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Matt Trueman: Post-Brexit, artists will need to speak up for freedom

Polish director Jan Klata. Photo: Adrian Grycuk

“There are two elephants in this room”, the Polish director Jan Klata said to the audience assembled at the Alexandrinsky Theatre in St Petersburg for the closing ceremony of this year’s Europe Theatre Prize.

It was a lavish, black-tie do in an ornate auditorium, meringue white and cherry red, that would be big enough to hold a whole herd. Television crews were dotted around the house. Press photographers lined the aisles. A few city officials sat in the stalls.

Klata continued: “One elephant is Milo Rau. The other is called Kirill Serebrennikov.”

It was a courageous statement that punctured the air of self-congratulation in a shot. The Swiss director Rau had been due to receive a prize alongside Klata and others, but his visa applications had hit ‘complications’. Not for the first time. Since he staged a mock trial in Moscow five years ago, assessing the right to free speech in Vladimir Putin’s Russia, Rau has not been able to re-enter the country. He’s not banned. He just can’t get in.

Art can be used as a propaganda tool. Culture can conceal as much as it reveals.

His absence at the Alexandrinsky felt like confirmation of his point – that Russia won’t stand for critique or dissent – as did that of Serebrennikov. Having been awarded the same prize last year, the Russian director remains under house arrest in Moscow, accused of aiding the embezzlement of state funds. On stage, he has routinely satirised Russia’s wealthy elite and its regime. After 15 months, Serebrennikov is still awaiting a trial.

Each Europe Theatre Prize festival is part funded by its host nation. It ships in hundreds of artists, academics and critics from all over Europe, and attracts global attention. This year’s grand prize was given to the Alexandrinsky’s artistic director Valery Fokin. Russian work – Fokin, Andrey Moguchy and Lev Dodin – formed the backbone of the week.

Art can be used as a propaganda tool. Culture can conceal as much as it reveals. It’s a lovely thing, art, a benevolent force. But cultural diplomacy can mask a multitude of sins. British policy deploys it to cultivate soft power, promoting English as an international tongue. But it can put artists in problematic positions. The Royal Shakespeare Company toured China in 2016, when then chancellor George Osborne was courting its government for closer economic ties. What of its human rights violations? British artists visit India on a regular basis. What about Narendra Modi’s nationalist regime?

Post-Brexit, cultural diplomacy is likely to increase and artists will need to be on their guard. To resist appropriation, they must speak up, but they have an opportunity too – a stage from which to speak to a native audience.

Klata did that in Russia – and not just in his speech. Presenting a punkish Enemy of the People, he gave his Doctor Stockman freedom to improvise his outspoken speech. “Am I a fig leaf?” his leading actor asked, before voicing big questions about Putin’s regime. In accepting an invitation, Klata rejected his hosts’ politics. There was no missing the elephants in the room.