Being Harold Pinter has a rather eclectic international flavour: inspired by a British playwright, performed in Sydney, in Belarusian and Russian, with English subtitles. It's an ambitious piece of work from the dynamic Belarus Free Theatre.
The Belarus Free Theatre was founded less than four years ago and in their homeland – Europe’s only surviving dictatorship – their work is effectively banned. Rehearsals and performances in Belarus are held secretly. But word has spread fast and far, and in the last three years the company has performed in 14 countries. Their work has been supported by leading international theatre names and has won them awards like a special mention for the Europe Theatre Prize and the French Human Rights Prize. Jean-Claude Berutti, president of the Europe Theatre Convention, writes in the programme for their Sydney Festival performance that the Belarus Free Theatre is “making art theatre, urgent theatre and survival theatre (which theatre ought in the end be for all of us) in the middle of the action. For them, the practice of art, in conditions bordering on the impossible, is as important as breathing. And we know that it is often at the price of their liberty that they enable their fellow citizens to breathe with them.” The company’s current play, Being Harold Pinter, is showing at Belvoir Street as part of the Sydney Festival and, like its other works, uses theatre to expose human rights abuses in Belarus. It is intensely political but also innovative, and resonates well beyond the borders of the company’s landlocked homeland. For starters, Being Harold Pinter has a rather eclectic international flavour: inspired by a British playwright, performed in Sydney, in Belarusian and Russian, with English subtitles. In many ways it is a timely production, given Pinter passed away late last year. It reminds us of his body of work, its themes, and his controversial Nobel Lecture. A clever network of criss-crossed stories, from the abstract to the acutely visceral, make up a play with grand thematic aspirations. It certainly is an ambitious work. The play takes as its starting point Harold Pinter’s acceptance speech on winning the Nobel Prize. It is a meditation on truth in life and in art, and the line between art and politics. From there it detours through a maze of characters and plot lines with references to Abu-Ghraib, finally ending up in Belarus with monologues from political prisoners. While Being Harold Pinter makes for good theatre and should be applauded for what it sets out to achieve, it is not flawless. The English subtitles are vital. However these are projected well above the actors’ heads, meaning the English speaking audience’s attention is never completely with the stage. Following the words means missing the action, and vice versa. Additionally, the subtitles are often out of sync, ripping away suspense as you know already what is about to be said. In scenes with quick and fierce dialogue it is sometimes difficult to tell which character is saying what. There’s also a certain amount of assumed knowledge that would come in handy, particularly about Pinter, politics, human rights and Belarus. This all combines to make an intentionally disjointed, non-linear narrative slightly more obscure. Dynamic, skilled acting and a smart use of simple props and staging means the audience should be utterly swept away. The seven actors work hard for their applause as the play veers from the comic to the tragic. Sadly, some of the play’s impact is inevitably lost in translation. Being Harold Pinter runs as part of the Sydney Festival from 14-17 January at the Q Theatre Penrith. It is also showing at Belvoir Street, 6-11 January and 28 January - 1 February. Find out more about the Belarus Free Theatre at their website:

Emma Sorensen

Friday 9 January, 2009

About the author

Emma Sorensen is a freelance writer and editor. She was previously Editor of Arts Hub UK. She has a background in literature and new media, having worked as an editor and commissioning editor in book publishing, as well as with websites and magazines in the UK and Australia.