“Belarus Open” in Minsk, Belarus, September 20-24, 2018

Maria Zărnescu*

Three days in Minsk, the capital of Belarus, seem like a drop in the ocean. The ocean in this case is a city of 400 square kilometers, 2 million inhabitants and a history that goes back almost a millennium. Nothing would have prepared one for the size of this space. Nor for its temperature variations in late September: a twenty degree drop from one day to the next. The Soviet heritage is present all over the place, but today’s symbol of the city is The National Library, a unique architectural monument in the shape of a rhombicuboctahedron, built at the beginning of the twenty-first century.

One can recognize the same diversity in the Belarusian theatre, still tributary to the past, but also undergoing a process of change and renewal. This is the feeling I was left with after the “Belarus Open” program, six attended shows and many stories shared with people coming from Europe’s theatre. The program was part of the longer International Theatre Forum “TEART” (September 20–October 16, 2018). Organized by “ART Corporation” Visual and Performing Arts Centre, this Forum has already reached its eight edition, being considered by the officials as one of the “brightest and most significant cultural events” of Belarus. This year it offered visiting shows from South Korea, France, Vietnam, Finland, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Belgium and Russia displaying the latest trends in European and international theatre.

“Belarus Open” is a program meant for foreign guests—artists, critics, heads of theatrical institutions or companies, promoters—all of them willing to become acquainted with the new theatre from the old Soviet republic. The curator of this platform, critic Ludmila Gromyko, reiterated a lucid vision upon today’s Belarusian theatre. An art that wasn’t at its best in the 1990s and in the first decade of the new century, but initiated its change and the process of adapting to the new realities. There has been a change of generations, the old theatre schools and models are no longer fully working, but they coexist with the new forms of theatre, dedicated to new audiences. In order for the theatre in Belarus to have a future, this self-conscious attitude towards the legacy of the past, as well as towards the immediate present is required, both from the creators and from the spectators. And this is exactly what “Belarus Open” offered.

The Mayor (Viktar Manajeŭ) comforts Khlestakov, The (would-be) Government Inspector (Pavieł Charłančuk-Južakoŭ). Photo: the National Academic “Janka Kupała” Theatre

The official opening took place in the elegant National Academic Janka Kupała Theatre, the oldest drama stage in Belarus, with the performance of The Government Inspector by Gogol, directed by the experienced Mikałaj Pinihin, the artistic director of the institution. Present in the hall: officials, theatre professionals, public. Most likely, just like at the time of the premiere in 1836. This time, however, the public’s response “only” materialized in applause and laughter, and not in a riot, as it did almost two centuries ago, in St.Petersburg, following which Gogol had to leave the country. This was also to become the first of the scandals and of the (self) exiles caused by this outstandingly political, tough and grotesque satire that is still relevant, irrespectiveof time and space.[1]

The Belarusian production confirms once again the validity of the text, which, due to its plot, style and approach, and through the truthfulness of its characters, largely exceeds the boundaries of its country and century of origin. The story of the small, provincial town, where “normal” life is unsettled by a rumor of the Inspector’s arrival from the “Centre,” from Petersburg, supposedly with a secret mission to be deciphered by the director under the code of social climbing, a phenomenon equally present then and now, and always. Mikałaj Pinihin detachedly passes through different periods: from the Roman bath where the local notables, led by the Mayor, indulge, while imagining themselves to be Caesars, to the 1980s, the years so easily recognizable by any east-European familiar with those times (with the famous “working visits” by the suit-wearing comrades, the iconic leopard-patterned dresses and Alla Pugacheva’s songs), until the present time, when Khlestakov, the would-be Inspector is a young narcissistic dandy, the perfect embodiment of the Generation Snowflake.

