The People Woke Up

Sep 30 2022 | By More

Rehearsed reading: Chilling verbatim theatre

Scottish Storytelling Centre: Thurs 29 Sept 2022
Review by Thom Dibdin

The People Woke Up finds ice&fire theatre company using contemporary verbatim accounts to focus its long-running Actors for Human Rights project on the 2020 election crisis in Belarus and its fallout.

This is a chilling piece of theatre to start with, then. Using the tight confines of the Netherbow theatre at the Storytelling Centre for its world premiere staging creates an even more immediate work, with the actors stepping out from among the audience to give their accounts.

Hanna Komar, Mitya Savelau, Victoria Milham and Nastasya Korablina performing an abridged version of The People Woke Up at the Scottish Parliament. Sept 29 2022

Staging The People Woke Up partly as a script-in-hand performance feels like a deliberate choice from director Christine Bacon. It reinforces the authenticity of the accounts, just as a newscaster might have reading the news.

The chilling factor here lies in the fact that these are contemporary accounts. Not historical. Not folk from East Lothian going to fight Fascism in Spain in 1936. Not even 20th century. But accounts of State violations of humans which are happening right now in a part of Europe that lives in a de-facto dictatorship.

Belarus hit the news during its 2020 elections, when existing president Alexander Lukashenko announced that he had won 80% of the votes, giving him a sixth term in the office he had held since independence in 1994. The people didn’t believe him and took to the streets in mass protests.

rigged election

The People Woke Up includes verbatim accounts from four people who lived through that rigged election. They remember the voters who wore a white wristband to signify their support for the opposition, folding the election slip in a certain way so it was obvious at the count, who knew for certain the 80% was a lie.

Led by Hanna Komar, an actor and poet who plays herself with slow burning passion, the four actors portray four very different people. Their verbatim accounts are woven into each other, and sometimes play off each other, to build a narrative of that time, when those supporting opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya started to become imprisoned.

Hanna Komar in The People Woke Up, Scottish Parliament.

Komar was a secretary for PEN Belarus in 2020 and was imprisoned for nine days for protesting against the result. She escaped Belarus and is now studying in London.

Mitya Savelau brings to life the words of Dmitry Furmanau, who collected signatures for Tsikhanouskaya to stand in the election. He previously worked in her husband’s election campaign for President, until he was imprisoned. Savelau has a sardonic pragmatism – equally surprised at his personal successes and his kidnapping off the streets.

Victoria Milham is the most fiercely upset in her reading of Galina Latypova’s narrative. Latypova, who has lived in Wales for 20 years, returned to Belarus for a visit in 2019 and was trapped by the pandemic, only to see the truth of elections there and her beloved nephew detained and sentenced for his part in the protest.

painfully clear

All tell of the violence of prison life. Freezing cells, poor diet, beatings and forced confessions. But it is Nastasya Korablina in a painfully clear account from a woman known only as Kira, who hits hardest in terms of disquiet at what is happening. Kira discovered she was pregnant while imprisoned and her baby was still-born, three months early.

Despite the stories of brutality and abuses, the four accounts have a warmth about them, a love for a modest, landlocked country without significant peaks or lakes. An agrarian economy content to be be left alone. A people who are not looking for bloodshed – which, as one account wryly comments, might be why they lost the revolution.

It adds up to a compelling piece of political theatre. The stories of four people who didn’t start out as being particularly political, but who got caught up in the injustices of the system around them and who were criminalised for standing up for the truth.

It is a wake up call. Friends of Belarus will take great heart that the stories of the people are being told. Those with eyes to see will realise that what is happening in Belarus could so easily happen in any other part of Europe, within or outwith the EU.

Running time: 45 minutes (no interval)
Scottish Storytelling Centre (Netherbow Theatre), 43-45 High St, Edinburgh EH1 1SR.
Thursday 29 September
One performance: 7.30pm.
Run ended.

Following this rehearsed reading, the production is being made available to tour in the UK. Email ice&fire for details:

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