A School for Fools review – Belarus Free Theatre's audacious lockdown challenge

Arifa Akbar

Belarus Free Theatre began rehearsing an adaptation of Sasha Sokolov’s experimental novella A School for Fools before lockdown, knowing it would be no easy feat. First circulated as underground samizdat in 60s Soviet Russia, its story is filtered through the mind of a young narrator who has dissociative identity disorder, with jumps in time, place and competing realities. “It’s difficult even to read it,” says director Pavel Haradnitski.

It shows some audacity then that the company not only decided to push on with its production in lockdown but also created a fully fledged play online, rather than a rehearsed reading. Using 16 cameras and a panoply of film techniques, it is being broadcast from Minsk and performed in the homes of its socially distanced, 12-strong ensemble. There is no better company to meet such a theatrical challenge: Belarus Free Theatre is banned by the government on political grounds and forced to operate underground, so the players have long created productions over Skype.

This show is a fitting metaphor for the discombobulations and mangled realities of lockdown

The result is far more dynamic and original than most of the “talking heads” dramas that have emerged on Zoom in the past months. The screen is split in two or four with actors seemingly directly interacting with each other: the narrator’s mother (Maryna Yakubovich) in one instance appears to fix the tie of the father (Andrei Urazau) by reaching out towards the edges of the frame; one man passes another a drink; the mother wipes the narrator’s face; a woman dances with a man.

The backdrops in these split screens match to add to the illusion of one room rather than two, and the perspective of the split narrator (Aliaksei Naranovich and Roman Shytsko) is our own – he observes the action head-on and we only ever glimpse him through mirrors.

The ambition is highly commendable, pushing at the boundaries of online theatre, although individual scenes and poetic images (a boat in a sand-filled room; a shot of a swirling umbrella that turns into a spinning record player) are more striking than the overall effect, which is slightly lurching.

The cameras move rapidly and the English subtitles change too quickly. While its non-sequitur scenes, switches in time and surreal assembly of characters manage to replicate the narrator’s multiple realities, it leaves us with a tenuous hold on the narrative strands. Then again, that may be the point: this show is, in its own way, a fitting metaphor for the discombobulations and mangled realities of lockdown, coming out of a country whose president, Alexander Lukashenko, has labelled the pandemic as a “corona psychosis” rather than a reality.