fast forward the tape to a few years later and it was Natalia's 40th Birthday party. At the time she, Kolya and their family were living in my parents' house in Richmond, as they were homeless, and my mum and dad were by now in a care home. Natalia asked me if she could have a large birthday dinner party. Of course. The extraordinary thing was, that I had imagined it would all be shrouded in an earnest, tense, political atmosphere, but I’ve never heard people laugh like it! We had an amazing Belarusian meal cooked by Kolya, all of us eating off my parents’ rather ostentatious china, cutlery and glassware.
Afterwards I said to Natalia that I missed the name of the quietly spoken guy sitting next to me; she replied, ‘Oh that’s Andrei Sannikov’. And there I was, sitting right next to this kind, gently humorous, unassuming man and across from his sister, a completely different woman, brimming with joy and laughter; her brother now released from prison.
After dinner, I asked everyone if they would like to look round my mum and dad’s art collection, which they’d built up over a lifetime together (72 years). Everyone eagerly said yes; I felt hugely privileged, as I walked them round, talking about each artwork in turn - Nicholson, Sutherland, Lowry, Picasso, Miro, Chagall, Moore etc. How delighted my parents would have been to know that their collection was being shared with people, who clearly loved and enjoyed each artwork as much as they did. Andrei barely left my shoulder and whenever we briefly found ourselves alone, he would take my arm and simply say “thank you, thank you.” I thought, what are you thanking me for, after everything you have been through? His humility and generosity of spirit were quite extraordinary.
Families. BFT is a tightly bound, passionately loyal, utterly devoted family. Natalia and Kolya’s family are the bravest, most unswervingly committed people to the cause of truth and freedom I have ever known.
Michael Attenborough is a theatre director and was the Artistic Director of the Almeida Theatre from 2002 to 2013