There are a lot of savory comical scenes: the simultaneous seduction of the Mayor’s wife and daughter by Khlestakov, or his reception of the local messengers and their bribes in the bathtub. The tragicomical moments prove once again the play’s frightening relatedness to the present time: the Mayor’s distressed cue—”What are you laughing at? You are laughing at yourselves”—or the angel-janitors who sweep the petrified characters away from the stage in the famous mute final scene. Nothing seems to have changed since Gogol’s time. Nothing seems to be changing any more…

The police officers (from left: Kirill Novitsky and Denis Moiseychik) interrogate Nikolai, The Man from Podolsk (Denis Avkharenko, in the middle). Photo: Tatsiana Matusevich

The problems of contemporary society and the thin boundary between good and evil are mirrored in The Man from Podolsk production, staged with a lot of humor by the young director Dmitry Bogoslavsky at the Belarusian State Youth Theatre. Subtitled intelligence analysis in one act, the Russian writer Dmitry Danilov’s text (awarded with the Golden Mask in 2018) initially makes you recall Martin McDonagh’s The Pillowman. The action takes place in an office of the Moscow Police Department, where Nikolai, a detainee aged 31, inhabitant of the Podolsk suburb, is feverishly waiting to find out why he was detained. But the routine questioning becomes a test of intellect and personality, which will prove to be much more serious than any physical or moral humiliation. A new form of cruelty will determine the character to pay attention to the surrounding Reality: “Reality written with a capital letter, according to the new instructions”. . . .

It is a didactic show in comical key. Any of us could sit in the questioning chair where our personality would be investigated as a simple case. Just like the character being investigated, a multitude of shades of gray, we might be operating daily on “autopilot,” we might slowly become stupid due to the music we willy-nilly listen to, we might fail to understand Reality and fail to answer the essential questions: Where are we coming from? Where are we heading? And, above all, where are we? So that some vigilant and super-educated “policemen” might be needed to teach us a “special dance for the development of the brain capabilities.” The show emanates many types of humor: from the dry to the absurd, from self-irony to the apparent dogmas, cleverly combining false tracks, reversed or bizarre situations, comical dialogues.

Love in a Concrete world. Photo: Evgeniya Naletskaya

The world imagined by the director Eugene Korniag in the production Concrete of the Republican Theatre of Belarusian Drama is also depicted in a multitude of shades of gray. A visual poem of dance theatre displays a concrete world haunted by loneliness. On the hanging screen of a social media network the messages of those who are seeking love are scrolling. Is this really about love? What are we looking for? . . . Looking for a match. Looking for love or running away from it. Loneliness wraps us in the cold, indifferent space. The concrete wall becomes a portal towards the sad legend of Orpheus and Eurydice, strangely resembling the contemporary stories wordlessly revealed through the windows in the wall. The black-and-white becomes colored by the green of a patch of grass or by the red of a glass of wine. By the hope that we are not alone. The ten actors—expressive and excellently trained—build small visual poems of a special beauty. The hardened concrete world is reanimated by the touch of the Theatre. In the end, we leave the venue smiling. “Belarus Open” has done its duty.

[1] In 1972, after only three performances, The Government Inspector production of the Bulandra Theatre in Bucharest was brutally forbidden, through an official statement (an unprecedented fact in Romania). Not long afterwards, the famous directors Lucian Pintilie (the creator of the production) and Liviu Ciulei (the then theatre manager) left the country and took their ideas and talent to the big world. We shall never know how things would have developed in the Romanian theatre if that production, which has become a legend, had lived its full life and influenced other creators and a large audience. . . .

*Maria Zărnescu (b. 1969, Bucharest) is a Romanian theatre theorist and critic, Associate Professor and Head of the Theatre Studies Department at the National University of Theatrical Arts and Cinematography “I.L. Caragiale,” in Bucharest. Author of books: Music and Muses (2015) and The Sound of Theatre Music (2016); theatrical and musical reviews; studies and essays published in Romanian and international journals. She is the recipient of the 2015 Romanian Association of Theatre Professionals UNITER Award for “Best Theatre Critic,” and she has consolidated experience as a radio journalist and manager, TV editor, and event producer.

Copyright © 2018 Maria Zărnescu
Critical Stages/Scènes critiques e-ISSN: 2409-7411

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Discovering Minsk through Belarusian Theatre
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