Belarus’ Free Theatre’s Being Harold Pinter is a disturbing, no fluff, political theatre piece that boldly combines Harold Pinter’s play writings with transcribed statements by Belarussian political prisoners.
The story of the theatre troupe itself is just as interesting as the actual performance that premiered at the Goodman Theatre, Northwestern University, and Chicago Shakespeare Theatre as part of a three-week, three-venue Chicago engagement. An underground theatre troupe started in 2005 in defiance of the repressive regime of the Belarussian K.G.B., this troop managed to escape Belarus clandestinely in 2009 to perform at New York’s Under the Radar Festival and were subsequently brought back this year to perform in Chicago. This morbid, stark, and biting play, adapted and directed by Vladimir Scherban austerely utilizes the words of Harold Pinter to tell the story of torture and oppression that many ordinary Belarusian citizens have experienced within their society.
The play begins by giving some clarity on Harold Pinter’s ideology and style, which brings the audience in without too hastily hammering the larger darker themes that are about to be told. Fascinatingly, nearly all of Pinter’s characters begin not with names but with letters (A, B, C). We are told and subsequently shown that Pinter often finds his characters by simply observing interesting people in society. He states “our beginnings never know our ends” and it is this line that provides the background for many of the scenes that sprout before our eyes---while beginning with an air of uncertainty, the story becomes an unstoppable avalanche. In one of the introductory scenes, entitled The Homecoming, two characters stare at each other and gradually create a relationship and plot wherein a father and son engender a heated argument. Pinter’s philosophy is that one must begin writing a play not by sermonizing but rather by championing objectivity. Pinter allows his characters to breathe their own air and be given ultimate freedom. Following suit, the evolution of the characters in nearly all of the segments shown in Being Harold Pinter follow this logic. This very natural foundation heightens the truth of the political oppression later shown in the play, for there was no agenda at the beginning---the oppression and disturbia flowed naturally, and was something seemingly unavoidable.
I admired the fact that the political aspects of the show did not come out spat in your face. Rather they were progressively introduced by beginning with oppressive inter-personal relationships, between father and son in The Homecoming and between man and woman in Dark. As the play progresses, the scenes shown escalate into authoritarian, bureaucratic relationships between top officials and the people below. By contextualizing oppression in this way, I found that the messages being told were honest and truthful---while oppression and torture usually come from above, they also can come from the most basic of human relationships.
The most disturbing scene deeply affected me by what was being shown was from Pinter’s play Ashes to Ashes. The segments shown from this play surrounded a woman being emotionally and physically harassed by a man, with further reference to the fact that this woman’s baby has been recently taken away from her. The sound of sirens emanate throughout the scene, and the scene culminates with nameless individuals being trapped under a clear tarp representing water, referring to the act of drowning. As the people within the tarp struggle and squirm, harsh noises sound off, recalling a violent train quickly passing by. The scene ends in sudden silence, allowing audience members to interpret for themselves what the scene means and why the harsh sounds suddenly silenced.
This scene, like much of the rest of the performance is explicit auditorally and visually, but is somewhat vague on a contextual, story level. Much of the first half of the show hints that innocent people are involuntarily being trapped in repressive situations, though there is often a lack of clarity over what is actually going on.
However, as the play progresses and the specific government/authoritarian oppression becomes clearer, the context and objective of the scenes become clearer.
In one scene, a priestly figure who proclaims, “God speaks through me,” brutally tortures a man physically and mentally. It is not explicitly clear what this tortured man has done wrong, other than the fact that he is not willing to die for his country or for God. The priestly figure, while attempting to exhibit stringent control, loses all forms of self-control, calling the man a “fuck bag” and “shit bag” and ultimately, stripping the man naked and chopping his balls off. The disturbance continually escalates throughout the scene. Near the end, the priest pours alcohol on the naked and ball-less man, reminds him that the world must be “clean for God” and sends the man off with his dead son’s red shoes. Additionally, in another act of spontaneity and lack of control, the religious figure brings the naked man’s wife back into the room and looks up her dress in front of the poor, hapless man. The entire scene made me cringe in my seat, though interestingly, I did not feel emotionally attached to the scene. Despite my intrigue by the scene, for reasons unknown to me I felt a bit detached and was not able to really feel the pain the poor man was experiencing.
Artistically, at the end of the scene, the red apples that had been resting on the back chairs throughout the duration of the play all fell to the floor, seeming to indicate the fall of society due to its consumption of the “forbidden fruit.” The incorporation of the apples was creative and innovative, especially since the scene was based around a religious figure, himself, who likely read the story of the Garden of Eden and the forbidden fruit but lived his life in disregard of the teachings he preached. This scene succeeded in exhibiting the corruption of religious institutions and made me feel quite uncomfortable watching horrific acts happening before my eyes.
Another disturbing and moving political scene in Being Harold Pinter deals with corruption of the government and military. The scene takes place at a detention center in 2005, whereby nameless and identity-less individuals in an open courtyard rally for freedom, attempting to defy the fascist regime despite the severe repercussions. The scene called to mind the torture that occurred at Abu Grahb. In this scene, like what happened at Abu Grahb, soldiers treat the prisoners as animals, accosting them, covering bags over their heads, proclaiming their foreign language as forbidden, and forcing the prisoners to say things regardless of their validity.
Amidst all of the protests and demonstrations going on in Libya, Tunisia, Egypt, etc. right now, I felt the themes of this play to be incredibly timely and relevant. People around the world continue to speak up against oppression and rally together for freedom and democracy, and this play rightly acknowledges that, though on a more despondent level. For this troop, freedom and democracy never prevail and the people in Belarus are stuck in an oppressive society.
Each one of Pinter’s scenes that were taken from his various plays flowed naturally together and utilized the ensemble in creative ways. No actor stuck out; the entire play was very ensemble-oriented, which made sense for the greater message that was being told---that a society at large has been repressed, and not just minor individuals.
On a visual level, the costumes and props were very simple, as was the layout of the stage, which merely consisted of a couple of chairs within the boundaries of a black square. The only colors shown in the play were black, white, and red, with the red providing the contrast and serving as the physical manifestation of blood & gore and inner turmoil. Because of this simplicity in presentation, the audience was able to seriously focus on the accounts being shared, and the actors were forced to creatively find ways to make these stories real. In The Homecoming, the old father conveys his age by sitting in such a hunched way over on a black chair that the chair actually becomes part of his physical body and is used to allow the father to seem old and feeble. In the opening scene wherein which Harold Pinter ( Aleh Sidorchyk) reminisces on the day he received the Noble Prize, he shares the fact that he was hit by a car. As he reveals this, he artlessly touches his face with his hand and his forehead becomes gashed with a red circle of paint, which he keeps on his face throughout the play.
In another scene later in the play, in which a 7 year old boy appears (the boy is actually dead and is the son of the man whose balls were chopped off), the actor sits on his knees and places a pair of tiny red shoes under his knees to physically create the effect that he is a young child. It is inventive choices like these that make director Vladimir Scherban so successful in adding detail and creativity to an otherwise fairly simply executed production.
Additionally, the large canvas of Harold Pinter’s eyes that stare straight forward throughout the play metaphorically seem to serve as a reminder that there are a set of eyes always on alert and committed to the truth. These eyes have observed like a hawk the abuse and oppression committed on innocent individuals.
In sum, Being Harold Pinter is an unostentatious, minimalist, creative work of art that left me feeling more politically aware and interested in seeing more theater works focused on the intersection between art and politics. While not the most fascinating or inspirational production I have seen, I appreciated seeing a foreign theater troop committed to their beliefs and willing to push boundaries despite the red tape preventing them from doing so.