Review: King Stakh’s Wild Hunt at the Barbican ★★★★★
Belarus Free Theatre’s newest gothic noir performance – King Stakh’s Wild Hunt – shows how powerful the impact of art can be in the times of dictatorship.
Belarus Free Theatre (BFT) is a revolutionary company founded by Natalia Kaliada and Nicolai Khalezin, and is the only theatre company in Europe banned by its own government on political grounds. Set up in 2005 in Minsk, BFT emerged as a direct challenge to the absolute censorship of freedom of artistic expression in “Europe’s Last Dictatorship”. Kaliada and Khalezin were forced to leave the country, becoming political refugees in the UK in 2011.
The production of King Stakh’s Wild Hunt blends opera, performance and multimedia. Its three-day run takes place at the renowned Barbican Centre, where BFT has established an ongoing relationship. After 2022’s performance of new writing – Dogs Of Europe – the New York Times described BFT as “one of the bravest and most inspired underground troupes on the planet”.
King Stakh’s Wild Hunt is a Belarusian classic written in 1964 by Uladzimir Karatkievich. The story follows a ghostly hunt to free a young heiress from a deadly curse. In the late autumn of 1888, a young ethnographer named Andrey Belaretsky embarks on a journey to the most remote areas of Belarus. Along the way, he gets caught in a storm and is compelled to seek shelter in the expansive Marsh Firs castle, the residence of the aristocratic Yanouskaya family. It is there that a teenage girl named Nadzeya Yanouskaya reveals to Andrey a grim family history spanning twenty generations, plagued by an unrelenting curse. Nadzeya, being the last descendant of her lineage, experiences haunting visions of sudden and violent death. Determined to aid Nadzeya in breaking free from this ancient malevolence, Andrey delves into the enigmatic secrets shrouding the Yanouskaya family. Yet, in his quest for answers, he unwittingly becomes a target of the Wild Hunt, a group of murderous spectral entities that haunt the Marsh Firs estate. Now, Andrey must unravel the mysteries surrounding these otherworldly hunters to liberate Nadzeya from her dreadful fate and finally put an end to the curse that has plagued the noble family for generations.
The text was adapted into a libretto in 1970 but Nicolai Khalezin considered it outdated and decided to rewrite it for the modern audience. The score, composed by Olga Podgaiskaya, is minimal and beautifully unsettling. The performers consist of Ukrainian and Belarusian actors and opera singers with the lead roles performed by baritone Andrei Bondarenko and soprano Tamara Kalinkina.
King Stakh’s Wild Hunt is consistent in its choices and the combination of different art forms results in a compelling and fresh image of a classical story. But the Wild Hunt takes us beyond its coherent artistic choices. The Wild Hunt doesn’t finish when the curtain goes down – it is the ongoing regime of dictatorship that forced many members of the company to seek asylum elsewhere, and the lack of freedom of speech that forbids the actors to perform in their homeland. So what we are witnessing is not just a piece of a theatrical experience but a collaborative experience to get through the consequences of the regime and to create a space for the artists to create. The curse placed upon King Stakh’s symbolizes the political dictatorship placed upon the Belarusian Nation. While BFT doesn’t compromise on the artistic value of the show, they do fulfil their vision of being ‘more than theatre’. There is a message of hope that the BFT directors want to carry throughout their activism, and there is a message that the curse will end and the Belarusian nation will be set free.
Some of the actors and musicians are wearing masks which might look like another part of the beautifully crafted costumes by Anastasiya Ryabova. Masks in the theatre are not an unusual tribute and are used for different reasons, creative or not. While the masks – made by Belarusian artist Anastasiya Miadzelets-Teush – enhance the gothic-ness of the show, and add a layer of mysticism, we are really witnessing performers protecting their freedom from the Belarusian regime.
The show is a tribute to Natalia Kaliada’s late father Andrėĭ Kali︠a︡da, with whom she started to discuss the relevance of King Stakh’s Wild Hunt and develop the text. This folklorist tale showcases the Belarusian tradition while remaining relevant through the use of technology and bold staging techniques. A very powerful moment of projecting documentary footage of the situation at the Belarusian border provokes thought of the latest film from Agnieszka Holland, Green Border, which has just premiered at the 80th Venice International Film Festival. The film won the Special Jury Prize at Venice, yet its depiction of Polish forces was criticised by the conservative Law and Justice party which is currently monopolising the Polish government and provoking hate attacks against Holland. Despite this unsettling situation in European politics, BFT – like Holland – wants us to stay strong and take action.
Actor, filmmaker and theatre practitioner creating work around human rights, psychology, migration and depiction of mental health.