The almost suicidally daring Belarus Free Theatre, who, while at home in Europe’s last remaining dictatorship, perform under constant threat of arrest (or far worse) from an intelligence apparatus still unapologetically called the KGB, barely made it to New York to present their new piece, Being Harold Pinter, at this year’s Under the Radar Festival. They were very nearly caught up in the wave of state repression that followed recent protests.
Knowledge of the company’s (and its country’s) plight lends the urgency of real, existing atrocities to the piece, which juxtaposes excerpts from Pinter’s works with testimony from Belarusian political prisoners. Being Harold Pinter is about struggling to find the right artistic language to express the horrible realities of political violence. Its frame is Pinter’s Nobel Prize acceptance speech, an impassioned polemic arguing that “unflinching, unswerving, fierce intellectual determination, as citizens, to define the real truth of our lives and our societies is a crucial obligation which devolves upon us all.”
In Being Harold Pinter, the playwright’s own writings become the vehicle by which the company fulfills his demand for dauntless inquiry. Beginning with Pinter’s early domestic plays like The Homecoming and moving to more explicitly political works like One for the Road, we watch violence metastasize from household to state. Fathers bully sons, spurring violent rebellion; husbands and wives obsessively question one another. Then, government-sponsored atrocity explodes into view, as hooded prisoners are shoved into bureaucratic torture factories, and baseless punishments are administered with bored proficiency.
Adaptor-director Vladimir Scherban uses simple means—a few props, an almost bare stage, and his performers’ bodies—to stage some of the most harrowing images I’ve ever seen. In one sequence, a performer chained up like a dog, barking helplessly while he’s beaten with his own leash, offers a pitiless picture of stifled protest. Another, in which the company is enveloped by a giant, rippling plastic tarp—at once suffocated and buffeted by it—is an unbearably precise visual metaphor for the transparent prison house of the Internet-age totalitarian state: They can see out, we can see in, but they’re still trapped and we can’t really help.
The ensemble performs these unsettling scenes with ferocious relish. As they casually toss off Pinter’s blunt-force insults during interrogations (“Fuckpig!”) or abruptly shift from purring menace to power-drunk rage, we realize that they know what this kind of brutality looks like.
Despite these searing sequences, the most fearful events in Being Harold Pinter are those we’re left to picture ourselves. Towards the end of the piece, in near-darkness, lit only by the flickering beam of a flashlight passed from hand to hand, the actors, kneeling and hooded, matter-of-factly relate actual stories of persecution and brutality as strange and cruel as any Pinter could have dreamed up. We hear of death threats, savage beatings, arbitrary imprisonments—a terrible inventory of repression. The unanswered question left behind by the piece is how we spectators will answer the unswerving bravery of the Free Theatre’s artists and the terrifying truths they stage.