Britain's theatre community comes out against oppression and censorship in Belarus, the last dictatorship of Europe .
Sir Tom Stoppard and actor/director Sam West Has led a protest of high-profile theatre practitioners outside the Belarussian Embassy in London.
They presented an open letter to President Alyaksander Lukashenko of Belarus calling for greater democratic freedom and for an end to censorship of the Internet.
Other signatories include Mark Ravenhill, Howard Brenton, Alan Rickman, Laura Wade, Caryl Churchill, Henry Goodman, Henry Porter, Simon McBurney, Simon Stephens and Lyndsey Turner.
We urge you to allow the people of Belarus the right to express and share their opinions freely, whether this is on the internet or not. We urge you to use your powers to prevent any further repression of citizens who hold
alternative, and oppositional, beliefs to you. We urge that the practice of physical abuse and intimidation against any citizen, including those who dare to hold alternative and oppositional points of view, be stopped. Finally, we urge you to
protect the right to freedom of assembly in accordance with Article 21 of the International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights to which Belarus is a state party, – the letter says.
Sam West performed an extract of Generation Jeans , a play from the multi-award winning Belarus Free Theatre.
Generation Jeans charts one man's journey as an activist. It captures all of the courage, the humour and the foolhardy determination that you need to resist a totalitarian regime, which makes it perfect for our protest today,
says director Clare Lizzimore, co-organiser of the protest.
On Thursday 1st July a new Presidential decree on the Internet comes into force. It gives the authorities greater powers to monitor usage and will enable the Government to restrict or block access to websites that offer independent and alternative
sources of information. It has been described as a step in the wrong direction by the European Union. The decree is a clear attempt to curb the freedom of speech and the right to self-expression.
Playwright and co-organiser of the protest, Alexandra Wood says: The internet is a vital tool in communication and should be available to all. Lukashenko's law, imposing censorship on the Internet, particularly affects those
in Belarus who oppose his regime, who want to offer the Belarusian people an alternative, which is of course, his intention.
Actor Sam West says: The purpose of theatre and the purpose of the internet is the same: to connect people, to bring them together as a collective entity, an audience, a world. Repressive regimes are rightly frightened of the
internet for its ability to put free thinkers in touch with one another and give them inspiration and strength; it's not us and them out there, it's all us. We must oppose any withdrawal of these freedoms as anti-thought, anti-freedom, anti-human.
The protest was in support of the Belarus Free Theatre and is in conjunction with the Global Artistic Campaign in Solidarity with Belarus, founded by playwright, Sir Tom Stoppard.
Belarus Free Theatre is an underground group based in Minsk. Underground not because it's cool and edgy, but because Belarus is a dictatorship and any opposition, artistic or otherwise, can be swiftly and harshly silenced. Citizens of
Belarus are subject to extreme censorship and human rights violations, to which other governments turn a blind eye. Resistance activists have mysteriously disappeared or been kidnapped, imprisoned and killed.
The BFT runs plays that tell people what's going on in their country. It is subject to continual harassment and death threats. But it doesn't stop. Most of its actors have been expelled from the state theatre for their involvement with the BFT,
and are classified by the KGB as unstable elements . Producer and writer Natalia Koliada and playwright Nikolai Khalezin have become human rights activists as well as theatre practitioners. They feel that their country has been forgotten.
The BFT has to perform in secret, at considerable risk: performances have been raided by police and multiple arrests made. Audience members are contacted by text message and told to meet at a secret location, from whhich they are taken to the
show. At the moment the company uses a near-derelict house where two rooms have been knocked together; the audience, some of whom have travelled for hours to be there, squeeze on to benches at one end of the space and the play is performed at the
other. The anticipation is palpable. At the end, the applause comes with a wave of relief, not just because the police didn't storm the building.
Many of the audience have seen nothing like this before; to hear the problems of their country spoken about honestly makes them feel a little braver and less alone.
Index on Censorship has learned that Natalia Kolyada, a founder member of the Belarus Free Theatre, has been detained by authorities in Minsk. Kolyada has been unable to contact other members of the dissident theatre group.
Western actors and musicians including Kevin Spacey, Kelvin Kline, the Pet Shop Boys, Jude Law, Sienna Miller, Sir Ian McKellen, Sir Tom Stoppard and Samuel West, have been put on a blacklist of artists banned in Belarus.
The list was apparently drawn up by the Belarus Council of Ministers but the official government position is that such a list does not exist.
Jude Law, Sienna Miller, Sir Ian McKellen and Samuel West have all been added to the list after they performed at an Index on Censorship event at the Young Vic with dissident theatre group the Belarus Free Theatre on 5 December last year.
Sir Tom Stoppard has supported the Belarus Free Theatre for many years and has been a vocal opponent of President Lukashenko's authoritarian rule.