If Time of Women feels like two fingers up to Belarus dictator Alexander Lukashenko it’s probably because its cowriter and cofounder of Belarus Free Theatre, Natalia Kaliada, was prevented by the oppressive regime from finishing her PhD on ‘Women’s role in the anti-Soviet movement’. Now she jokes that her next PhD has to be on ‘women’s role in resisting the dictatorship in Belarus’ and this play is a good start- it’s an immediate, hot and passionate true account of three female journalist/activists, who are arrested for protesting peacefully and find themselves sharing the same 3 bunk cell together.
|Maryia Sazonava as Irina Khalip and Maryna Yurevich as Natalya Radina in Time of Women. Photo by Nicolai Khalezin|
But this UK premiere of Time of Women does not begin with high frenetic energy and continue in that way, like so many of BFT’s other works that merge the line between art, documentary, politics and social realism, although the panicked and frightened radio excerpt from journalist Irina Khalip’s arrest at the protests in 2010’s elections (she was on air with a radio station in Moscow at the time) heightens our anxiety and sets the tone for the KGB’s bullying tactics later on.
No, it seems that the work, exploring new aesthetic directions with director Nicolai Khalezin at the helm, is more interested in looking at how the three women- Irina Khalip, Natalya Radina and the youngest at 24, Nasta Palazhanka, survive the harshness of this smelly prison (smells of hopelessness) controlled by sad and surreal KGB officers who try to outwit the prisoners in a series of mind games that attempt to belittle, cajole and cox the women into grassing each other up in order for a little bit of freedom or a lighter sentence.
CCTV cameras give us a taste of how the women lack privacy in their own cell, and for a large amount of time, the audience cannot see inside this ugly contraption, except through the TV screens, which is exactly how the KGB officers watch the women. It makes the audience feel slightly culpable, slightly guilty, slightly apart and claustrophobic, an aerial camera pointing straight down on the bunks makes the women seem like large vulnerable babies wrapped in cots. Babies they are not though, as we soon see how each has their own way of dealing with their interrogator, who adds a peculiar kitchen sink realism with his musings on his communal domestic arrangements in his digs. It all gets a bit surreal when the women seem to be drawn into becoming - against their will- slightly parental towards this schizophrenic mood changing agent whose talk can only extol his own “use” to the dictatorship whilst slurping his mayonnaise noodles. And at the part where the less experienced Nasta loses it and demands the loo, we feel that the preventative hug that the agent haphazardly throws around her, is more for him than for her.
|Kiryl Kanstantsinau as Colonel Orlov in Time of Women. Photo by Nicolai Khalezin|
There’s a calmness about the production though, and it pays testament to the women’s inner strength, self discipline and sense of solidarity which we learn, is greater in prison than in a house arrest. We see that these traits help them survive. Their days are rigorously planned, rising together at a certain time, making coffee, helping each other to wash or use the toilet in private, back chatting and talking about books. And then, almost in tableau, comes a breathtakingly beautiful moment- when the projector screen becomes a transparent 4th wall and we see through to the cell at the same moment that its video image is projected onto it in a prolonged dissolve. This moment is icy still and visually depicts the paralysis of the women’s lives as they languish unfairly in prison.
Later, when Nasta is on the top bunk and the 4th wall has disappeared and we can only see the women via CCTV again, she talks straight into the camera and at us in direct address- we know then that the end is nigh for the women in jail and that some sort of turning point has been reached.
The meditative piece, whose structure almost seems female, with its reaching between past, present and dream life and which has all the mystical qualities of Andrei Tarkovsky’s Ivan’s Childhood, concludes on a positive if muted note. These women have survived and they are free and they, no matter what Alexander Lukashenko tries to do to them, aren’t quitting the fight against his regime any time soon. There’s a point half way through the play where the KGB agent accuses one of the women of inciting otherwise peaceful men into violent protest. As we see, women are indeed more than involved in the fight back against the dictatorship- and, if the discussion afterwards is anything to go by- it’s not over yet.
With clearly defined character acting and utter commitment to their parts, this is a fine and emotionally true performance by the company and a poetic, lyrical tribute to and celebration of journalists Irina Khalip, Natalya Radina and Nasta Palazhanka
performers: Kiryl Kanstantsinau, Maryia Sazonava, Yana Rusakevich, Maryna Yurevich
written by: Nicolai Khalezin and Natalia Kaliada
directed by: Nicolai Khalezin