Today I was reminded of why I'm an actor. For 2hours15, there was a unity of time, place and a common purpose of defiance shared between the actors on the Globe stage and the audience.
The Belarus Free Theatre performed King Lear in their own unique way.
It was bold and risky, and so it deserved to be, given the fight the performers have had to be there...and I'm not talking about the banal list of western actors' woes of poor finances and extreme competition for roles.
These guys are banned from performing in their own country, Belarus being the last dictatorial state in Europe where people are still imprisoned for their political beliefs. The Belarus Free Theatre are forced underground to rehearse in secret locations.
I realised how lavished with freedom of speech over here makes us gluttons; lazy with our theatre and lazy with our acting. Not the case for this theatre company.
The play was as lean as the actors. Sinister, volatile, visceral and brutal. King Lear had that dangerous, sexy psycho appeal. His gaudy, dominating daughters Regan and Goneril, like the Ugly Sisters in Cinderella would have sat well as the Madams at the head of a sex trafficking ring, Edmund shoots up, whilst Edgar smears himself in faeces for the authentic “insane” disguise. When Edmund lusts after Goneril it seems more like rape than consensual – except that's normal in the brutal world we're painted. Cordelia's hanging leaves nothing to the imagination.
I was given the tickets free, and as it was in Belarusian, I honestly thought I'd see how the performance went with a view to ducking out at the interval - after all, Shakespeare you can't understand?...
But I was captivated.
I've never seen anything like it before – Shakespeare done Belarusan style. I didn't need to understand the language (although the captions helped). It jolted me with a reminder to be bold and brave as a performer, I don't want to be cosy and western – that's not what I'm about. I care about people, and I want to challenge, question, tickle, provoke, entertain and highlight things we should all be caring about. Not in a “ram it down your throat” kind of way, but in the way that has someone go home and consider something differently for a moment, or find themselves questioning that which they have never questioned before, or experiencing another perspective. An interesting parallel is the need for these performers to be bold and brave as artists.
At the end of the performance the head of the company came on stage and explained that as a peaceful protest against the regime, and to show that the “artists are stronger than the regime” the show had just been live-streamed to Belarus. Then, with the live stream still running, she invited the audience to join in with a shout of “Zhyvie Belarus!” - Long Live Belarus! - words that would have you put in prison for uttering in Belarus...and here we were at The Globe theatre, on a London middle-class autumn Saturday afternoon shouting it in unison. I was honoured to be reminded to never stop being bold and brave in my work, to never stop pushing the boundaries, and to never take my freedom of expression for granted...and so to use it wisely.
actor, general alright person and tree-climber extraordinaire.