On the 6th of June, the Festival of Ideas opened with “Artistic Censorship in Repressive Regimes”, chaired by Julia Farrington (Head of Arts, Index on Censorship) and featuring, as speakers: Iranian singers Mahsa and Marjan Vahdat, Natalia Koliada (co-founder of Belarus Free Theatre), and Lisa Peschel from the University of York. If I were to condense this event into one word, it would be ‘inspiring.’
In line with the Festival’s theme of “Secrets and Discoveries”, the panel discussion addressed issues of repression of artistic expression in both historical and modern-day settings. The National Centre for Early Music – a stunning church-turned-lecture-hall – offered an apt stage for stifled voices.
The event commenced with Lisa Peschel, who described how prisoners in the Jewish ghetto of Terenzinstadt produced and used theatre as both a subversive action against the Nazi regime and as temporary relief from everyday horrors.
Jews were forbidden to reproduce German drama and music, but were not entirely prevented from holding small performances among themselves. With their subjects ranging from subtle, potent critiques of the regime to plays about hope and brighter futures, it was a sense of unity that held the Jewish community together during the harsh times.
Natalia Koliada’s disquieting personal account followed. Having lived as a political refugee in the UK with her husband for the past four years, Natalia shared with the audience her experience as a theatrical director under a contemporary dictatorship.
She painted a bleak picture of the Belarusian situation: from a government that refuses to acknowledge the existence of suicide and mental health problems (despite being one of the most afflicted in Europe), to the banning of any sort of artistic expression deemed “too subversive.” She recounted how the local police stormed one of her performances and arrested cast and audience members alike.
I asked the panel: How do audiences respond to works of resistance such as Koliada’s? Are they generally scared, or are they supportive?
Julia Farrington replied: “It is very difficult to gather an audience in the first place in these situations. Performances are held in secret locations, usually apartments’ living rooms, to which one is led by a contact on the street.
Audiences are limited to twenty people at a time. Although, a sort of complicity between the theatrical company and the audience is created: the people attending the show are as responsible for what is happening as the cast members are. Thus, they aim at supporting each other.”
Should the police apprehend these plays, everyone at the venue would suffer the same consequences. The process of getting performances “out there” is long and painfully slow, but Koliada’s exile to avoid persecution nonetheless shows that art is effective: Koliada, as an artist, is for this reason seen as a direct threat to the Establishment.
Mahsa and Marjan Vahdat’s testimony as ‘invisible singers’ in Iran closed the discussion. Despite their international fame as singers of classical Persian and Iranian music, the Iranian government has curtailed their career after a decree was passed forbidding women to sing solo in public unless the audience is exclusively female. The government heavily bowdlerises every channel and programme in which the pair feature as performers, and cuts off their attempts at publicising their own concerts.
Mahsa Vahdat revealed that, as a music teacher, she acts as a role model for other female Iranian singers who live in similar political circumstances. She believes in the fundamental importance of encouraging women to keep the tradition alive despite the limitations imposed by the government.
On illegal music downloading, Mahsa said that “it is not a problem: our aim is to be heard, to put forward and carry on a message. As long as there is hope for that, the means by which it happens are of secondary importance.” Mahsa and Marjan are unwavering in their conviction that change in the future is possible.
It became clear that the panel discussion was of immediate significance to modern-day society. Where we in the West take for granted our own freedoms, we all too often view repression today as a mere abstraction. The talk prompted reflection on issues of both a personal and global nature: how far is one voice allowed to comment upon its situation?
How deeply can this voice change those who listen to it? In what ways do the governments rely on these voices, or suppress them to maintain control? These were challenging questions raised at the conclusion of a certain festival highlight.