Police in Belarus have stormed the performance of a play by an underground theatre group and detained the actors, director and other people at the performance.
British playwright Tom Stoppard told The Guardian newspaper on Friday he learned of Wednesday night’s raid through a text message sent by one of the Free Theatre’s directors.
“One had hoped that the days when artists were arrested for free expression were buried with totalitarian states, but Belarus is as close to a totalitarian state as you can get in Europe,” Stoppard told the newspaper.
The troupe was about to start a performance of Eleven Vests,Â a playÂ by Edward Bond, at a house in the capital of Minsk when armed officers burst into the building and everyone inside, about 50 people, were taken to a police station.
Radio Free Europe reported several theatre professionals from France and the Netherlands were in the audience.
According to the playwright, everyone was released three hours later, but reports say a political activist who was in the audience remains in custody.
Stoppard accused authorities of a “grotesque” attack on human rights.
Nataliya Koliyada, managing director of the theatre, said police told her that neighbours had reported people were firing weapons at the house. Eleven Vests,Â published in 1997, is about authoritarianism.
Bond’s 1965 play Saved is credited with ending theatre censorship in England.Â At the time, all plays were required to be approved by the Lord Chamberlain, the head of the Royal Household.
Saved, which has a scene of a baby being stoned to death,Â would only be permitted to be staged with several cuts, the censor ruled. The producers ignored the proposed cutsÂ and were sued after the play was staged.Â The case caused such a furor that it resulted in the abolishment of theatre censorship in 1968.
Belarus,Â a former Soviet republic, is ruled with an iron fist by its leader Alexander Lukashenko. Political opposition and countercultural activities are often shut down.
Stoppard has been an outspoken supporter of the Free Theatre and had planned to be at the performance but cancelled at the last minute.
Rock star Mick Jagger, Nobel Prize laureate Harold Pinter and former Czech president Vaclav Havel are also supporters of the troupe.
The Free Theater is barred from performing in Belarus and has no permanent space.Â Nevertheless, it continues to survive, screening audiences before every performance.
The question has been asked too many times before: Why is a government afraid of a play, a performance, an audience?
- Bill Reichblum