Dada Masilo

Belarus Free Theatre - Generation Jeans

25 May 14 words: Gareth Morgan
Denim and rock 'n' roll got you into a lot of trouble in Belarus back in the day
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Nicolai Khalezin stands in the dark space of Nottingham Playhouse's Neville Studio in his white bomber jacket and well worn jeans. Behind him stands a DJ, DJ Laurel, spinning tunes. Nicolai, portly, like a middle aged heavy rock fan, and in aviator shades, speaks. What follows over the next 80 minutes is a story, of aggression and principled opposition to it in, a story of a fight in the name of freedom and fought in a pair of jeans. This is Generation Jeans by The Belarus Free Theatre, exiles from their homeland since 2011 around the time of the last Neat Festival, who return to Nottingham again to shout "Dyktatura – hauno!" [Dictatorship is shit!].

Nicolai is a Belarussian dissident, jeans bootlegger, record collector story teller, artist and freedom fighter. Through the course of the performance he tells his own story of an attempted counter-culture in a country where even buying a pair of jeans will have you arrested by the KGB. The audience are told of trips to Lithuania to buy stock and smuggle it back over, of the Party's appropriation and mis-translation of western band names on their state owned record label, of the clamour for imported plastic shopping bags that were unavailable domestically. It's brilliantly funny but there is a sadness hidden behind the laughs and the sunglasses.

This light heartedness becomes ever darker until Nicolai is imprisoned after a demonstration where he unfurls his "Dyktatura – hauno!" banner. He is held with access to a lawyer, denied bedding and proper food, tried in a partisan kangaroo court. His claustrophobic replaying, with the help of a wicker frame, his holding in a tiny cell with no room to lie down drifts into a surreal vision of wandering in grassy meadows - he copes in the face of overwhelming adversity and keeps going. His tenacity and resilience is inspirational. He too is the only performer, save for the silent DJ, for the whole performance - his endurance here too is something to applaud.

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The last section of the performance is reflective - we look at both the hopes for a freer, tolerant Belarus whilst looking back to those brave enough to stand up to state aggression. In the light of what is happening currently in Ukraine, alongside the continued brutality in Belarus, it's pressingly current. Nicolai is obviously moved when talking about his affinity with other radicals who've stood up for what they believed in and it's impossible not to feel a lump in your throat when he talks, with tears in his eyes, about Jan Palach, the Czech student who set himself on fire in protest to the Soviet invasion following the Prague Spring in 1968. Like other work about anti-authoritarian protest, most notably the late Charles Marowitz's Palach, this is personal feelings manifested on stage and has a huge range of anger and emotion to throw at the audience. When you are handed a sliver of denim shortly after this barrage, there is an internal surge to cherish your own freedoms and fight for those of others - it's a powerful and moving transference.

Generation Jeans is a performance shorn of most of what we'd call classic 'stage business' with changes happening on stage - you get to see a lot of Nicolai's boxer shorted legs - and other characters are played with the adding of a hat or two ping-pong balls. The performance, almost entirely in Russian and Belarusian, is easy enough to follow through the projected sur-titles and with Nicolai's assured and warm performance, his body language tells much of what you need to know. It's a show that deals as much in emotions as text. Generation Jeans is a country's tragedy in three pairs of jeans, rather than three acts. Belarus, still one of the world's most oppressive regimes according to Index on Censorship, has yet to find the freedom it is owed and that these theatre-makers strive for. Their role in highlighting the country's continuing subjugation is huge and this is a piece of theatre that captivates and empowers those outside to make a noise. Make that noise too: "Dyktatura – hauno!"

Generation Jeans ran from May 23-24 at Nottingham Playhouse as part of NEAT14.

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